The Australian government is missing out on valuable sources of advice on the increasingly complex relationship with China because Chinese-Australians are under-represented in the public service, a new policy paper says.
For decades governments have recognised that “Australia’s Asia literacy is meagre”, according to the Lowy Institute paper. But the paper argues that where China literacy does exist in the Australian public service, “it is often underutilised or undervalued”.
The report’s author, Yun Jiang, a former public servant, said with China-related issues becoming more prominent in Australia’s foreign and domestic policies, Australia needed China-literate policymakers in the public service “more than ever”.
Jiang, who edits the China Story blog at the Australian National University’s Australian Centre on China in the World, said issues such as freedom of speech on university campuses, trade disputes and diversification, technology competition, cyber security and foreign interference all involved an aspect of Australia-China relations and were relevant across the breadth of the public service.
She said being China-literate did not mean only having having a good understanding of Chinese languages, but also of China’s political economy, cultures, traditions, histories and societies. Broader knowledge was “fundamental to both meaningful engagement with China as well as understanding how to push back against China when it is in Australia’s national interest”.
She said there were two potential sources of China literacy in the Australian population: the first being “a cadre of China specialists” based on their education and experience, and the second being the Chinese-Australian population. But she said the Australian public service had “a deficit in both groups”.
The policy paper notes that 5.6% of the total Australian population report having Chinese heritage, only 2.6% of Australian public service employees fell within the service’s definition of Chinese heritage in 2019.
It says that in 2019, only 2.3% of new hires to the public service were people of Chinese heritage. The highest percentage of employees with Chinese heritage were employed in information and communications technology roles, at 5.5%, whereas “only 2.2 per cent of strategic policy roles – including those that develop Australia’s policies on China – are filled by Australians with Chinese heritage”.
Meanwhile, only 227 of Australia’s more than 2,100 diplomats possessed proficiency in any Asian language as of 2008, the paper says.
The paper also argues the problem of underrepresentation of people with Chinese heritage is especially acute at senior management level, known as the senior executive service or SES.
“For example, employees of Chinese heritage in the SES comprised only 1 per cent of Assistant Secretaries (AS) or equivalent, and 0.3 per cent of First Assistant Secretaries (FAS) or equivalent – there were only two Chinese-Australian FAS out of a total 577 FAS across the entire APS,” the paper says.
“The dearth of Australians of Asian background in senior roles is sometimes referred to as the ‘bamboo ceiling’,” Jiang said, while arguing the Australian public service “should represent and reflect the Australian public it serves”.
Jiang identifies four factors that might be behind these problems, including fewer Chinese-Australians applying for public service roles, difficulties obtaining security clearances, negative “preconceptions” and public service management processes.
She said the perception among at least some public service employees of Chinese heritage was “that their ethnic or cultural background is an impediment to working on China-related issues, even when that is where their specialised knowledge or strength lies”.
Jiang interviewed a Chinese-Australian employee in one government department who commented that the Australian public service “would never hire someone with my name [to work on national security]. It’s just too risky.”
She said another observed: “Even though I was best-placed [for China-related work], I suspect they didn’t give it to me due to perceived conflict of interest, because of my ethnicity.”
Jiang agrees with the importance of security clearance processes to protect Australia from “actors seeking illicit access to government information and improper influence over government employees”. But she questioned whether the right balance had been struck, in light of interviews she conducted that suggested that the already “notoriously slow” process of obtaining security clearances were “exacerbated for applicants of Chinese heritage”.
Jiang previously worked in policy roles in the Australian public service for eight years. That time included positions at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Defence and the Treasury.
Her research drew on publicly available data, privately requested information, and in-depth interviews with 23 people from five Australian government departments last year.
The paper comes amid increasingly tense relationship between China and Australia, with an ongoing trade standoff and public disagreements about human rights concerns.
The Australian government said last week it would not resile from raising human rights issues as the foreign minister, Marise Payne, renewed her “deeply held concerns” over the situation in Xinjiang.
The comments follow Wednesday’s two-hour-long press event at the residence of the Chinese ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, who said Beijing would respond “in kind” if Canberra followed other countries in imposing sanctions against its officials. Cheng also said China had not initiated the disagreements in the relationship.
The Chinese embassy-arranged press event included a video conference with officials in Xinjiang who said the estimate that at least 1 million Uyghurs and members of other minority groups were in concentration camps was “fabrication” – but declined several requests to reveal a current figure.