Western Australia’s China Syndrome


The issue of Australia’s relationship with China has been raised several times during the federal election campaign. Last month, it emerged that that the government of the Solomon Islands, which lie only 2,000 kilometres (1,250 miles) off Australia’s north-east coast, had agreed to enter into a security deal with China. There has also been attention focused on Deputy Labor Leader Richard Marles and his seeming equivocation and obfuscation over dealings with Chinese officials.

The presence of a Chinese spy ship on the Western Australian (WA) coast last week prompted a stinging rebuke from Australia’s current Defence Minister, Peter Dutton. He previously compared Beijing’s actions to those of Nazi Germany and Russia, adding that: “The only way you can preserve peace is to prepare for war, and to be strong as a country.”

This rebuke earned the ire of WA Premier Mark McGowan, who leads a state that is heavily dependent on Chinese demand for raw materials.

McGowan stated that he did not understand why Dutton would talk about war with Beijing, which he described as “frightening.”

“I think it’s grossly irresponsible to use those sorts of words,” McGowan said.

Last week, he was pressed about the issue further and launched a new tirade against Dutton and his mention of war.

“I don’t understand why [in] the environment we’re in, someone like the defence minister of Australia would be so nutty as to say things like that,” McGowan told reporters.

“It’s just an irresponsible, grossly irresponsible thing to talk about.”

McGowan said WA was a major trading state, and China was the most significant partner because it had the most demand.

“You can’t really choose who your trading partners are … you want to work co-operatively with your customers to ensure they keep coming back,” he said.

“Obviously, there are diplomatic issues, but they should be handled diplomatically.”

People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) Intelligence Collection Vessel Haiwangxing operates off Australia’s northwest shelf in an image supplied on May 13, 2022. (Courtesy of the Australian Department of Defence)

This isn’t the first time the WA premier has offered gratuitous advice to the federal government on how to handle relations with China.

Last year, prior to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s departure for the G7 summit, McGowan made this statement to reporters: “All this language I see coming out of the Commonwealth government about us going to war with China, I have never heard something so insane in my life.

“The idea that somehow we should be promoting the idea of armed conflict with a superpower is madness, and I don’t get why there are the senior Commonwealth government officials, why there are defence force officers, why there are senior politicians in the Liberal Party talking about this. It’s absolute madness.”

A few days later, McGowan was at it again, telling attendees at a major oil and gas conference in Perth: “The federal talk of conflict, trade retaliation can and must stop. We should always protect our interests, our institutions, our independence, our democracy, and our freedoms. That goes without saying.

“But how is it in our interests to be reckless with trading relationships that fund and drive our prosperity and our nation forward?”

The following day, responding to a question by the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Beijing Daily, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian praised McGowan at a regular press conference saying, according again to The Australian, “The Australian government should heed these constructive opinions.”

Indeed, McGowan has been warning the federal government over provoking China as far back as May 2020, even offering to help rebuild the relationship in December 2020. Foreign affairs, of course, is the responsibility of federal, not state, governments.

The question has arisen in the past over just how close the WA government is to the CCP.

As reported in the Nine newspapers last year, in February 2021, McGowan’s government-appointed Edward Zhang and Ting Chen as the only two Chinese community representatives to his 15-member multicultural council.

Zhang is on record as condemning the federal government’s position on the disputed South China Sea. “We overseas Chinese are the first line of defence for our motherland,” he said in 2016.

The report reveals Zhang is a founding member and honorary chairman of the WA branch of the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, a group tied to Beijing’s United Front Work Department, an integral part of the state apparatus tasked with recruiting people at home and abroad to push the interests of the communist party.

Its Sydney president, billionaire political donor Huang Xiangmo, was banned from re-entering Australia in 2019 on advice from intelligence officers.

Epoch Times Photo
The Chinese consulate in Perth, Australia, on March 24, 2014. (Will Russell/Getty Images)

The report also tells how Chen, the second representative on the council, has been vice-president or president of WA’s largest and oldest Chinese association, Chung Wah, since 2017.

It outlines the association’s shift to a pro-Beijing organisation ushered in by former president Richard Tan after years of internal hostilities sidelined second-generation Australian-Chinese members.

Tan says there was no official affiliation with United Front, but many individuals had ties with groups in the network, including himself. Chen founded WA’s Fujian association—a United Front linked operation—with his colleague Ding Shaoping. Chen then succeeded Ding as the president of Chung Wah.

The report quotes Tan saying: “The links with the United Front is something so obvious, or it has been so obvious in the past. It’s just that Australian politicians knowingly ignored it or pretend they don’t know.”

Tellingly, the report goes on to quote a former senior Liberal party figure, on condition of anonymity, as stating that Chung Wah struggled to resist demands from the Chinese Consulate, which often underwrote the association’s functions, pressured it to host events, and linked it to United Front groups.

In fact, concern about the closeness of the WA Labor party to China, and the links to the United Front, in particular, goes as far back as 2015.

A report by Chris Uhlmann on Sept. 12, 2019, also in the Nine Newspapers, exposes how an archived web page of the United Front’s own newspaper raised questions about the links between the same organisation and the West Australian branch of the now-defunct Australian Chinese Labor Party Association (ACPLA).

The banner on the website published on March 16, 2015, reads “China United Front News Web” and declares it to be a publication of the “Chinese Communist Party Central Committee United Front Work Department Propaganda Office.”

The short story underneath celebrated the establishment days earlier of the ACLPA’s WA branch at a gathering of “nearly 100 Chinese community leaders and Labor Party MPs.” In the centre of the accompanying photograph was the then opposition leader, now premier, Mark McGowan.

All of this begs the question: just how serious is WA’s China Syndrome?

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Rocco Loiacono


Rocco Loiacono is a senior lecturer at Curtin University Law School in Perth, Australia, and is a translator from Italian to English. His work on translation, linguistics, and law have been widely published in peer-reviewed journals.

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