Senate debates

Monday, 9 September 2019


Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee; Reference

8:50 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to strongly support Senator Patrick's motion, because an inquiry such as this would assist in us having a really important national conversation in this country. And that needs to be a conversation around what the nature of Australia's relationship with China should be, and what the nature of our relationship with the Chinese government should be. Central to that conversation, there needs to be an assessment about what kind of government it is that currently holds power in China. We need to understand that the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party, is unmistakably a totalitarian regime. It's unmistakably a regime with absolute disdain for human rights. It is certainly a regime with a demonstrated track record of cracking down ruthlessly on dissent and on cultural difference. If you don't agree, I suggest you find a Tibetan person in Australia and ask them about their lived history and the lived history of their families, where we have seen the Chinese Communist Party run a program of mass murder and a certain attempt to destroy the Tibetan culture.

But the CCP is also a government that cracks down ruthlessly on democracy. On Sunday a week ago, on 1 September, I hosted some Hong Kong students who are currently studying at the University of Tasmania. I invited a number of them into my Senate office, where we erected a Lennon wall in the window of my office, which fronts on to Macquarie Street in the Hobart CBD. For those who don't know, Lennon walls, in the context of the current struggles in Hong Kong, have sprung up around the world and have allowed students from Hong Kong who support democracy in Hong Kong to express their views in numerous countries around the world. And the reason I did that was that the Lennon walls at the University of Tasmania had been pulled down—destroyed or damaged—on more than one occasion. Now, we don't know who destroyed or damaged the Lennon walls at the University of Tasmania but, as someone who strongly supports democracy and as someone who watches around the world as the foundations of many democracies are starting to fracture and crumble—as they are, by the way, in this country—I wanted to do something to help those brave students from Hong Kong, who at the moment happen to be in Tasmania, to have their voices heard. So it was a profoundly powerful evening in my office, where the sticky notes went up, including one with the slogan of the Hong Kong protesters: 'Be water'—which is the most beautiful way of resisting, when you think about it. Anyone who saw Four Corners a couple of weeks ago would know about how the protesters attend in one particular location in Hong Kong and then, when the security apparatus arrives, they drift away through the subways or the streets and they spring up at another location in Hong Kong, just like water does as it runs downhill.

What I can say, having spent a long time in conversation with some of the Hong Kong students currently in Tasmania, is that many of the students who are currently demonstrating against, protesting and resisting CCP influence in Hong Kong and who are actively standing up for democracy in Hong Kong believe they're fighting for their very lives. They believe that this is the only time that they will have and that, if they don't win this one, they're not going to win at all. That's why I look at what's going on in Hong Kong with fear in my heart, because we saw at Tiananmen Square what the Chinese government has been prepared to do in the past to people who showed dissent and who stood up against them. We've seen a Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy activist die in prison in China. The track record of the CCP on cracking down on dissent has been written through the pages of recent human history.

Now we have the situation that the Uygurs in China find themselves in. The United Nations believes there are credible reports that 1.1 million Uygurs have currently been imprisoned. There are some estimates that the number is as high as three million Uygurs currently detained in what the Chinese government calls re-education facilities, but I describe as concentration camps. I just want to read a little bit of testimony from a Uygur man called Muhammad Attawulla who comes from southern Xinjiang. He's been studying in Turkey since 2016, but he's told ABC News that he has five relatives in detention, including his mother, two brothers and a brother-in-law. I just want to read what he told the ABC recently:

The detentions have destroyed my family … We can say it [has also] destroyed Uighur society … I cannot bear keeping silent [any more] because I think there's a genocide taking place in East Turkestan.

I should say that East Turkestan is the name that many Uygur people use to refer to their homeland. Mr Attawulla went on to say of the Chinese government that:

They want to erase, erase, erase your identity and our culture and to melt them into Han Chinese.

Make no mistake, these are rampant human rights abuses on a scale that the world has never seen before that are going on in China at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party government. We used to join economic boycotts against regimes who did this kind of thing, albeit on a smaller scale. For example, economic sanctions and sporting sanctions were applied against South Africa during the apartheid era. Let me tell you: what the Chinese government is doing to its own citizens at the moment dwarfs anything that Australia has applied sanctions for in recent history, and it's beyond time that we had a mature debate about how we as a country respond to human rights abuses like these.

In contributions to this debate, we have heard Mr Duncan Lewis, the outgoing director-general of ASIO, saying that foreign influence and interference is an existential threat to our country and a threat far more serious than the threat of terrorism. We know there's been significant influence exercised in Australian universities by the CCP, and we know that there's been significant influence exercised by the CCP in Australia's major political parties. We had the $100,000 in cash in the Aldi bag that was delivered to the New South Wales branch of the ALP. We saw the slow-motion train-smash that ended former senator Sam Dastyari's political career, and I genuinely don't believe that the Liberal Party is immune from this kind of influence. Senator Patrick has made some observations in his speech about that.

I want to speak briefly about my home state of Tasmania. It's worth pointing out that President Xi actually visited Tasmania in 2014. Just before he arrived, I wrote an opinion piece for the Mercury newspaper, in which I raised some of my, and the Greens', human rights concerns with the Chinese government, but I also raised concern that President Xi wasn't coming to Tasmania for the wilderness or the pinot noir but that he was coming to case the joint. I stand by that prediction, because what we've seen since that visit in 2014 is an exponential increase in the interest of the Chinese government in Tasmania.

At the time, I described—accurately, by the way—the Chinese government as a 'junta', and I was called a xenophobe by then opposition leader and current Premier of Tasmania, Will Hodgman. Calling critics of the Chinese government racists and xenophobes is straight out of the playbook of the Chinese Communist Party. It is what they tell their operatives in foreign countries to do. So I took that as a compliment and I stand by my description of the Chinese Communist Party as a junta, because it came to power using armed force and retains its grip on power using not only armed force but also new digital technologies as tools to repress its own people.

I want to say one other thing about Tasmania. Down in Tasmania, we are on the frontline of CCP influence. Because of President Xi's visit in 2014, there has been significant interest—and significant purchase of land—by private companies and individuals, many of which are bankrolled by the Bank of China, which is totally under the control of the Chinese government. We need to make sure that we have the debate in a mature and rational way, of course; but we need to be on guard, not only in Tasmania but right around Australia, about the influence of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government in this country.

I want to end with a prediction. At some stage in the future—and I hope it's soon—Australians will look back on today's debate and they'll wonder how the Senate could have walked past its responsibility to conduct this inquiry. They will wonder what influence or control or threats were issued or exercised on our major political parties—the Australian Labor Party, the Liberal and National parties in this country—that they would not support an entirely reasonable and rational proposal for this inquiry put forward by Senator Patrick. They will wonder what cost to Australia's strategic, economic, cultural and security future will be imposed because of a cowardly failure by the major parties to stand up and do their job in this place.


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