CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Summer of discontent spreads to Australian winter

MELBOURNE (SE): On August 16, young Hong Kong people living in Australia took the call of their compatriots at home into the streets, holding simultaneous rallies in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide calling for support among the local community for the 11-week long summer of discontent in the special administrative region.
While the Adelaide and Sydney turnouts mostly passed without incident, Melbourne saw clashes with students from mainland China who tried to disrupt proceedings and prompted organisers to make an appeal to those present not to try to return home alone from the Friday night rally for fear of further attack.
More action was planned for the following Sunday and in the spirit of the protests happening concurrently in Hong Kong, another appeal was made to all participants “to be friendly, be peaceful, be police, be safe, be united, sympathise.”
Scuffles have already broken out on the campuses of Australian universities, as mainland students have attempted to disrupt pro-Hong Kong gatherings and tempers have flared during these episodes.
These have prompted calls for inquiries into the depth of the effect of Chinese influence on campuses, especially the presence of Confucius Institutes and the dependence of budgets on the lucrative 189,000-strong Chinese market among their student bodies.
However, Australian sympathy seems to swing largely with the Hong Kong side of the argument. Media has presented the situation in Hong Kong sympathetically and with an accent on the right of freedom, of assembly and speech. They have also touched a natural Australian tendency to support the underdog.
But mainland students in Australia come from quite a different background. Their road as foreign students in the country is not an easy one. They have been transported into a radically different atmosphere from the one they grew up in, with unrelated ideas and values.
Little help is offered to them to settle in this strange surround and they lack a forum in which to express themselves in any type of protected environment. If they air their opinions openly, they are often derided, laughed at and told they have been brainwashed.
Many struggle with English and are unable to nuance their opinions in a meaningful manner, a field in which their Hong Kong counterparts are far superior. Their road is not an easy one.
For more than a decade China has been investing millions of dollars into its worldwide media outreach, gradually building up forums into which to inject its opinions on world events and its take on relations among nations into the information flow.
While this is not extraordinary and is something that all countries do, building respect and establishing trust and confidence among viewers and readers is a long, hard road, especially given that they are competing against long established and trusted western agencies.
But they provide a source of information that mainland students would feel comfortable with, a link with their origins with access in their own language and presented in a manner familiar to them that they can understand.
They also provide a very different message from that presented by their Hong Kong counterparts and can easily feel aggrieved that issues of the special administrative region seem to be more warmly embraced by the Australian public than are those from the Beijing side of the fence.
This draws a mixed reaction among the mainland population. Many are not particularly interested, some struggle to integrate what they are being exposed to with their own experience, some hide their true emotions and opinions, others react verbally and yet others will react in the manner of the mob that stormed the peaceful demonstration on the steps of the State Library in Melbourne.
A sizeable demonstration in Sydney on August 18 saw predominately mainland students condemning the demonstrations in Hong Kong. Their banners and language were described in local media as jingoistic, merely attacking their Hong Kong counterparts and condemning their ambitions, while the Hong Kong rallies have a clear and positive agenda detailing what they wish to achieve.
There is nothing wrong with foreign countries working to influence opinion among the population of this land Down Under. It is something that pretty well every country does.
However, in the case of China, it becomes controversial, as the values it is advocating run contrary to a way of life and the value system that underpins the stability and coherence of Australian society.
There are many reasons to expect that mainland students will bubble over with frustration, as some of their counterparts in Hong Kong have done. However, as the administration of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is learning the hard way, these tensions do not evaporate by ignoring them. JiM

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