SINGAPORE -- When three Chinese Australians appeared in front of an Australian Senate Committee in October to testify about community relations, they might have expected an anodyne hearing typical of the legislative chamber.
But then Eric Abetz, a Liberal Party senator from Tasmania, asked the trio -- one of whom was born in Australia -- if they would be "unconditionally willing to condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship."
The question set off a furor, with some denouncing Abetz as a racist who had demanded a loyalty test. The right-wing senator, who also has the support of some anti-Beijing Chinese Australians, has refused to apologize.
Ethnic Chinese have been in Australia for over 150 years, including through the White Australia policy of the early 20th century that severely restricted Asian immigration. But the trade and diplomatic spat between Beijing and Canberra that has steadily intensified since 2018 has put the community under more pressure than at any time in recent memory. Fissures also persist between Chinese Australian groups with different political views.
"There's an insinuation of people's motives because of their views," said Yun Jiang, a researcher at the Australian National University who Abetz had asked to condemn the CCP. "Whether you support engagement [with China] or are critical of engagement, you are seen as either paid by the CCP or a warmonger."
Following Australia's bid to get the World Health Organization to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, Australia's largest export market slapped punitive tariffs on a variety of the country's products. Tensions heated up further this month, when a top Chinese diplomat posted a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of a Afghan child, in reference to recent war crimes allegations.
Australia, meanwhile, made use of an anti-foreign interference law -- seen by many as targeting Beijing -- for the first time last month to arrest a prominent member of the Chinese community. "The relationship we have had in the past ... is dead and buried," Dennis Richardson, formerly the top civil servant in Australian's foreign ministry, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Friday.
But many Chinese have also welcomed the increased scrutiny of alleged CCP activity. "We fear that Australian politicians don't know China well or might be influenced by China," said Jimmy Cheng, a member of the Australian Values Alliance, an anti-Beijing group of Chinese-Australians. "We have to stand up and speak out."
The Tianjin native, who immigrated to Australia in the early 1990s, became aware of what he sees as Chinese infiltration of Australian institutions in the late 2000s, when he was chair of a club for Chinese-Australian professionals. Cheng says he was ousted when a new group of pro-CCP members joined the association just before an annual general meeting.
His account could not be independently verified, but it is consistent with a well-documented pattern of harassment against Beijing's Australian critics.
For instance, last year, Chinese nationalists clashed with students supporting democracy in Hong Kong during a demonstration at the University of Queensland. Researchers have linked pro-Beijing protesters -- who have sometimes been violent -- at these events to the United Front Work Department, a CCP body that the U.S. government says conducts influence operations abroad.
Independent Chinese media outlets in Australia like the Vision Times have claimed that their revenue, which is reliant on small business advertisers, has dried up after Chinese diplomats visited potential sponsors.
Chinese Australian dissidents, few of whom would go on the record, have also said that they received threats against their families on the mainland over the messaging app WeChat from individuals they believe are linked to Beijing.
"PRC government tactics of going after those who speak out against it are at times aided by PRC nationalists in Australia," wrote Jiang, who has been critical of Australian foreign policy toward China, in a recent white paper for China Matters, a think tank.
Aggravating the situation is Himalaya Australia, an anti-CCP movement that researchers have said was created by the exiled Chinese entrepreneur Guo Wengui and former Donald Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Pamphlets bearing the group's logo have claimed that COVID-19 was a weaponized virus created by Beijing.
Jiang stressed that intra-community tensions are largely confined to politically engaged Chinese. Chinese Australians, who number about 1.2 million, are frequently viewed as a monolithic group. But the categorization belies a range of diverse backgrounds, including Australian-born Chinese and migrants from Malaysia and Singapore. It also comprises Han Chinese economic migrants, political exiles and Uighurs and Tibetans who might not see themselves as Chinese. Most are not politically active.
"A lot of us don't really speak Chinese fluently," said Natalie Fong, a historian of Chinese immigration to Australia. "I've only been to China once."
But the coronavirus pandemic, which was first detected in mainland China, has also led to a spike in anti-Asian racial violence.
"Asians have been called dogs, spat at and told to eat bat soup," Fong said, adding that coded newspaper cartoons and slurs in Australian media have not helped matters. "There are references to the same language and racist cartoons [of the White Australia period]. That legacy raises its head from time to time."
There are some signs that Canberra is trying to cool the temperature domestically. Prime Minister Scott Morrison posted a message on WeChat last week praising "Chinese migrants and Australians of Chinese background."
While the post was subsequently censored on the Chinese platform, there is growing awareness among Australian policymakers that many recent Chinese immigrants have been poorly served by local Chinese-language media. This leaves them reliant on Beijing-controlled news sources accessed over WeChat, which they still use to communicate with family in China.
"I see a lot of Australian media are putting in more effort into recruiting people that can speak Mandarin and other Chinese languages," said Jiang. "That's a good first step."
One worry is that a decline in Chinese tourism and higher education students that began due to the coronavirus will become permanent due to the diplomatic battle. In June, Beijing upgraded its travel warning for Australia, citing anti-Chinese racism.
Cheng, the anti-CCP activist, is more optimistic. "I don't fear discrimination here. The laws in Australia protect people of different diverse backgrounds," he said. "The ordinary Chinese don't have conflict of interest. If there were no interference from agents of the CCP, there wouldn't be such tension between the groups."