A number of Australian businesses are participating in a social media drive called “Australia Welcomes You.” The aim is to reassure prospective Chinese students and tourists that it is a good idea to come to Australia, despite an uptick in anti-Chinese prejudice associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, believed to have got its start in a “wet market” in Wuhan.
Last month the government in Beijing, which stands accused of suppressing evidence of the initial COVID outbreak at a time when proactive action may have spared the rest of the world this terrible scourge, warned Chinese citizens about “racist incidents targeting Asians” in Australia.
The warning appeared to be a direct response to Canberra’s calls for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus, interpreted by China as a sort of rhetorical geopolitical attack. Its increase in tariffs on beef and barley imports from Australia—shortly after the Australian government spoke of a global inquiry—was viewed by many as a form of retaliation.
Such squabbles may be welcome to insular foreign policy hawks on both sides, but it is bad news for almost everyone else, particularly businesses and schools that rely on Chinese tourists and students.
Hence, the #AustraliaWelcomesYou campaign (you may have come across it if you’re on Weibo or WeChat). It was initiated by Chinese Australian Forum, whose president, Jason Yat-Sen Li, says he wants people to see past all the political rhetoric.
“We hear so much about the politics around this, but it’s often regular people and regular businesses that get caught in the crossfire,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I think a lot of young Chinese Australians are just over it.”
The Australia China Business Council is also involved. Its CEO, Helen Sawczak, had a similar message that she shared with the Global Times (an English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese government): “It is hoped the campaign will show how seriously ordinary Australians and businesses are bearing the consequences of Australia’s sinking image posed by the coronavirus, geopolitics and racism.”
Also speaking with the Global Times was a “Chinese observer who requested anonymity.” According to this person, “Despite good intentions, the campaign may yield little, given the recent outbreak of anti-China hysteria from the Morrison government, which has spared no effort to poison the already fragile bilateral relations.”
It should probably be noted that Morrison’s quarrel is with the Chinese government and not the Chinese people (many of whom have their own quarrel with their government but mostly remain quiet about it lest they be arrested a la Beijing law professor Xu Zhangrun).
Still, this anonymous “Chinese observer” is probably right about the limitations of the campaign, given the latest escalation between the two countries: on Tuesday, Canberra issued a travel advisory warning Aussies that, by traveling to China, they may be subjecting themselves to “arbitrary detention.”
That came after Morrison said his government may open its borders to Hong Kongers who feel threatened by Beijing’s new security privileges in the semi-autonomous territory.
For its part, China responded to Australia’s “arbitrary detention” advisory by calling it “completely ridiculous and disinformation.”