My roommate first mentioned the cars to me earlier this year, after seeing the convoys many times around the city in the lead-up to January 26. But it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I saw the car parade myself, in the city’s north-east. Then again two weeks ago, in South Yarra. Other people have mentioned seeing them on Hoddle Street in Richmond, Smith Street in Collingwood, Alexandra Parade and winding their way through the CBD – all emblazoned with dramatic anti-Chinese Communist Party slogans.
Everywhere they go, these convoys stop passers-by in their tracks. The cars, vans and utes – each plastered with Mandarin and English language banners warning against the “Demon CCP” and decorated with Australian flags – appear to be doing laps of the city, trying to spread an anti-CCP message. But who is driving them? What point are they trying to make, and to whom?
It is not, as many people think at first glance, white nationalists. The cars are mostly being driven by members of the Chinese diaspora who are opposed to the CCP. They are part of a global dissident movement to “quit” the CCP, known as “Tuidang”, based on the Mandarin word tuìdǎng, meaning to withdraw from the party. The movement began in late 2004 and it calls on other members of the Chinese diaspora to also denounce the leadership in Beijing. Tuidang is headquartered in New York City, at the efficiently named Global Service Center for Quitting the Chinese Communist Party.
While the “About us” section of the Tuidang website doesn’t disclose any connection, the movement is linked to the protest campaign of the Falun Gong, a religious minority best known for handing out flyers and running petitions against the CCP – and alleged organ harvesting – on city streets and in shopping centres around the world. Falun Gong – a practice revolving around meditation, slow-moving exercises and moral philosophy – has been a target of the CCP since the late 1990s. The group is considered by some to be a cult, with many practitioners giving their lives over to it. Some have even died after refusing medical treatment under its teachings.
According to The Epoch Times, a United States-based, anti-CCP media outlet established and staffed mostly by Falun Gong practitioners, Tuidang seeks to “gradually disintegrate the Party by encouraging each Chinese to reject the regime”. The Times covered the Melbourne convoys twice last year, in November and December, confirming they were part of the local branch of the global Tuidang movement. A Tuidang spokesperson was interviewed by the paper for its November 24 story, but no local members were willing to speak to me for this piece.
Lucy Wang, a spokesperson for Tuidang Centre in Melbourne, told the Times the convoys were trying to raise awareness about the “evil nature of communism”, as well as other common concerns among anti-CCP advocates, such as interference in Australia. But Wang also voiced concerns about the Chinese government’s cover-up of the Covid-19 outbreak, a conspiracy theory that’s united many disparate groups online.
In recent months, Tuidang car parades such as the ones in Melbourne have been organised in New York, Pennsylvania and Los Angeles, with similarly shocking signage. Some banners focus on the evils of communism – “COMMUNISM’S ULTIMATE GOAL: DESTROY THE HUMAN RACE”, for example – while others zero in on the Covid-19 conspiracies. But almost all of the vehicles direct people to a single website, endccp.com, which touches on all of those themes and directs visitors to a petition to denounce the CCP.
The key difference with the car parades recently seen around Melbourne is that they do not mention Falun Gong. Instead the message is focused squarely on the CCP, communism and coronavirus.
They are also somewhat remarkable in their Australiana branding: the cars tend to be covered in Australian flags, and reference protecting the nation from influence, an issue of increasing interest and concern. “PROTECT AUSTRALIA FROM THE EVIL CCP INFLUENCE”, a recent one read.
While The Epoch Times reported on the Melbourne convoys as being run by the local chapters of the global movement, the Tuidang Movement Australia Facebook page said it was not organising the parades and was unable to put me in touch with the “individuals” who were. “You have to catch them when you see them in Melbourne,” came the reply.
An individual driving an “END THE DEMON CCP” courier van around Melbourne on Monday this week was unwilling to talk but offered to connect me to an organiser. The individual later told me no one would put up their hand for an interview.
Cr Blair Barker, a member of the Whitehorse City Council who spoke out angrily on 3AW in 2019 after the Chinese flag was flown over Box Hill Police Station, joined one of the convoys on Sunday, February 28. “Delighted to join an important human rights protest,” Barker wrote on his Facebook page, along with photos of himself in front of a van covered with an “END CCP” banner.
Barker said one of the local Falun Gong groups in his area contacted him after he went on record about his concerns over the “foreign regime” in the form of the flag. He was invited to the recent car parade during a Chinese New Year’s celebration with the group in a park.
“I was more than happy to join them,” Barker said, explaining that he did it out of “solidarity with their stand for both religious freedom and human rights”.
Barker said the convoy received an “overwhelmingly positive public response”. “All sorts of people were giving me the thumbs-up, or giving the convoy the thumbs-up, and waving and turning in sort of encouragement,” he said.
Barker also passed on my details to organisers, but said the individuals were wary of media other than The Epoch Times or Vision Times. No one has reached out.
It is not uncommon for segments of the Chinese diaspora to oppose and seek to distance themselves from the CCP, as many Sinologists have pointed out.
Among Australian security experts, there are genuine concerns about influence by CCP-linked United Front entities, and Chinese Australians opposed to the CCP are an important part of combating that influence. As one recent Melbourne car sign read, “The CCP Does Not Represent The Chinese People”, an attitude shared by many Chinese Australians. These convoys in particular, though, are largely being organised by Falun Gong practitioners.
According to David Ownby, a Canadian professor of East-Asian studies and author of 2008’s Falun Gong and the Future of China, the central Falun Gong movement has recently become pro-Trump and increasingly caught up in conspiracy theories. The Epoch Times, meanwhile, has become a pro-Trump propaganda machine, laden with articles about QAnon and voter fraud. The first newsletter sent out by The Epoch Times upon entering my email address to read an article included links to a story about a “shadow campaign” against Trump and a story about Black Lives Matter protesters threatening diners and chanting about burning down Washington, DC. Both of these are based on discredited conspiracy theories.
Overseas, the Tuidang convoys have also been attached to “Stop the Steal” protests in Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania, with many Trump supporters happy to take photos with the cars. Like much anti-CCP rhetoric, the End CCP convoys are being latched on to by the far right, both here in Australia and around the world.
Australian conspiracy theorist and anti-vaxxer Morgan C. Jonas – quoted by The Epoch Times as an “independent journalist” covering the convoy – reported on the December parade in Melbourne. Jonas linked the convoys to concerns that are common among the far right, such as criticism of Victorian premier Daniel Andrews’ decision to sign up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Jonas said the convoy was not put on by a specific group but noted there were “many practitioners of Falun Gong” in attendance.
Jonas’s interest in the convoy speaks to a troubling wider phenomenon. As Asian studies specialist Kaz Ross recently wrote for the Lowy Institute, anti-CCP fervour is bringing together “unlikely allies” – uniting the far-right and ethnically Chinese anti-CCP activists, with Falun Gong followers known to have attended far-right anti-CCP rallies in Sydney.
The questions surrounding these convoys play into many of the tension points in the Australian debate over CCP influence, with the nation struggling to have the conversation without veering into Sinophobia, or allegations of it. Fergus Hanson, director of the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute – a think tank that is very vocal about the threat of Chinese influence – says Australia can’t just ignore these “trickier conversations”.
“To ignore it, to say that’s too difficult a conversation to have, that’s not going to serve anyone’s interests,” Hanson says. He says the anti-CCP conversation needs to be about driving social cohesion, distancing himself from the more questionable elements who are getting involved. “To the extent that other people are jumping on that bandwagon for different agendas, that’s obviously not something that I want to have anything to do with,” he said.
The Chinese diaspora, Hanson reiterates, is not a homogenous group. And there is no doubt that there are a large number of Chinese Australians who are concerned about the influence of the CCP and who do not have links to Falun Gong or the far right. But it appears the group behind the cars seen driving around Melbourne very likely do.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 13, 2021 as "Drivers ed".
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