By Charis Chang
DEBATE about China’s growing influence in Australia has become so heated within Chinese communities, they even have a nickname for those who put out government propaganda: “wu mao”.
The phrase translates as “50 cent” and is a reference to speculation that the Chinese government pays 50 cents for each pro-government post in the media.
The term originated in China but is being used in Australia.
It’s an insult that Erin Chew is familiar with.
As an Asian Australian Alliance convener, Ms Chew told news.com.au that she had been called a “wu mao” for expressing opinions that even hint at anything remotely positive about China.
Ms Chew, who was born in Australia but is of Malaysian Chinese heritage, said attitudes about China’s growing influence varied among the Chinese community.
Some were proud of the country’s growing power, while others were suspicious about its impact on people’s freedom of speech.
The problem can already be seen in Canada, where China is now the country’s second largest trading partner after the US.
Chinese-Canadians are questioning whether the partnership is actually making Canada more prosperous, complaining that their ability to speak out against the authoritarian state is being eroded because of China’s growing economic power.
“Journalists who write for the many Chinese-language publications in Canada, along with activists and others, say they are under increasing pressure to promote the interests of the Chinese government,” a New York Times article reported this month.
Earlier this year, a Chinese-Canadian who was Ontario’s provincial minister of citizenship, immigration and international trade, Michael Chan, defended China’s human rights practices in a column that was met with outrage. But reporters who criticised Mr Chan were met with death threats, and one even lost their job.
Ms Chew said there was also concern among Chinese communities in Australia about growing Chinese influence but this was not being expressed as openly as it was in Canada, and was often divided along political and historical lines.
“The Hong Kong Chinese in Australia resent China a lot,” Ms Chew said.
“You also have the Chinese who left China after Tiananmen (Square massacre) and many still have a huge anger towards China and will get quite angry when you engage in conversations about the growing influence of China.”
But she said others, including newer Chinese migrants and those from Malaysia or Singapore, were proud to see the growing influence of China, even though there was also concern it could spark racism in Australia.
Ms Chew has seen first-hand how Chinese influence works in Australia.
She has attended various political fundraising events and seen the money that Chinese business people donate.
“I have seen various Chinese organisations, particularly the ‘clan’ style or older Chinese type groups, and how they are swayed easily due to the donations,” she said.
Ms Chew said event and article submissions she had sent to Chinese media outlets had not appeared, even though she was initially told they would be published.
She blames the control that wealthy figures like Huang Xiangmo and NSW Labor upper house member Ernest Wong wield over the Chinese media in Australia.
“Some of these people do not like me, as I do not behave like the typical Chinese and I am an ABC (Australian born Chinese) — they feel that my cultural understanding is low.”
Mr Huang has become a controversial figure in Australia who has been photographed with many politicians and has donated more than $1 million to political parties in Australia since 2012, according to Fairfax.
Lately Mr Huang, also known as Huang Changran, has been in the media spotlight for paying a $40,000 legal bill for Labor senator Sam Dastyari, which contributed to the senator’s decision to step down from his frontbench role.
Mr Huang also gave $1.8 million to establish the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, led by former foreign minister and NSW premier Bob Carr.
Another $1 million was given to the Children’s Medical Research Institute at Westmead and $3.5 million was provided to Western Sydney University for an Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture.
The mysterious Mr Huang is also associated with a group called the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, which Ms Chew believes is a mouthpiece for the Chinese government.
Funding groups like these provide an indirect way for the Chinese government to wield influence.
“They do have clout and political influence in Australia,” Ms Chew said of the group.
“Money does talk.”
A quick tour of the group’s website reveals many photos of politicians posing with Mr Huang at various events including “Giving Day” in 2015 when Mr Huang’s company Yuhu donated $743,000 to eight Australian organisations including the Westmead’s Children Medical Research Institute, Bear Cottage in Manly and Eastwood Public School.
Mr Huang has said his donations don’t come with any hidden agenda.
“It has nothing to do with China,” he told Fairfax Media. “When the media say I have some (ulterior) motives, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry … I feel it is unfair, not objective.”
When it comes to his political donations, Mr Huang insists that he gives to both major parties because, “I feel sometimes their politics are in line with us Chinese-Australian businesses, in line with our standards and ideas. We just support their political views, without raising ours”.
‘IT MAKES US LOOK BAD’
Ms Chew said the wielding of political power by China worried her as it made Chinese in Australia look bad.
“The mainstream will brush all of us the same,” she said. “In this air of xenophobia, which currently shadows Australia, well, it doesn’t help the situation.”
Despite her concerns she did not think foreign donations should be scrapped, although they should be more regulated and transparency was needed.
She thought donations that covered legal and travel costs, like those that Mr Dastyari accepted, should also be banned.
“Donations need to be restricted to a limit and its purpose needs to narrow,” she said.
She also suggested changes to donations to university and other institutes to avoid one interest group having full control. This could include limiting donations to 60 per cent of the institute’s funding, with the rest to come from university or government contributions.
“This will reduce the bias nature of institutes.”
As for foreign ownership of land or other investments, she did not necessarily think this should be restricted, unless the measures also applied to other countries.
One important change Ms Chew wanted to see was Chinese media in Australia being held to the same standard as other mainstream media in Australia.
“No one regulates or looks into this at the moment and unless it is looked into, the agendas are bias.”
News.com.au attempted to contact Ernest Wong for comment, and Huang Xiangmo was unavailable.