Rare warnings from the Chinese government over the safety of international students in Australia have prompted a renewed push for stronger racial vilification laws in New South Wales.
The Chinese embassy took the unusual step this week of issuing a public safety warning to Chinese students in Australia.
The embassy, in a memo on its website, warned they were at risk of attack or insult.
“Recently, there has been many incidents where Chinese international students has been insulted and attacked,” a translated version of the memo posted to its website said.
“We remind all Chinese students studying in Australia to pay attention to safety precautions as they face a security risk while staying in Australia.”
Another warning was issued by the Melbourne consulate-general earlier this week, according to the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist party.
Earlier this month the Chinese government accused Australian media of fabricating stories that “unscrupulously vilified the Chinese students”, referring to stories about Chinese attempts to influence Australian politics.
“The relevant reports not only made unjustifiable accusations against the Chinese government, but also unscrupulously vilified the Chinese students as well as the Chinese community in Australia with racial prejudice, which in turn has tarnished Australia’s reputation as a multicultural society,” the embassy said in a public statement earlier this month.
The most recent memo has fuelled a renewed push in NSW for stronger racial vilification laws. Guardian Australia revealed this month that the NSW government had dumped a promise to strengthen race hate laws. The laws are widely considered outdated and toothless, and have not led to a single successful prosecution in 30 years.
The backflip infuriated ethnic community groups, including the Jewish Board of Deputies, and prompted criticism from the shadow attorney general, Paul Lynch.
Labor leader Luke Foley said the Chinese government’s warning to students was “proof that racial vilification laws must be strengthened”.
He said Labor would reform the laws within the first 100 days of being elected if it won the next state election in March 2019.
“The Chinese government’s concern that its students may be insulted or attacked while studying in NSW confirms the need for stronger race hate laws, but the Berejiklian Liberal government is refusing to act,” Foley said.
“I welcome Chinese students studying in NSW. Any attacks or insults against Chinese students are completely unacceptable. I condemn them in the strongest terms,” he said.
The state’s former attorney general Gabrielle Upton said in 2015 that the racial vilification laws were not working. Upton promised a bill would be introduced early last year to strengthen and streamline section 20D of the Anti-Discrimination Act, which deals specifically with vilification and incitement to violence.
No bill was introduced, and the new attorney general, Mark Speakman, confirmed the government now has no plans for reform.
The issue reportedly divided the NSW cabinet. The premier, Gladys Berejiklian, told 2GB radio last week she supported compromising her own civil liberties to keep others safe.
“I tend to be quite moderate on these issues in so far as wanting to make sure we always protect the community first,” she said. “And I’m someone who will compromise my own civil liberty if it means keeping everyone else safe, but not everyone has those views.”
The weakness of the laws was exposed in the case of Ismail Al-Wahwah, the leader of the fringe Islamic movement Hizb ut-Tahrir, who described Jews as the “hidden evil” and called for a “jihad against the Jews”.
The director of public prosecutions was unable to charge Al-Wahwah, and Upton said at the time it was “too hard to get a prosecution for a criminal offence”.
An alliance of 31 ethnic community groups and prominent individuals, including the Indigenous leader Warren Mundine, got together in 2015 to lobby for change to the “weak and ineffective” laws.
Since you’re here …
… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.
I appreciate there not being a paywall: it is more democratic for the media to be available for all and not a commodity to be purchased by a few. I’m happy to make a contribution so others with less means still have access to information.Thomasine F-R.