Pro-asylum seeker propaganda strategy

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Learning from Chinese nationalism: a call for a new pro-asylum seeker communication strategy 

Zhu Hongbing, a researcher of Chinese nationalism and propaganda, argues Australian refugee advocates need a new communication strategy, one that frames the embrace of asylum seekers as matters of “national interest” and “values”.

Tony Abbott’s “stop the boats” election victory may have expressed the Australian public’s preference for nationalist jingoism over humanitarian concerns, but in reality the result mattered little. The now-opposition Labor Party’s has for years been locking up asylum seekers like criminals for the mode of transport they choose to use.

How is it that Australia’s mainstream political parties, usually so relentlessly disparaging of each other’s policies, have formed such a strong bipartisan consensus in favour of flouting international human rights law in the name of the Australian people? Why have those in favour of upholding Australia’s human rights obligations so decisively lost the national public debate? How do we reinvigorate the discussion?

The problem

Over the past few years, refugee advocates have consistently pushed the following messages: asylum seekers are not economic migrants, rather, they are helpless, desperate and vulnerable people; and by detaining them we’re denying their human rights and violating the UN Refugee Convention. Those ethical, moral and legal arguments are valid, but as a communication strategy it has clearly failed. Such arguments have simply been rejected by the majority of Australians, who are demonstrably more receptive to Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott’s dog-whistling, which taps long-held Australian anxieties about invasions from the north.

One of the major problems with the existing refugee/asylum seeker discourse is the false dichotomy between refugee (good) and economic migrant (bad). In reality, refugees have significant economic motivations for seeking asylum in Australia, just as “economic migrants” do. That’s why they prefer Australia as their final destination and not the sleepy island of Nauru. Refugee advocates have often attempted to sweep this reality under the carpet, and this has had a threefold detrimental effect on the argument’s persuasiveness.

First, the mainstream Australian public instinctively understands that economic motivations play a role in why people want to come here, so denying it hurts one’s own credibility. Second, by promoting the distinction between “genuine refugees” and “economic migrants”, the pro-refugee campaign has actually legitimised hardline policies against asylum seekers in general. Third, and most importantly, downplaying the economic aspect of refugees’ motivations for seeking asylum casts them as passive victims, incapable of looking after themselves. It portrays them as a burden on the host society, rather than the source of social and economic vitality that previous waves of immigrants have proven to be.

Christmas Island detention centre. Image credit: DIBP

Learning from Chinese nationalism

As a researcher of propaganda strategy in China, I observe daily the practical necessity of harnessing nationalist sentiment to achieve political ends. When the Chinese Communist Party decided to start challenging Japan’s control of the disputed Diaoyu Islands in 2012, it made sure its patrol boats were backed up by a wave of nationalistic indignation about alleged Japanese provocations. Domestic tabloid media and nationalist web users enthusiastically talked up the prospects of military conflict, but war with Japan was in fact the last thing the Communist Party wanted. Having successfully strengthened their claims to the islands, China’s leaders needed to wind down the nationalist rancor. But they didn’t try to convince the Chinese public that starting a fight with Japan would be wrong, immoral or even that it would ruin China’s carefully crafted image as a peaceful country. Instead, they sent out hardline military generals to tell the public that China’s enemies – Japan and the US – were trying to lure it into a trap, to fight a war before it was ready, in order to undermine its rise. Thus, the party successfully appealed to Chinese nationalism’s conspiratorial worldview in order to legitimise more moderate policies. Of course, there are many differences between the Australian and Chinese polities, but one thing they share in common is nationalism: an overwhelming ideological and psychological belief in the primacy of the national interest as a principle for political action.

Chinese interest groups outside the state, too, realised long ago the futility of appealing to moral principles in contradiction with nationalist ones, in seeking public support. Activists who frame their arguments in the cosmopolitan language of universal values, rights and justice are limited to operating in apolitical areas such as environmentalism and AIDS prevention. Those who stray into the political realm are routinely crushed by the state. Tellingly, however, the party propaganda authorities no longer feel the need to screen out coverage of the suppression of outspoken liberal human rights campaigners. In fact, the propaganda organs have recently started actively publicizing their trials. Nor has news of the recent Hong Kong democracy protests been kept out of the Chinese media; on the contrary, there has been near-daily coverage. The reason for the CCP’s surprising confidence is not that it believes its official communist ideology will defeat calls for universal human rights. Rather, it is because the Party propagandists understand that nationalism is currently the most powerful ideology for appealing to mass populations today. As long as they can present human rights campaigners as hopeless idealists, cosmopolitan degenerates, or agents of hostile foreign powers seeking to foment chaos in China, such activities will gain little traction with China’s conservative public.

  Home is where?

Liberal internationalists around the world reject the primacy of national interest over universal values and rights as intellectually bankrupt. But we need to recognize that although our ideology is a global one, we remain a minority within our societies. This is especially so in the world of politics, which remains dominated by states that claiming to be the expression of nations. Attempting appeal to mass populations with cosmopolitan liberalism, in opposition to nationalism, risks repeating the failure of Western Marxists in the 20th Century who, unlike the Chinese Communist Party, never understood why the working classes of the world to refused to unite. As the great scholar of nationalism Ernest Gellner once observed:

“Marxists basically like to think that the spirit of history or human consciousness made a terrible boob. The awakening message was intended for classes, but by some terrible postal error was delivered to nations.”

Whether we like it or not, national identity is a fundamental force in mass politics today. An effective pro-asylum seeker communication strategy, therefore, needs to tap into the deep intellectual and emotional nationalism of the majority of the Australian public.

New arrivals of asylum seekers to Christmas Island detention centre. Image credit: DIBP

Two key messages

There are two basic characteristics of people who are prepared to make a perilous journey to Australia by boat: an enterprising spirit and a pro-Australian disposition. However, these qualities have rarely been highlighted in pro-refugee discourse in Australia. An effective pro-refugee communication strategy should draw attention to these two important realities, and frame them as matters of “national interest” and “values”.

Message 1:

1.) National interest: These are some of the most resourceful people in the world, who are keen to people build a life as part of Australia’s society. Our society and the all-important economy forego major benefits in terms of entrepreneurship and vitality by denying them entry. (They’re not making these perilous journeys just to get the dole!)

In short, we should constantly reiterate that these are productive, resourceful people people – that is why they have made it this far.

Message 2:

2.) National values: Asylum seekers have too easily been cast as “others” and even potential terrorists, when it’s precisely their belief in what are commonly held to be “Australian” values that makes many of them want to come here. Two major sources of asylum seekers are Sri Lanka and Iran. The former have never posed even a hint of a security threat to Australia. The latter are overwhelmingly Iranian liberals, who seeking to escape from religious extremism. They are, quite literally, people who share our values of freedom and democracy.

In short, these people are like us – and that is precisely why they are seeking to join our society.

While it’s too late to help those who’ve already been sent “home” or driven to suicide or insanity in arbitrary detention, the root causes of the issue — conflict, inequality and oppression – will remain (and quite possibly intensify if global warming produces the kinds of effects predicted by the scientific community). The next wave of refugee-migrants will need human rights advocates to do a better job of convincing the Australian public to embrace them for what and who they are, rather than just invoking pity, shame or compassion.

The idea put forward here has broader applications. With climates changing, sea levels rising and ecosystems on the brink of collapse, we must continue to challenge the nationalist fallacy that holds narrow group interests above those of humanity at large. It is possible that the survival of civilisation, or even our species, will hinge on this intellectual struggle. But we must respect the power of nationalism, even as we attempt to debunk it. We cannot simply assume that it will fade away as its logical fallacies are exposed. It will not, because alongside the powerful vested interests of the world’s nation-states, nationalism has both psychological and rational appeal to the world’s people. For the time being, as a matter of practical necessity, matters of global interest can, and indeed must, be framed as matters of national interest.

Zhu Hongbing is a researcher of Chinese nationalism, public opinion and propaganda strategy. He was formerly a journalist in China, and a contributor to the The Dullsvillain, a short-lived but popular blog on the Western Australian media.