China Panic: A wake-up call for Canadians

Politicians would be wise to read David Brophy’s new book.

by John Price

When announcing public consultations with the intention to set up a foreign influence registry in March, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed to Australia as a model for Canada.

In April, the Canada-People’s Republic of China Parliamentary Committee advocated that Canada “make efforts to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS security pact,” both pacts in which Australia has an anchor role.

Australia, it would seem, represents the path that the Canadian government would like to follow in its quest to combat “foreign interference.” Before jumping on the ‘Down Under’ bandwagon, however, people might want to read professor David Brophy’s important new book, China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering.

A specialist in Uyghur history at the University of Sydney, Brophy is no apologist for China. He carefully dissects Australia’s pathway to panic regarding China, concluding: “The suite of contemporary responses to China add up to a sharp move to the right in Australian politics — towards a more xenophobic, racist Australia — and can only provoke a similarly nationalistic response from China.”

This panic, says the author, “is much more a product of Australia’s policies than a motivation for them. To be precise, it’s the result of a deliberate decision to wrench Australia away from deep, longstanding engagement with China, and to assume an active role in a campaign to preserve American dominance in the region.”

Such policies are dangerous, says Brophy, because U.S. hegemony in the region is “now of an almost exclusively military nature.”


The ‘China Threat’

Of China Panic’s eight chapters, the first five probe how intelligence agencies, think tanks, and the media constructed vivid tales of “foreign interference.” The path to unbridled confrontation with China started at the behest of Australia’s spy agencies.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), says Brophy, took on an “increasingly public role, issuing warnings from 2017 onwards that foreign interference was occurring at ‘an unprecedented scale’ in Australia.” Brophy believes historians will eventually have a more precise picture of how Australia entered onto this path, “but we can say with some confidence that security agencies have led the way.”

Joining ASIO in its anti-China campaign has been the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), headed by Peter Jennings, who advised John Howard on intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. ASPI, says the author, “now serves as a clearing house for ‘get tough’ strategies towards China.”

Brophy’s observations may echo loudly here in Canada. CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) has been aggressively marketing the “China threat” for years. Australia and Canada are both closely allied to the United States, and they are both members of the Five Eyes spy alliance that also includes New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S.

China Panic thereafter probes how both the left and the right in Australia became obsessed with China, to the detriment of good policy.

Brophy’s work vividly captures how the new “national-security lens” distorts perceptions of Chinese communities in Australia to the point where “the very presence of Chinese in Australia, are seen to have security implications.” Far from defending the rights that Chinese Australians value, states Brophy, current responses to China “puts these rights at risk.”

The media in Australia has binged on the “CCP influence” paradigm that has given rise to a rapid spike in racial animosity. The author points to an important precedent in which some people described the “experience of ‘waking up Muslim after 9/11.’” Something similar is being felt by Australian-born Chinese individuals, who, states Brophy, are now grappling with their Chineseness, “not as a result of PRC interference but because of Australian paranoia towards it.”

To counteract this animosity, Brophy suggests that anti-racism “has to be combined with a critique of Australian foreign policies and the country’s orientation to the world.”

China Panic is particularly perceptive in outlining the real risks to universities in his chapter “Cold-War Campus.”

“The language of war that now envelops campuses has, in my opinion, laid the basis for domestic government interventions that present more of a risk to universities’ autonomy and independence than anything China is doing,” Brophy wrote.

Brophy attests that he has never faced any pressure, on or off campus, to modify what he says about China. On the other hand, by homing in on universities’ ties to China, recent polemics undermine universities in Australia and makes it much more difficult to stop funding cuts.

Furthermore, the line between basic and military research has “all but vanished” at Australian universities, as they have “willingly embedded themselves with Australian, American and private multinational defence interests.”

Nor does the Confucius Institute at the University of Queensland pose any more of a threat, says Brophy, than the Japan Foundation. More pertinent is the United States Studies Centre that has much greater “political influence on campus or in wider society.”


Criticizing the CCP isn’t ‘anti-Chinese’: Brophy

Brophy is clear that criticizing the Chinese government of the CCP is not in any way racist or “anti-Chinese.” He also notes the irony in the fact many people proclaim this idea when it comes to China, but ignore it in the case of Israel, “allowing critics of Zionism and supporters of Palestinian rights to be frequently attacked as antisemites.”

Those who believe China can do no wrong may find some of Brophy’s views difficult to swallow. In two chapters, he outlines his sympathy for and the complexity of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the battles over Hong Kong. As a specialist in Uyghur nationalism (his first book was Uyghur Nation), this is not surprising.

Precisely because Brophy has impeccable credentials as an independent scholar, critical of Chinese government policies in these areas, his arguments against demonizing or isolating China are compelling. The federal NDP, which has aligned with the Conservative in beating the anti-China drum, would be well advised to listen.

Brophy points to another aspect of the China Panic that may well resonate with many in Canada.

“As an external enemy par excellence, China normalizes white Australia’s claim to this land and voids that of Indigenous Australians,” he wrote.

Every Canadian should have access to this important book. It is an important counterweight to the reams of government and media propaganda promoting the China Panic in Canada.

David Brophy will speak about his book China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering in a webinar on Wednesday, May 24, 4 pm Pacific/7 pm Eastern time. Register here

John Price is an associate fellow at the Centre for Global Studies, professor emeritus (history) at the University of Victoria, and an advisor of Canada-China Focus.  


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