The Buzz

Loyalty Through Links and Control: The Long History of Chinese Diaspora Diplomacy

Early in 2014, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) abolished its Chinese language news and current affairs programs in anticipation of landing a deal with a government media organization in China. The ABC's agreement with the Shanghai Media Group was signed on 4 June, 2014, the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

For Beijing, the deal eliminated critical voices on a major foreign national media platform and guaranteed that the ABC would make no mention of the Beijing Massacre in Chinese programming on the 25th anniversary of the event or any time in the future.

For its part, the ABC secured a world-first media agreement. ABC management could justly claim to be the first major foreign media corporation to secure Chinese government approval to broadcast programs from within China, although in this case predicated on eliminating general news and current affairs in the Chinese language.

ABC management continues to celebrate the achievement today without regard to its reputation for journalistic integrity or concern for Chinese language readers disappointed by the apparent decision to trade values for market share.

In relations with China, Australia is largely concerned with trade and security, 'fear and greed' in Tony Abbott's colorful language. Beijing has other priorities, including a long-standing investment in overseas Chinese affairs that is without parallel in Australian policy circles. The Chinese Communist Party cares deeply about its own values and interests when it reaches out to manage and control Chinese communities and Chinese language media overseas.

Overseas Chinese have long been a focus:

It's not the first Chinese regime to do so. Management of overseas Chinese affairs has been a high priority in China's approach to Australia for well over a century. The Qing empire's first direct formal contact with the Australian colonies involved a tour of imperial commissioners inspecting the conditions under which Chinese lived and worked in Australia in 1887. A second imperial commission visited in 1906 on a similar mission. After the Qing empire opened a consular office in the federal capital of Melbourne, in 1909, the welfare and management of Chinese overseas remained a paramount concern of the resident consul along with trade. Educational and cultural initiatives soon followed.

China was decades ahead of Australia in planning for bilateral educational programs involving Chinese-Australian communities. Between 1921-1925, 400 student visas were issued by the Commonwealth government, at the request of the Chinese consulate in Melbourne, enabling young Chinese students to stay with Chinese families and study in Australia. This little known educational initiative, comparable in scale to the later Columbo Plan, was well in advance of Australia's earliest initiatives in international educational diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region.

Later governments, including the KMT Nationalist Government of the 1930s and 1940s, made strong and consistent representations on behalf of Chinese Australian businesspeople, students and workers through its Australian consulate, particularly on matters relating to discrimination under the White Australia Policy. And at a time when few in Australia were promoting wider understanding of China, Consul Tsao Wenyen (1936-1944) advised that relations should be built on greater investment in mutual understanding of 'history and culture' (cited in Mark Finnane's contribution to In The Same Bed Dreaming Differently).

In addition to government representatives, the KMT Nationalist Party sent party liaison officers to rally local Chinese communities to support the governing party in China. One of these visiting KMT Party Liaison Officers, Yu Chun-hsian, met and married the daughter of the Rev John Young Wai in Sydney. One happy result of their liaison was the birth of their son, Dr John Yu, esteemed 1996 Australian of the Year.  

Advancing China's national interests now part of the agenda:

Today, China's governing Communist Party maintains this legacy, focusing on overseas Chinese affairs for purposes of education, trade, and regime security as in the past but with an additional mission to advance China's national interests in the region and, increasingly, to project China's bland and blameless self-image abroad. The Communist Party is highly strategic in how it goes about this mission.

The peak agency responsible for Overseas Chinese strategy and policy today is the Communist Party's United Front Work Department (中共中央统一战线工作部). The phrase United Front (Tongyi zhanxian literally Unified Battlefront) is a term of war in orthodox Communist Party language, originating in the 1920s when the Communists briefly formed a military United Front with the KMT Nationalists to wage civil war against the Government of China then based in Beijing. The Communists revived the term a decade later during the war with Japan (1937-45) in a second United Front with KMT Nationalists to fight the Japanese invaders. The Party's United Front Work Department was set up during the war to harness sympathetic elites within China and among Overseas Chinese to serve the Communist Party cause. After the defeat of Japan, the United Front Work Department ran clandestine operations during the civil war in which it overthrew the KMT Nationalist Government of China.

Still on a war footing: