Submission for the inquiry into Issues Facing Diaspora Communities in Australia

Aug 24, 2020

INTRODUCTION

The Australian Tibetan Community Association (ATCS) and Australia Tibet Council (ATC) welcome the opportunity to send our joint submission to the parliamentary inquiry into Issues Facing Diaspora Communities in Australia. The ATCS is the national association of nine local Tibetan community associations in New South, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia and Australian Capital Territory. The ATC is the national advocacy organisation promoting human rights and freedoms of Tibetans. It is a community-driven organisation with over 16,000 members across the country. 

Australia is home to around 2,500 Tibetans, most of whom are former political prisoners and their families from Tibet and have arrived under the humanitarian stream of Australia’s migration program. This population has increased steadily by an intake of around 100 new Tibetans a year migrating to Australia. Having left their homeland to seek safety elsewhere, Tibetan-Australians make a positive contribution to Australia’s multicultural society. Now in a free and democratic country, they hope to use their newfound freedom to advocate for an end of China’s ongoing oppression in Tibet without the fear of repercussions.

Tibetans have sincere gratitude for Australia for the opportunity it affords; however, they remain increasingly concerned about Chinese influence in Australia.

A member of Sydney’s Tibetan community sums up his dilemma: 

“I have left Tibet, but I continue to live in fear. If I speak out for my people inside Tibet, I am afraid of the consequences on my family. If I do not speak out, I feel guilty of not using my democratic rights in a free country.”

SAFETY CONCERNS AMONG AUSTRALIA’S TIBETAN COMMUNITY

1) China’s United Front Work and its influence on the Tibetan community

Perhaps the most significant threat facing Australia’s Tibetan community comes from the Chinese Government, in particular through the United Front Work that has been reinvigorated in recent years. Xi Jinping calls the United Front Work “an important magic weapon for realising the China Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation”. 

As a highly sensitive issue to the Chinese leadership and a cause eliciting much support from the international community, Tibet remains one of the main targets of the United Front Work Department’s overseas mission.

The United Front Work primarily involves co-opting and influencing key targets at home and overseas and helps the Chinese Communist Party to win legitimacy and mobilise supporters outside of its traditional constituencies. To this day, it has played a central role in shaping policy on issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang and ethnic affairs. Today its overseas activities, many of which are covert, include increasing the Chinese Government’s influence, interfering in the Chinese and Tibetan diaspora community and undermining dissident movements, among others. Tibetans believe this is undermining their voice, dignity and safety. 

Below are a few examples of how the Tibetan community has been impacted by the United Front Work.

1a) China’s influence on Australian politics and impact on the rights of Australia’s Tibetans

As the Chinese Government-linked entities and businesses increased their influence on Australian politics over the past decade, we experienced a declining engagement from Australian political leaders on the Tibet issue even though the human rights situation continued to deteriorate, year after year. It is most notable by the Australian Government’s deafening silence on the Tibet issue for more than a decade. 

Huang Xiangmo is the most high-profile Chinese businessman linked to the United Front Work and whose efforts to influence Australian politics ultimately helped to spur the introduction of Australia’s foreign interference legislation and his expulsion from the country. 

Huang served as the former president of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC ), an organisation under the umbrella of China’s United Front Work Department. Its “peaceful reunification” work includes undermining the freedom movements in Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and supporting China’s claims over disputed territories such as the South China Sea. 

In August 2016, Huang led a delegation to the Tibet Autonomous Region to “witness its social and economic development.” At a reception hosted by United Front Work Department officials, the delegation vowed to safeguard China’s territorial integrity and oppose the “separatist forces abroad.” While Huang is permitted to visit Tibet, it remains closed to foreign media, diplomats, parliamentarians and independent observers. 

The ACPPRC presents itself as a non-governmental organisation promoting Chinese culture and charity activities. A closer look at their activities will show it is directly promoting the Chinese Communist Party’s political interests in Australia. Some of its events relating to Tibet include renting crowds of Chinese students to welcome China’s Premier Li Keqiang to Australia and drown out protests by Tibetans (2017), organising the ‘Beauty of Tibet’ propaganda photo exhibition at the Sydney Convention Centre a week before His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s scheduled talk at the same venue (2013), and organising a series of events during the 2008 Tibetan Uprising to promote China’s narrative.

These events have been an extraordinary affront to Australia’s Tibetans, many of whom have suffered immense trauma under the Chinese Government and are still faced with the long arm of the Chinese Communist Party in Australia.

1b) Establishing proxy Tibetan group

The Chinese Communist Party strengthens its influence by co-opting representatives of “ethnic minority” groups who claim the right to speak on behalf of that community and uses them to claim legitimacy. A so-called Australian Tibetan Friendship Association (澳大利亚藏族同胞联谊会社团) was established in November 2013 with the backing of businesses tied to the Chinese Government. 

The group, which purportedly builds friendship between Tibetans and Chinese, is designed to create disunity in the local Tibetan community and support the Chinese Government’s narrative on Tibet. Headed by handpicked Tibetan men (Paljor Tsering as the president and Thinley Rinchen as the vice-president), the group acts as a proxy representative of the Tibetan community for the Chinese Embassy by hosting Tibetan cultural events and welcoming visiting Chinese officials to Australia, among others. Despite its small size, it remains active with the assistance of the Chinese Embassy in Canberra. 

1c) Undermining Tibetan unity to sabotage Tibet’s freedom movement

The Chinese Communist Party uses an old divide-and-rule strategy to undermine the political and social cohesion of the Tibetan community. From espionage to fake social media accounts, the Chinese Government makes a concerted effort to sabotage the Tibet movement by causing disharmony among community members, eroding public trust in institutions such as the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and defaming the Dalai Lama. 

We saw such heightened activity during the 2016 elections of Sikyong (President of Tibetan Government-in-Exile) and Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. Tibetans remain vigilant ahead of the upcoming elections in 2021.

It is hard to overstate the impact of these activities upon the wellbeing and cohesion of Tibetan community in Australia, an otherwise highly successful migrant community.

2) China’s attempt to silence Tibetan voices

Australian journalists, diplomats and tourists are not allowed to travel freely to Tibet. Those who do get to travel have to stay as part of closely monitored tours. The situation is far worse for Tibetan-Australias who are often denied entry into Tibet. Even with Australian passports, Tibetans have to undergo a racially discriminatory process at the Chinese Embassy in Canberra. The only way Tibetan-Australians can visit families and relatives back in Tibet is to sign a contentious document to obtain a visa. It involves making a forced confession that leaving Tibet in the first place was a mistake and that they had been led astray by the “overseas separatist forces”. Additionally, they have to commit to refraining from joining political activities and groups relating to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Failing to fulfil these conditions, many Tibetans have had to give up on visiting their ailing families and relatives.

Likewise, many Tibetans feel unsafe to participate in community and advocacy activities fearing their involvement could jeopardise not only their visa prospects but also the safety of families in Tibet. Tibetans have come to Australia to seek safety, but many continue to be harassed by the Chinese Government and feel unable to voice their opinions.

Although the extent of China’s espionage in the Tibetan community is unclear, Tibetan-Australians fear the Chinese Embassy monitors their political activities. 

Furthermore, the Tibetan community and the Australia Tibet Council have been targeted by other espionage operations that use malware to attempt to infiltrate their online communications and monitor their activities. Twice in 2017, the Member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile representing Australia received emails which contained repurposed legitimate information with the aim of enticing recipients to open malicious documents containing malware viruses. Research by the Citizen Lab on the attempt to infiltrate the communication of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile validates long-held concerns of Australia Tibet Council and other Tibet support groups around the world, for whom cyberattacks are a regular occurrence. 

BARRIERS TO FULL PARTICIPATION OF TIBETAN COMMUNITY IN AUSTRALIA’S DEMOCRATIC AND SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS

1) Incorrect date of birth records, a significant issue for many Tibetan elders

Tibetan refugees arrive in Australia through India with incorrect dates of birth recorded on their documents issued by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. This problem has arisen because, before 2003, the Indian Government would issue a Registration Certificate (RC) only to Tibetans who were born in India. Without an RC, they had no access to education and could potentially be deported to Tibet. So many had to lower their dates of birth. 

These incorrect details were then transferred to the Tibetan Green Book, and subsequently to their Australian visas. The result is that many older Tibetan-Australians are forced to become job seekers when they should be retired and have difficulty accessing age-appropriate medical services.

Correcting the date of birth details has proven difficult as the Department of Home Affairs requires original documentation from Tibet, such as birth or household registration certificates. This evidence has either never existed or has been lost or forgotten during the refugees’ escape. A person can rarely access any existing records left in Tibet without putting family or friends at risk.

2) Lack of recognition of Tibet as a Country of Origin

Tibetan-Australians undergo a distressing experience while filling various Australian Government forms that require selecting a Country of Origin. As Tibet is not listed as a country of origin, Tibetans have to choose either India or China. It is not only inaccurate but also leads to inconsistency between government records and those held by the individual Tibetans as the documents that they brought with them at the time of migrating to Australia, such as RC or Tibetan Green Book, would identify Tibet as the country of birth.

SUPPORT TO TIBETAN COMMUNITY INCLUDING GOVERNMENT GRANTS

Supporting Tibetan language teaching to young children

The Tibetan language is fundamental to Tibetan identity, culture and religion. It is one of the oldest and sophisticated languages in the world that has given rise to a remarkable literary and religious culture. The Chinese Government has systematically implemented a policy to erase Tibetan language and promote Mandarin as the primary language in education, government and business across Tibet.

Preserving the Tibetan language is an issue of great importance to the Tibetan diaspora community in Australia. They hold weekend language schools, however, are unable to access federal government funding due to lack of recognition of the Tibetan language. 

Likewise, the Tibetan language does not have the NAATI accreditation.

OUR RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT

  • Strengthen Australian political support for Tibet by raising the issue publicly and at the highest level with the Chinese leadership and joining like-minded governments to initiate visible coordinated diplomatic action on Tibet.
  • Carry out a detailed investigation of China’s United Front Work across the country, including how it is impacting Australia’s Tibetan community, and ensure existing legislation and policies on espionage and foreign interference are fully enforced.
  • Introduce US-styled Reciprocal Access to Tibet legislation that would call on the Chinese Government to grant Australian journalists, diplomats and citizens including Tibetan-Australians unrestricted access to Tibet, just as their Chinese counterparts can freely travel to Australia.
  • Support the Tibetan community’s endeavour to preserve the Tibetan language through federal funding and recognition.
  • Support Tibetans to become full participants in the Australian community by finding a lasting solution to the date of birth issue faced by many community members. We also request that all government applications include Tibet in the list of Country of Origins, or at the very least enable Tibetans to choose either “Stateless” or “Other” with the additional opportunity to specify the “Other” information.

Once again, we thank the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee for this opportunity to discuss the issues facing the Tibetan-Australian community.