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In Australia And China's COVID War, People Like Me Are Caught In The Crossfire

China has blacklisted four of Australia’s major abattoirs as the latest trade tensions intensify – and the political jousting may get even uglier.

But the forgotten victims in this row are Chinese-Australians -- we've been caught in the crossfire, treated with contempt and mistrust (even by friends, colleagues and neighbours) and told we must 'choose sides' between our home and the country of our heritage. And as Canberra and Beijing's relationship deteriorates, I can't help but think of our not-too-distant past, when, in the midst of political turmoil, we allowed fear and bigotry to flourish, and neighbours turned on one other.

Last month, Australia's precarious relationship with Beijing hit an all-time low when Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for a global inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. Shortly after, Wagga Wagga Council voted to cut ties with its Chinese sister city, Kunming, and accused China of bringing "death and destruction across the world". But later, the council back-pedalled after it was criticised by local politicians and the Chinese Consulate-General in Sydney.

Chinese media labelled Australia “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe” and accused Canberra of having ulterior political motives behind the independent inquiry. The country’s major tabloid news outlet, The Global Times, claimed Morrison’s “adventurism” could render bilateral relations irreparable. Beijing also threatened to slug a hefty levy on our barley exports.

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Our delicate bilateral relations have always been a roller coaster ride, to say the least. In 2018, Australia was the first country to ban Huawei and ZTE from participating in our 5G network and in 2017, China embargoed exports from six red meat companies for four months.

Beijing has always viewed Canberra with mistrust because it sees Australia as a lackey of the US. China believes Washington, DC and Canberra are orchestrating a containment policy to limit China’s economy and diplomatic influence -- while Australia furthers its interests in the Asia-Pacific.

On the other hand, Australia is a prominent and outspoken critic of China’s growing power and influence. Canberra has accused the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of infiltrating Australian politics, and influencing our society, businesses and educational institutions.

But as both countries’ leaders continue to out-manoeuvre each other with threats and embargoes, Chinese-Australians are stuck in the middle.

We are often seen as forever aliens, and whenever there are diplomatic spats between Beijing and Canberra, our allegiance is questioned.

Since the pandemic began, Chinese-Australians, and other Asian-Australians, have experienced a spike in racism. A recent survey suggested as much. We've seen graffiti and racist incidents caught on video, as well as an increase in open, casually bigoted generalisations about Chinese people.

As tensions between China and Australia escalate, I fear the vilification will only get worse.

When my brother went out for some exercise, a woman told him he needed to wear a face mask because he is Chinese. She said she didn't need to because she is Australian.

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I myself have been asked many times, even by friends and associates: "If there was a war between Australia and China, who would you pick?"

I have always said that I want to avoid conflict but for many, that answer is not acceptable. I remember one person even told me, “But you must choose a side. You can’t stay neutral.”

It is worrying that the “us-vs-them” mentality has resurfaced and reconciliation has become a dirty word. Recently, an ex-colleague of mine published a post on Facebook calling for all Australians to make a political call to arms against China. I suggested that using a divisive, “holier than thou” attitude is counterproductive -- there should be peaceful cooperation from both sides to achieve progress and harmony.

There were swift and angry comments from him and his friends (who I don’t know). My ex-colleague accused me of endorsing the threat made by the CCP against Australia, which I had not done. I had emphasised mutual cooperation but was ignored and labelled a sympathiser.

When I was studying my international relations degree at university, I took a class in Asia-Pacific politics. I remember saying that the Australia/China relationship is important and my classmates attacked me. After class, one even said that I should “go back to China”. My brother, a writer and commentator, has received similar treatment online when suggesting that Australia/China relations should be progressive, finding himself labelled a communist stooge by trolls.

It’s not pleasant to be caught in the middle, used as an emotional punching bag for Australians to vent their anger, fear and perhaps Sinophobia. It makes me feel I’m not 'qualified' to be Australian.

When we promote messages of reconciliation and compromise, Chinese-Australians are treated with suspicion, as though we have a secret hotline to Xi Jinping. Our community overwhelmingly supports measured and peaceful diplomacy, but some of us are forced to remain quiet for fear of being seen as CCP sympathisers or -- even worse -- 'spies' for Beijing.

Things haven't reached this level, obviously, but this scenario is thematically reminiscent of the Cold War, when people were dragooned into choosing a side or risk ostracisation. When tensions between the US and Soviet Union heightened during the Korean War (1950-1953), Prime Minister Robert Menzies spurred anticommunism panic and supported the Australian Communist Party Dissolution Bill, which enabled the government to label anyone a communist, leaving it up to the accused to prove they were not. In those days, anyone with moderate views was immediately shunned.

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Again, I'm not saying we've reached that point -- or even that we will -- but right now just being Chinese-Australian can make you a target of bigotry and accusations of being a Beijing sympathiser. But all we want, like other Australians, is harmony.

Australia is China’s sixth largest trading partner and we are China’s fifth largest major supplier of imports. The two countries have a long shared history of cultural, economic and educational exchange from which both sides have benefited. It's a relationship worth preserving.

So as difficult as the current situation may be, we must try to overcome our differences with patience and without bias. Political discussion can be encouraged, but we shouldn't resort to knee jerk, emotionally-charged accusations of disloyalty.

Chinese-Australians don't need to be punching bags. They can be a resource. A unifying force. And maybe when we come out of this crisis, trade between Australia and China will have strengthened -- and cultural understanding will have deepened.