Senate debates

Monday, 9 September 2019


Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee; Reference

8:40 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of this referral motion from Senator Patrick. Australia's relationship with China has quite rightly been very widely debated within the community and certainly within the media over recent months, and how we manage this relationship is one of the critical foreign policy questions of our generation. It's a critical foreign policy question for this government, and no doubt it will continue to be a critical question for future governments over the decades to come.

It's a complex relationship. There are many facets to this relationship, including our trade relationship. It's an important trading partner. Of course, that's come into stark relief when you look at the trade war that's now going on between China and Trump's America. We know that China has sought to increase its influence across the world through its Belt and Road Initiative. Of course, its influence across the Pacific and indeed here in Australia is something that many of us have become increasingly aware of. You need only look at what's going on in New South Wales right now with the ICAC hearings to know how wide and deep the reach of the Chinese Communist Party goes. Indeed, what we heard from the former ASIO chief was that in his view the issue of foreign interference in democratic countries is the threat facing Australia—a bigger threat than the threat of terrorism, for example. Again, we've had recent examples of that, where the databases of our major political parties were hacked into by foreign influencers. So there are many facets to this relationship. Of course, it's an important trading partner and it is a country with growing influence across the world.

But one of the things that are often absent in any debate about Australia's relationship with China is our approach to China's human rights record. Just a few months ago, we saw our flagship current affairs program, Four Corners, dedicate an episode to the appalling human rights abuses being committed in China's Xinjiang region against its Turkic Muslim population. Xinjiang has a Turkic Muslim population of 13 million people, and out of those 13 million people one million are arbitrarily detained without any legal process. I'll say that again: one million people are being rounded up and arbitrarily detained—some for weeks, some for months and some for years. Families are being torn apart. Those incarcerated are subject to forced labour and sometimes to torture and forced political indoctrination. Of course, outside the camps Uygurs and other Turkic Muslims are denied the right to freedom of movement and freedom of religion. The mass surveillance that's going on at the moment in Xinjiang is terrifying. People going about their daily business are watched constantly by the state and forced to give their biometric data. Face- and voice-recognition technology is being used as a tool of repression.

I had the great privilege in our last sitting week to meet some of the Uygur Australians whose lives have been irreparably altered by China's devastating repression. I met people like Sadam, who is a young man whose wife and baby are trapped in China right now, and people like Almas, whose mum is in a camp and whose wife is in prison simply for studying in Egypt. The situation of the Uygur community within China is something that the Australian government needs to stand up against and make its voice heard on.

But, of course, it's not just what's going on with the Uygurs. We know of the injustices perpetrated against the Tibetan people by the Chinese government, with Tibetans being deprived of their right to democracy again, deprived of their right to freedom of speech and deprived of their right to freedom of religious observance. Right now, people in Tibet can be locked up for years simply for doing things like making documentaries and documenting the plight of their people. Tibetan monks and nuns are being forced by Chinese authorities to act as propagandists for the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. There are plans right now for massive nature reserves in Tibet, which further threaten the dispossession of Tibetan nomads, under the guise of protecting a unique and important ecosystem.

This referral motion that we're discussing today couldn't be more timely when you consider that it's occurring at a moment in history when there is a rising pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong stood firm in the face of a fearsome build-up of force on the border, an overpowering and violent police presence, the unleashing of tear gas and rubber bullets and threats of arrests and reprisals. I had the privilege of meeting with young students from Hong Kong studying here in Australia who have been targeted while they have been here in Australia and are concerned that they are themselves being victims of surveillance.

Beijing is overseeing the withdrawal of what has been described as the extradition bill, but we know that the response from Hong Kong and the authorities there, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, falls a long way short in meeting the demands of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. The police brutality going on in Hong Kong right now is shocking. The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong are rightly calling for an independent investigation into that police brutality, and, to date, the authorities have refused to grant that request. And, of course, they are not even considering the demand for universal suffrage—something that the people of Hong Kong believe, as do we, is essential in any properly functioning democracy.

So, of course, the Senate should be examining in detail our relationship with China in the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee. If we can't examine an issue of such critical importance to the Australian community as our relationship with China, then what on earth is the point of that committee? So far the Morrison government has failed to take any meaningful action against all of these egregious human rights abuses. So here is an opportunity for our parliament to show some leadership and to look at this issue in detail. It's hardly a surprise that support for this referral is coming from the crossbench. When you consider that both major parties have been the beneficiary of those huge donations flowing into the bank accounts of both sides of politics, it's no wonder that they both appear to have been cowed into inaction. I have to say that it is with great disappointment that we now see that the ALP has withdrawn its co-sponsorship of this motion. It's hardly a surprise that the government would not support it. Of course, the timing is impeccable when you consider what is going on right now with the revelations from New South Wales ICAC. You have to wonder if this is what $100,000 in an Aldi bag buys you.

When it comes to our relationship with China, there is no more important issue right now than ensuring that we examine, in great detail, all dimensions of that relationship. And far too often absent from that discourse is any discussion about how Australia should address the issue of human rights abuses occurring in China. This was an opportunity to put those issues on the national agenda, and to have a detailed, thorough and forensic look at what it is that we can do—as a nation that should be a beacon for human rights and democracy around the world—to ensure that, at least when it comes to the actions of the Chinese government, the view of hardworking, decent Australians is reflected in the relationships with other countries abroad.


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