Chinese Australians are seeing advertising from the Coalition for Marriage but the community’s conservative media are declining to publish views supporting same-sex marriage. By Alex McKinnon.

The ‘No’ case in Chinese media

A Coalition for Marriage “No” campaign advertisement in a Chinese-language newspaper.
A Coalition for Marriage “No” campaign advertisement in a Chinese-language newspaper.

Phone banks are not pleasant things. Cold-calling people at dinnertime to sell them something is tough work, which is why so many political campaigns get volunteers to do it.

The “Yes” campaign for marriage equality is made up almost entirely of volunteers, so it’s slightly more bearable for the 10 or so people who’ve gathered in GetUp!’s Sydney offices to spend their Friday evenings phone-banking. Over the next several hours, they make hundreds of calls – four people to a cramped office, negotiating phone-line static, confused and occasionally hostile responses, and the incessant repetition of “Please Mr Postman” by The Marvelettes as they wait to be connected to their next call.

The “Yes” campaign has relied on phone-banking as one of its main tactics to sway the undecided or indifferent, making more than 700,000 calls since the campaign began. But this particular phone bank is slightly different. It’s being run by Democracy in Colour, an activist group established in February, which campaigns for racial justice and greater representation of people of colour in Australian democracy and is specifically targeting migrants and ethnic minorities. Most of the volunteers are people of colour themselves, looking to find common cultural and linguistic ground with unsure or reluctant voters.

Groups such as Democracy in Colour and the Australian GLBTIQ Multicultural Council (AGMC) have been reaching out to ethnic communities throughout the campaign, aiming to educate older migrants about queer issues and push back against ingrained misconceptions and stereotypes. The council has released Chinese-language guides to help young Chinese queer people talk to their relatives about marriage equality, and has been distributing materials door to door and through community centres to reach people the broader “Yes” campaign cannot.

“There’s been a lack of engagement with the culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) community by the ‘Yes’ campaign, so young queer people of colour are filling that space,” Democracy in Colour campaign co-ordinator Carrie Hou says.

But the difficulties queer people of colour have faced throughout the campaign aren’t limited to a lack of outreach. In both the wider media and established foreign-language media outlets, pro-marriage equality voices in ethnic communities are being drowned out by misinformation, lopsided coverage or outright censorship.

“There’s been a lot of nastiness from the ‘No’ campaign especially targeting CALD communities in terms of the misinformation being spread around,” Hou says. “In the Chinese community, for example, especially among older generations, there are already misguided understandings of what LGBTI issues are. It’s important for us to mobilise around that, because when there’s fear-mongering and misrepresenting of what marriage equality is and what homosexuality is, it really does damage queer people of colour the most.”

The Chinese–Australian community has been an especially problematic area for the “Yes” campaign to reach – not because of any unique bias, but because of the eagerness of media outlets to present Chinese Australians as being of one mind.

Hou says the Chinese community is far less homogenous on the issue than most people assume. What divides exist can be attributed more to age than to race. “There’s been a very big intergenerational divide. If you speak to younger people, first- and second-generation migrants, they’re generally in favour of same-sex marriage. When you hit a little bit older than that, like the white community, it starts to divide,” she says. “A lot of Chinese people know what it’s like to be discriminated against for our race, and can apply that experience to sexuality as well.”

But that diversity of opinion and experience has not come through in the wider media, with conservative Chinese–Australian voices dominating the conversation. Besides Labor’s Senator Penny Wong, who has Malaysian Chinese ancestry, by far the most high-profile Chinese Australian in the postal vote debate has been Dr Pansy Lai, a Sydney doctor who was the subject of an abandoned petition calling for her deregistration after appearing in a Coalition for Marriage commercial. Lai is the founder of the Australian Chinese for Families Association, which has distributed Chinese-language pamphlets claiming “gay identity” is a Western construct, men in same-sex marriages are 300 times more likely to die from AIDS, and that the discredited practice of conversion therapy results “in lasting change for more than 50 per cent of people”.

Thanks largely to the cancelled petition, Lai has enjoyed extensive coverage while Chinese Australians who find her views abhorrent have struggled to gain a media foothold. “A lot of outlets are platforming people like Dr Pansy Lai as though she’s the only one who speaks for the Chinese community, but it’s a very diverse one,” Hou says. “To paint the Chinese community as one that’s inherently homophobic or especially difficult to educate about LGBTI issues really erases Chinese queer people. It’s  a very culturally essentialist reading of Chinese people, a very stereotypical view of us.”

Chinese–Australian perspectives that differ from the dominant narrative have been conspicuously absent from Chinese-language media as well. “Yes” campaign organisers claim several Chinese media outlets have refused to print their advertisements and editorial pieces, despite printing foreign-language ads by the Coalition for Marriage and publishing columns urging readers to vote “No”.

Hou says that while “more progressive places such as SBS have given us a fair hearing, it’s been difficult even getting advertising in Chinese-language media. They don’t want us to, I don’t know, perpetuate the homosexual agenda. I’ve tried to write op-eds in Mandarin for several places, but they haven’t been accepted.”

Australian GLBTIQ Multicultural Council vice-president Judy Tang had a similar experience when Melbourne-based queer Asian women’s group Yellow Kitties tried to place pro-marriage-equality ads in at least five Chinese newspapers.

“Everything was fine until we sent the ads through. All of them said no,” Tang says. “They said it was because they wanted to remain impartial, but ‘No’ ads have been appearing in many of those papers. We could have pursued it further but with the campaign so far along, we figured it was too late.”

AGMC committee member Irene Toh says the Melbourne and Sydney editions of The Epoch Times refused to print a pro-marriage-equality ad on the grounds of “remaining neutral”, despite running front-page editorials in September urging readers to vote “no”.

“We thought, ‘Alright, if they’re publishing that then surely they’ll publish our ad.’ But we never heard back after contacting them,” Toh says. “We pretty much had to rule out publishing anything with that newspaper company.” The Epoch Times did not respond to a request for comment.

The notable silence of these papers stands in contrast with the coverage devoted to the postal vote by media outlets in other culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Indian Link, Australia’s largest English-language Indian-community newspaper, has run Coalition for Marriage ads, but has taken a largely pro-marriage-equality editorial stance, publishing opinion pieces from prominent “Yes” supporters such as human rights advocate Senthorun Raj, Melbourne lawyer Sharika Jeyakumar and Greens politician Alex Bhathal. Bilingual Greek newspaper Neos Kosmos has published op-eds challenging the position of Melbourne’s Greek Orthodox archdiocese, chronicled a controversy over anti-gay comments made by a Victorian Greek Orthodox priest, and given a platform to queer Greek Australian organisations such as the Greek and Gay Support Network.

It’s a phenomenon that has broader implications than the outcome of the postal vote. Last year, workers at Australian Chinese-language newspapers spoke anonymously to Fairfax Media about the influence the Chinese government exerts in domestic newsrooms, claiming government officials pressure editors and advertisers to censor controversial stories and run the Chinese Communist Party line. Writing in the independent Chinese–Australian news outlet, the Vision China Times, last week, Australian National University researcher Adam Ni said “most of the Chinese-language media have been pulled into China’s orbit to a more or lesser degree because of economic incentives and pressure from the Party”.

Given more than 10 million Australians have already returned their ballots, some lopsided coverage in foreign language newspapers is unlikely to decide the outcome. Democracy in Colour, the AGMC and the young queer people of colour they represent aren’t confined by the restrictions of print newspapers any more than they are by the views of older generations. But the prospect of a foreign government seeking to influence a domestic poll raises serious questions.

Speaking anonymously, one pro-marriage-equality campaigner told The Saturday Paper they believe China’s opposition to homosexuality helps explain why domestic outlets have been so reluctant to publish “Yes” campaign material. “A lot of it is still controlled by mainland China. A lot of their views are still imported into Australia, so of course they’re not going to publish us.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2017 as "Chinese whispers".

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Alex McKinnon is Schwartz Media's morning editor.

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