In recent weeks, menacing Chinese ultra-nationalist rallies have convulsed Australian university campuses and city streets. Peaceful pro-democracy Hong Kong demonstrators have been bullied, assaulted, abused, and subjected to doxing and death threats online. Against this backdrop of tumult and unrest, in part encouraged and spurred on by Chinese diplomatic officials in Australia, it is easy to lose faith in the ability of peaceful debate and discussion, those hallmarks of liberal democracy, to help us find a way out of this mess. My personal experience as an Australian student involved in the pro-Hong Kong democracy movement at UQ tells me that we must not be so quick to despair.
The other night, an improbable meeting of minds occurred beneath our university’s Lennon Wall that reinforced to me the enduring power of free deliberation and dialogue. Hubert introduced himself to me as a twenty year old International Relations student from Southern China. He already knew who I was, having seen the posts circulating about me on Chinese social media. He was taking a courageous risk in reaching out across the divide. We soon got to chatting, speaking for hours as the brilliant purple sky above Saint Lucia burnt to night.
Over the course of our friendly exchange, we discussed a wide range of topics frankly and openly. Hubert described his family’s experience of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution while speaking with great pride of China’s stunning economic miracle. I shared his sense of awe at China having lifted some eight hundred million people out of poverty in a single generation, an achievement of world-historic magnitude. We bonded over a shared respect for Chinese literature, culture and civilisation. Throughout our conversation, I was struck by both his erudition and his kindly and thoughtful demeanour.
We also talked about the pro-democracy rally at UQ I helped organise on July 24th. During that rally, I was assaulted by a co-ordinated group of masked pro-CCP heavies. If I am honest, I was surprised he was present among those Chinese nationalist demonstrators that sought to disrupt Hong Kong students peacefully expressing their concerns on campus. Hubert did not participate in the violence and I know he did not condone it. Still, what led him to support the nationalist rally?
He explained his concerns and I tried to understand and respond to them. As the discussion broadened, he helped me see that Chinese students share the same anxieties and fears as Australian and Hong Kong students. Where we feared persecution for our political beliefs and views, they did too. Alone in a foreign country, Chinese students could rationally fear Australian protests critical of the CCP would contribute to the creation of a McCarthy-like atmosphere of paranoia and mutual distrust. Who could blame them, given Australia’s long history of anti-Chinese racism?
Profound contrasts in the political culture of our nations served to stoke misunderstandings that inflamed passions on both sides. Hubert explained to me how China’s nationalist education system encouraged citizens to conflate the CCP-led state with the very nation itself, so that Chinese students at UQ would interpret criticism of the state as criticism of the Chinese people. This definition of nationhood is obviously radically different to how we conceive of the relationship between a state and its people in the West. Where I intuitively draw a distinction between criticism of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and criticism of my identity as an Australian, Chinese students at UQ interpreted our opposition to the policies of the Chinese state in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong as opposition to the Chinese nation and people.
I fundamentally disagree with this vision of political life as it seems to underpin a blood-and-soil authoritarianism that brooks no criticism of human rights abuses. I think this is an idea we must rationally challenge and break down. Were it not for my productive discussion with Hubert, I would not have understood the need to reformulate future protest messaging to clearly respond to this distinction. He helped me see how vital it is that we show Chinese students our opposition to the current policies of the Chinese government do not entail an objection to them or their presence in this country.
Ultimately, Hubert and I still came away from our dialogue with fundamental disagreements. But leaving aside those differences, it was a productive, educational experience. And that is the power of free debate and discussion as hallmarks of effective liberal democracy. Through peaceful dialogue, we overcame differences, clarified misunderstandings, and tried to bridge the divide between ourselves. That night at UQ, two twenty-year-old kids from vastly different worlds and cultures got together to try to understand each other a little better, and I think they came away slightly better people. That is the beauty of discussion and peaceful attempts at mutual understanding, and it can underpin a new peace on Australian campuses and city streets.