The day before the Chinese National Day celebration in Canberra Theatre, tensions ran high across the Australian National University (ANU). Students walking to their classes that morning found dozens of posters for the event defaced with the words “Tiananmen students” and “June 4,” references to the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989.
One of the fundamental taboos of Communist China had been breached – the massacre, in which hundreds of pro-democracy students and workers were murdered or executed by the Chinese army, is never publicly discussed in China. Private commemorations of the massacre have been met with arrests.
The defaced posters quickly attracted attention, with the organisers, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), hastily arriving to remove the posters.
That evening, red rows of brand new posters adorned the walkway, covering up any hint of what had occurred that morning.
One Chinese student who saw the vandalised posters said, “It’s quite cowardly to vandalise the posters behind people’s backs. If they felt bad about the posters they could have just spoken out rather than play tricks,” adding, “It [the Tiananmen Square massacre] was not ANU Chinese students’ fault.”
Another Chinese student, when asked about the Tiananmen Square massacre, simply asked, “What’s that?”
Earlier this year, the Chinese Communist Party published a directive calling for the “patriotic education” of Chinese university students, demanding that they be taught to “always follow the party.”
Chinese students can be more critical of the government than most, with the student who sat next to me at the evening laughing at the propagandistic “special Chinese phrases” used by ambassador Chen Jingye in his keynote speech.
Yet last year, the president of the CSSA intimidated and yelled at staff in ANU’s pharmacy, which stocked an anti-government newspaper associated with Falun Gong, until they let him throw the papers out. The pharmacy then told the newspaper, the Epoch Times, to cease distribution at the pharmacy.
A CSSA member confirmed that the event had been funded by the embassy and Ostar Media, a Chinese-language media company with strong ties to the government, with tickets sold for free.
CSSA executives are also prolific in their output of pro-government statements, with the group’s former president Zhu Runbang recently penning an article for state-owned media company China Radio International entitled, “Overseas Chinese and Chinese Students in Australia Support the Chinese Government’s Legal Rights in the South China Sea.”
A former executive of a CSSA at an Australian university revealed that, each year, CSSA executives from universities all around the country are brought to Canberra, at the embassy’s cost, to meet with Chinese officials to discuss the latest party doctrines and collaboration with the embassy.
Security at the event seemed on alert, with a group of men in black suits, communicating via walkie talkies and operating independently of the venue’s security staff, closely following Wu Lebao and me throughout the evening.
Wu is an ANU student and former Chinese dissident who was imprisoned for “fabricating or disseminating false online rumours.”
Hovering around me as soon as I entered the theatre alone, they appeared familiar with the CSSA’s secretary, yet other CSSA committee members indicated that they had never seen them before, and that they had mysteriously appeared on the evening.
With these men sitting all around Wu and me, Wu decided to leave halfway through the event, and was quickly followed by one of the men. Concerned, I too exited, followed doggedly by another man in black into the bathroom, where he brought in a security guard for the second unexpected ticket inspection for which I had been singled out.
Such experiences of intimidation and harassment are a normal part of life for journalists in China, but become disturbing when set in Australia’s capital, and in Canberra Theatre, only a hundred metres from the ACT Legislative assembly.
Centring on a speech by ambassador Cheng Jingye, the “I Love China 2.0” evening was attended by Deputy Vice-Chancellor of ANU Professor Richard Baker and ACT Minister for the Arts Chris Bourke, who both spoke at the event.
Congratulatory letters from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten were also read, followed by video messages from Member for Fenner Andrew Leigh and the ACT Commissioner for International Engagement Brendan Smyth.
Mr Shorten’s letter lauded the event as “one of the greatest Chinese events in Australia,” crediting it with proving the Australian-Chinese community’s “championing the benefits of a diverse and migrant nation.”
Other items included a group of schoolchildren waving Chinese flags as they sang in chorus “this is your birthday, my Motherland,” and a performance of a popular song with the line, “The black eyed, black haired, and yellow skinned are forever the descendants of the dragon.”
Never mind the millions of Uighurs, Tibetans, and other Chinese ethnic minorities who don’t fit that description.
Ironically, the song’s composer, Hou Dejian, was deported from China for his involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests, and changed the line quoted above after realising it to be, as he said, “a mistake.”
President Xi Jinping has often talked about the supposed loyalty of overseas ethnic Chinese, saying on one occasion, “Generation after generation of overseas Chinese carry on the outstanding traditions of Chinese people, not forgetting their motherland, not forgetting their hometowns, not forgetting the blood of the Chinese people that flows through their bodies.”
That night, a video interview with an ANU student who has lived in Australia since age five and holds Australian citizenship was shown as an admirable example, setting the evening’s theme.
Asked by the interviewer whether she considered herself more Chinese or Australian, “More Chinese,” she quickly replied.