Australia's adoption of foreign interference laws has helped to curb Beijing's influence attempts but also caused tension resulting in the alienation of Chinese Australians.
That’s the finding of a Lowy Institute report into the impact of the foreign interference debate coming against the backdrop of strained diplomatic relations between Beijing and Canberra.
The foreign interference laws adopted in 2018, which have drawn the ire of Beijing, created new espionage offences, introduced tougher penalties on spies and established a register of foreign political agents.
But the increased awareness around the threat of foreign interference has also fuelled suspicion against Chinese Australians leading to many feeling alienated within Australia, according to the think tank.
“The way that it has played out has really alienated many Chinese Australians and their sense of belonging to Australia,” Lowy Institute research fellow Jennifer Hsu said.
“Many Chinese Australians start to question how they’ve been perceived by politicians, policymakers and the broader community.”
The Lowy Institute's report, , is based on interviews with 30 individuals identified as leaders in their field, some of them in government and five focus groups.
Beijing actively reaches out to overseas Chinese communities, in Australia and elsewhere, to promote the country's political interests and economic development, the Lowy Institute’s report said.
It found many Chinese Australians had welcomed laws against foreign interference as helping to protect against such efforts.
But a larger number had warned about this fuelling political, verbal, and sometimes physical attacks on Chinese communities amid Australia's intense national debate about China.
Research fellow at think tank Per Capita Osmond Chiu was one of three witnesses of Chinese Australian heritage asked by Liberal Senator Eric Abetz to condemn the Chinese Communist Party during a Senate inquiry into issues facing diaspora communities last year.
He later described the questioning as “demeaning” indicating that he had refused to answer because he did not want to play into the tactics behind the question.
Mr Chiu told SBS News he agreed the debate around Australia’s relationship with China had provoked “unintended consequences” on the everyday lives of Chinese Australians.
“People feel singled out for no reason other than having Chinese heritage,” he said.
“That’s corrosive because it undermines the belief that there is equality and the rule of law in Australia. There is that real fear amongst many Chinese Australians about where this goes and the wider impact.”
The foreign interference law has increased scrutiny of Chinese Australian community organisations, according to the Lowy Institute’s report.
It said community groups set up in Australia over the past two decades had clear links to China's government, “primarily for economic reasons”.
But Ms Hsu added the “majority of Chinese Australians” had little or no engagement with these Chinese community organisations.
“Without a doubt, there are certain organisations that have interactions with the Chinese party-state,” she said.
“But those community organisations, by and large, aren’t really representative of the majority of Chinese Australians.”
The Scanlon report into social cohesion, which tracks Australia’s attitude to migrants and multiculturalism, found there has been “heightened negative sentiment towards Chinese nationals” over 2020 and 2021.
Erin Chew, co-founder of the Sydney-based advocacy group the Asian Australian Alliance, said there was a real concern of Chinese Australians being wrongly discriminated against.
“People will always have that suspicion,” she told SBS News.
"That alienation concern is a very real thing. [But] the majority of these Chinese community groups are not connected at all.”
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has previously warned that multicultural groups in Australia are being targeted through threats of intimidation and harm to individuals and their families.
A parliamentary report into issues facing diaspora communities in Australia recommended the government consider increasing awareness of the National Security Hotline as a means of reporting.