There are an estimated 1.2 million people living in Australia who have Chinese ancestry (of which I am one). Many would agree that old prejudices against Chinese have largely given way to general acceptance of Chinese-Australians.
Yet, ongoing debates make clear there is growing discomfort about the Chinese presence in Australia. In his recently published book Silent Invasion, Clive Hamilton argues the People’s Republic of China is conducting a campaign designed to erode Australian sovereignty and to undermine our independence as a nation. This campaign, according to Hamilton, is ‘'being perpetrated and shaped by a complex system of influence and control overseen by agencies serving the Chinese Communist Party'’.
There has been enormous heat in our public debate about Chinese influence. It is time to bring down the temperature. If we are not careful, we will run the risk of setting fire to our multicultural harmony.
Let me make one thing clear. I am not in any way downplaying the seriousness of concerns that have been raised, both from inside and outside government, about foreign interference. They must be taken seriously. In our liberal democracy, there should – and there must – be debate about matters affecting the integrity of our democracy and the sovereignty of our nation-state.
But there must be responsibility exercised in public debate. It is a dangerous thing to invite hysteria. It is doubly dangerous to invite anxiety about the Chinese party-state that may shift into animosity towards people with Chinese heritage.
It is concerning to see sensationalism now creeping into mainstream commentary. Consider, for example, the references in Professor Hamilton’s book to "panda huggers", to "dyeing Australia red", to "China’s fifth column in Australia", or to Australia being turned into a "tribute state" by a Chinese "silent invasion".
Such language flirts with exciting an anti-Chinese or Sinophobic racial sentiment. It recalls old fears about yellow hordes overwhelming a vulnerable white Australia. It all smacks of The Yellow Peril revisited.
At a time when populist energies are running high, and when debates about immigration are being re-opened, we must not create the conditions for the rehearsal of lazy prejudice.
We must avoid a situation where Australian citizens with Chinese heritage are second-guessed about their loyalty and allegiance. Where those from Chinese backgrounds have to work twice or thrice as hard as others before they can even be accepted as Australian. It would diminish our nation if Australians with Chinese heritage retreated from participating in the life of our nation, because they fear being smeared as foreign agents of influence or denounced as members of a Chinese fifth column.
Right now, our society needs more participation from its multicultural population – not less. We do poorly at reflecting our diversity within our public institutions, and within the leadership ranks of our organisations. Any anti-Chinese or Sinophobic sentiment will only make the task of representing diversity even harder.
Some may point to how Chinese-Australians themselves have expressed alarm about the extent of Chinese influence in Australia. That is true. Yet too often there seems only to be selective quotation of Chinese-Australians whose opinions conveniently confirm a "silent invasion".
It’s important that more voices of Chinese-Australians are heard. Those who know anything about the Chinese-Australian population will know it is diverse. It matters whether you are Hong Kong-Chinese, Singaporean-Chinese, Malaysian-Chinese, Taiwanese-Chinese, Lao-Chinese, Cambodian-Chinese or Chinese from '‘the mainland’'.
Yet the sentiment expressed to me by members of Chinese-Australian communities is clear enough. While there are some who have serious concerns about Chinese influence in public life, there are many, many others who hold more serious concerns about the consequences of stoking anti-Chinese prejudices.
The debate about Chinese influence in Australia is an important one about our sovereignty and national interest. But it is also a test of our maturity as a multicultural society. Passing it will require a lot less panic, and a lot more sobriety.
Tim Soutphommasane is Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner.
This is an edited version of a speech that will be delivered on Thursday at Western Sydney University’s conference on ''Community Sentiment and the Chinese Australian Experience''.