Mahjong and parking: Aussie politicians learn to court Chinese vote

Melbourne (AFP) –


Politicians courting Australia's 1.2 million ethnic-Chinese citizens ahead of Saturday's election are struggling to navigate a strikingly diverse community and fraught geopolitics.

The click-clack of mahjong tiles barely registers amid the din of chatter at the Box Hill senior citizens club in suburban Melbourne.

This band of elderly Australians gathered around the game tables are prime targets for politicians, who need to win every vote they can at the nailbiter May 18 election.

Chinese-Australians now make up almost six percent of the population, almost as many as Italian- and Greek-Australians combined.

In the tightly contested Melbourne electorate of Chisholm, one in five households speak either Mandarin or Cantonese.

Responding to these changing demographics, the ruling Liberal party and their Labor challengers have run Chinese-Australian candidates. They have also turned to Chinese platforms like WeChat to get their message across.

At the next parliament, Chisholm is all but certain to be represented by either Hong Kong-born Liberal Gladys Liu or the Taiwan-born Labor candidate Jennifer Yang.

"Their policies consider Chinese immigrants as one group and do not distinguish between those from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, et cetera," 78-year-old William Lam told AFP.

He approves of the equal treatment, but any sense of a single community can also mask vastly different life experiences and political preferences among the ethnic Chinese diaspora.

Some in the community arrived as students from China in the 1980s and feel an allegiance to the opposition Labor party, whose then prime minister promised they could remain in the country after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Other ethnic Chinese arrived as refugees from the war in Vietnam, or from Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, and want fairer treatment of asylum-seekers languishing on Manus Island and Nauru.

Many more affluent migrants who came in the past decade fear opposition plans to curb tax cuts for property investors could hurt the inheritance they leave their children.

Some of the younger "ABCs", or Australian-born Chinese, see no contradiction between progressive environmental politics and conservative economic management.

- 'Collateral damage' -

"Chinese-Australian voters are like every other Australian voter -- interested in politics, interested to have their say -- but with a slight Chinese cultural lens on some of these matters," Chinese-Australian commentator Jieh-Yung Lo told AFP.

But there is one common thread in the community: foreign relations matter.

Turbulence in the relationship between Beijing and Canberra can be felt in households across Australia.

A recent series of scandals over growing Chinese political interference has had a chilling effect in the Chinese-Australian community.

The decision to limit telecoms giant Huawei's role in developing Australia's 5G network has brought furious condemnations and coincided with some Australian coal exports to China being blocked at ports of entry.

Amid simmering tensions, a Chinese billionaire who showered millions to both major parties was banned from the country by Canberra on suspicions he was part of a Communist Party influence campaign.

Many Australian-Chinese feel like "collateral damage" amid the escalating rhetoric, Lo said.

"They are concerned about how they are being portrayed, in terms of their reputation and their branding, but also the trust and confidence that their fellow Australians have in them," he added.

- Going negative -

The first Chinese migrants arrived in Australia in the early 1800s amid a gold rush, and the community has since faced a long history of discrimination.

The race-based "White Australia" policy, which favoured European arrivals, was not fully dismantled until the 1970s.

Many Chinese-Australians recall the 1996 maiden speech of right-wing firebrand Pauline Hanson, who said Australia was in trouble of being "swamped by Asians".

Labor candidate for Chisholm Jennifer Yang told AFP elected leaders need to be "careful" with their language.

"Once the community is divided it is very, very hard to heal," she said. "I don't want to see Australia going down that path again."

Perhaps inevitably, both parties have found negative campaigning an easier way of connecting with Chinese-Australian voters.

Mandarin-speaking former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd has taken to WeChat to remind voters of the government's ties to Hanson's One Nation and her fellow populist Clive Palmer, who has railed against Chinese influence.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has fired back with WeChat posts recalling comments from a former state Labor leader who said "Asians with PhDs" were taking the jobs of young Australians.

The battle has intensified online, with the opposition writing to WeChat owner Tencent after suggesting the government was linked to "fake news" spread on the Chinese social media site.

But for the senior citizens in Box Hill, a visit by solicitous politicians is an opportunity to tackle the really pressing issues -- like the price of parking.

"They charge hourly now, and if you come here for several hours to play mahjong, it is a fortune to pay," 66-year-old Kitty Ng told AFP.