Chinese Australians scared to speak out for fear family members in China will be targeted, paper says

Dozens of people including Chinese Australians have been victims of Chinese Communist party intimidation in Australia, according to a policy paper published by the China Matters thinktank.

The cases include a dissident who said he received a message from a Chinese Ministry of Public Security official the day after he attended a Tiananmen memorial in Australia in 2019, warning that his actions would have an impact on his family.

The bank account of the dissident’s parents, who were still based in China, was subsequently frozen, according to the paper by Dr Dirk van der Kley, a policy research program director at China Matters, who said he had personally seen the message and a screenshot of the account.

“People who face this intimidation rarely report it to authorities,” van der Kley said in the paper published on Thursday.

He said he had conducted interviews last year with more than 30 people who claimed to be victims of Chinese Communist party (CCP) intimidation – but only three had reported it to Australian authorities.

“The most-stated reason for this was a belief that the Australian government could not protect the victim’s family in the PRC [People’s Republic of China]. This is a valid concern and there is little that the Australian government can do about it. Moreover, others felt that reporting would not change anything.”

The policy paper cited anecdotal examples while calling for the appointment of a “foreign interference commissioner” within the Australian Human Rights Commission with the goal of quantifying the problem.

The commissioner would produce an independent, data-based annual report on the state of foreign interference in Australia in the interests of transparency.

Van der Kley, in an interview with Guardian Australia, said he was concerned some people in Australia were unable to speak as freely as others. He said some of the Chinese Australians he had interviewed felt they had been followed. The “pressure point for most people” was the effect of speaking out on family and finances back home.

New laws against foreign interference and espionage had been in effect in Australia since 2018 but van der Kley said: “We don’t actually know if that is making the lives of victims any better.” China has previously strongly rejected claims of foreign interference.

Wang Xining, the deputy head of China’s embassy in Australia, told the National Press Club last month that China was not interested in interfering in Australia’s internal affairs or undermining its sovereignty.

Thursday’s policy paper follows warnings by Australia’s domestic spy agency Asio that some foreign governments were seeking to interfere in diaspora communities “to control or quash opposition or dissent deemed to be a threat to their government”.

Without naming any country, Asio told a parliamentary committee it was “aware of numerous individuals from a range of diaspora communities who reported being subject to threats against themselves and family members due to their voicing of opinions on political and ideological issues which a foreign country deemed to be a threat to their government”.

“These threats have come directly from foreign government representatives and also from other members of the diaspora communities themselves, acting at the direction of the foreign government,” Asio said in a submission to an inquiry into issues facing diaspora communities.

“These activities against diaspora communities have related to issues including overseas electoral events, pro-democracy movements, and human rights, as well as issues associated with protecting the image of the foreign country.”

The Chinese Community Council of Australia, in its submission to the inquiry, said the major safety concern among diaspora communities was the xenophobia and racism experienced by people of colour.

The group raised concerns about the deterioration of the diplomatic relationship between Australia and China and stated: “The collateral damage to the 1.2 million Chinese Australians is hurting and is putting unnecessary stress and trauma on us.”

Van der Kley’s paper examined the activities of the CCP’s United Front Work Department in Australia and said it had been “unsuccessful in shaping the Australian public debate or federal government policy” in favour of the CCP.

However, some people of Chinese heritage in Australia had been silenced, van der Kley wrote. He said the efforts had also stifled voices critical of the CCP in Chinese language media in Australia.

The paper said media organisations owned by foreign governments and operating in Australia should have to identify government-ownership in their content. It also called for real-time disclosure of political donations across all levels of government to ensure transparency.

A recent high-profile investigation by Asio and the AFP into alleged Chinese interference continues to cause ripples.

According to an ABC report, John Zhang, a part-time staffer to NSW Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane, has complained that Australian authorities accessed his communications with Chinese diplomats and consular officials in Australia. Zhang denies wrongdoing and has launched a high court challenge against the warrants.

The Chinese consulate general in Sydney told the ABC accusations it “engaged in infiltration activities are totally baseless and nothing but vicious slanders”.