（SMH）By Fergus Hunter 27 March 2018
A group of leading Australian academics has penned an open letter to declare vigorous support for the national debate about Chinese Communist Party-linked influence and interference, expressing a firm belief that the scrutiny is "essential" and not motivated by racism.
According to the scholars, who describe themselves as "deeply concerned", the debate is necessary to confront Beijing-linked influence activities in Australia and protect the nation's intellectual freedom, democratic rights and national security.
The message is a public response to a letter released last week by a separate group of academics – including renowned expert Geremie Barmé and the first Australian ambassador to China, Stephen Fitzgerald – that urged the Turnbull government to delay its foreign influence legislation and warned that Chinese Australians are being stigmatised in an increasingly polarised debate.
That group said the debate needed to calm down and expressed scepticism that China was exporting its political system to Australia or undermining Australian sovereignty.
The new letter rejects "self-censorship", defends the current debate and argues Australia's "mature multicultural society" has the capacity to discuss these issues without escalating ethnic tension.
The government announced legislation to curb foreign influence and interference in December. Although the proposed laws are not specifically targeted at China, the new policy was announced following intense scrutiny of CCP-linked activities, including in the case of former Labor senator Sam Dastyari.
Chinese-Australian bilateral relations have been strained since Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he took reports of CCP interference "very seriously" while the book Silent Invasion published by academic Clive Hamilton last month also created controversy. Some observers including Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane have called on the debate to be conducted without inflaming prejudice against Chinese Australians.
However, the scholars supporting the debate argue Chinese Australians were among the main "initiators and drivers" of the public discussion.
"It is vital that the debate is driven by fact-based research and reporting rather than sensationalism or racism," their letter says. "It is also vital that this debate is not stifled by self-censorship. We firmly believe the current debate is not characterised by racism and that it is crucial for Australia to continue this debate."
It is signed by more than 20 specialists including La Trobe University professor James Leibold, University of Technology Sydney professor Feng Chongyi, the University of Adelaide's Gerry Groot, Swinburne University’s John Fitzgerald, Australian National University researcher Adam Ni, ANU National Security College head Rory Medcalf, Griffith University professor Ian Hall and Monash University emeritus professor Bruce Jacobs.
The group says all racism should be condemned and points to a "critical need" to clearly distinguish between Chinese people as a whole and the CCP.
"We are mindful also that racism is precisely the accusation that is encouraged and levelled by the CCP itself as it tries to silence the current discussion," the academics say.
"Should the CCP’s operations of interference be allowed to continue in Australia, they will fuel divisiveness between Chinese communities and other Australians, weaken the Australian government’s ability to communicate with Chinese communities and harm the democratic rights of Chinese Australians."
The letter notes rising global concern around "covert and sometimes coercive activities" connected to the Chinese government and notes the "extraordinary" public warnings from intelligence agency ASIO about foreign interference in Australia.
"Identifying, recognising and winding back CCP interference as an unacceptable and counterproductive part of bilateral engagement is a step towards developing a healthy China-Australia relationship over the long term," the academics contend.
They outline a belief that the CCP has, in some cases, sought to restrict Australians' personal freedoms, impede democratic processes and affect national security, potentially undermining Australia's interests and sovereignty.
They warn the government and civil society to be vigilant about the threat of espionage, interference in elections, control of Chinese-language media, political influence, control of Chinese community and university groups, interference in academic freedom, cultivation of prominent Australians and covert organisation of rallies.
Authorities should be prepared to respond appropriately where clear evidence of such activities exists, according to the academics. The letter recognises a need for up-to-date laws but notes mixed views in the group around the government's legislation aimed at curbing foreign influence and interference.
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