MELBOURNE, Australia — A group of middle-aged Chinese Australians logged onto Zoom to step, kick and punch through their regular exercise class one day late last month. Then they lingered online to despair at the government’s attempt to turn China into a campaign weapon.
After years of deteriorating relations between the two countries, the seven men and women in Melbourne were resigned to the fact that China would become a political wedge in the federal election due by May. But when Prime Minister Scott Morrison questioned the allegiance of a leader of the opposition Labor Party by accusing him of being a “Manchurian candidate,” that felt like a step too far.
“I was shocked and surprised that he would go so low,” said Anne Pang, 63, the class’s instructor, who runs the Barry Pang Kung Fu School with her husband and is a leader in the Chinese Australian community. “It was totally uncalled-for and totally un-Australian.”
The concern across Melbourne and the rest of Australia’s large Chinese diaspora reflects the intense emotions and risks associated with the Morrison government’s attempt to exploit rising fears of China.
For months, Australia’s governing conservative coalition has been trying to deflect from its domestic vulnerabilities by laying out a case for re-election that suggests its opponents will cozy up to a powerful and dangerous Chinese government.
Recent evidence says otherwise: Labor has been a partner in toughening foreign interference laws and joined the coalition in every recent standoff with China, over tariffs, detentions and human rights. The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, has said his party would deal with Beijing “in a mature way” but would not significantly alter the government’s approach.
That has not stopped the coalition from issuing louder and more ominous claims about foreign threats and supposed domestic collusion as it has faced criticism over its handling of the Omicron outbreak and sexual harassment cases in Parliament.
It’s led to whisper campaigns against Labor candidates of Chinese descent in Sydney, along with intense disappointment among those who generally support the government’s desire to stand up to Beijing, but want Australia to dig deeper into the policy challenges that Xi Jinping’s China represents.
“It’s unhealthy and unhelpful,” said Wai Ling Yeung, a former head of Chinese studies at Curtin University in Perth who contributed to a new report about Chinese influence. “The kind of reflection we need to have is about how much have we in Australia made our economy reliant on China? How did we not diversify, and what are the lessons we could learn now from this experience?”
Mr. Morrison — often celebrated by American officials for his handling of Beijing — “has lost control of any prudent or rational dimension in his approach to China,” said James Curran, a history professor at the University of Sydney who is writing a book about Australia’s China debate.
“What’s going on here is a mark of sheer desperation,” he added. “He’s on the political back foot, and he’s looking for anything that will work.”
Mr. Morrison’s rush down what Mr. Curran called “the new Cold Warrior’s path” has mostly involved following the hawks within his own center-right and often divided Liberal Party. Peter Dutton, Australia’s defense minister and a rival of Mr. Morrison’s, has led the charge, warning that Chinese missiles could reach Australia, then declaring in Parliament in February that Chinese officials see Mr. Albanese, the Labor Party leader, “as their pick.”
Mr. Morrison, after previously resisting such language, seemed eager to outdo Mr. Dutton, tossing out the “Manchurian candidate” line, which he later retracted, only to repeat his claim (without evidence) that the Chinese government wants Labor to win.
In an isolated country with a history of xenophobia, the political gambit is built on a mix of tried-and-true scare tactics and cherry-picked facts.
The Australian authorities, in public statements and leaks, reported last month that China was behind a recent plot to influence the election. But the officials also said that the plot had been foiled before any politicians or parties knew about it, and that foreign interference efforts had targeted both parties in the past.
Mr. Morrison and his coalition are nonetheless seeking to make voters skeptical of Mr. Albanese, who has little international experience, and focus on their own efforts to counter China — including a partnership with Britain and the United States for nuclear submarines.
The Morrison-Dutton pitch arrives at a moment of deep unease, with Russia invading Ukraine after announcing a closer partnership with Beijing. (This week, the prime minister accused China of abetting the bloodshed through its “chilling silence.”) And it builds on polls showing that Australians’ distrust of China has increasingly blurred the line between the Chinese government and anyone with links to the country.
Australians in recent years have — often unfairly — blamed Chinese investors for rising property prices. And after Covid first spread from China, racist abuse against Asian Australians followed.
In Melbourne, the men and women from the kung fu group told of receiving cold stares from strangers. Others who hadn’t personally had negative experiences pointed to stories from friends and in the media. They worried that the government’s heated language could embolden those who are not interested in distinguishing between the Chinese Communist Party and anyone who looks Chinese.
In Sydney, too, Chinese Australians said they saw perceptions change, hurting their sense of belonging.
Sally Sitou, 39, a Labor candidate who is running for the federal Parliament, said that when Mr. Dutton and Mr. Morrison linked her party to Chinese Communists, her greatest fears about running for office had come to life.
She was heartbroken again when conservative media outlets started attacking Mr. Albanese with a video of him at an event in 2018 speaking a few words of Mandarin, a language she wishes she spoke better and wants her young son to respect and learn.
“It made me realize the depths to which they’re willing to go,” she said, “and how nasty this campaign is likely to get.”
Craig Chung, a former Sydney city councilor and Liberal Party member whose family moved to Australia from China in 1882, said it had been “a difficult couple of years” for Chinese Australians. What people often forget, he added, is that “there’s a difference between sticking it to the Chinese people and sticking it to the Chinese government.”
Mr. Dutton and Mr. Morrison have at times tried to make that distinction clear. About 5 percent of Australia’s population — 1.2 million people — claim Chinese heritage, and it’s a diverse group. It includes those who fled China after Tiananmen Square, others from Hong Kong, Taiwan or Vietnam, along with recent arrivals who came to Australia for college.
But as Australia has challenged China and it has responded with punishing tariffs on Australian products including coal and wine, that complexity has been ironed flat.
Jason Yat-sen Li, 50, a Labor candidate for the New South Wales state legislature, said his campaign saw the impact firsthand in his by-election victory last month. Volunteers for his Liberal Party opponent were overheard telling voters to question his loyalty to Australia even though he’d been born and educated in Sydney.
“It wasn’t overt. It was done quietly,” Mr. Li said. “They were picking who they thought would be receptive to that message, and they would whisper things like ‘If you vote for Jason, you might be voting for the Chinese government.’”
Criticism of the government’s tone extends beyond the political opposition.
Dennis Richardson, a retired intelligence official who led several federal departments, said in an interview that by falsely suggesting that Labor favored appeasement, the government had crossed a “red line.”
“China would like to see division, and it’s important that we not have that division,” he said.
Whether the effort will work at the polls, no one yet knows.
In the Melbourne kung fu group, some thought the situation might improve under a new government, but others worried that the ugly language could be dredged up again if either side needed help in the polls.
Ms. Pang recalled the hostility she experienced when her family migrated to Australia from Taiwan in 1970, an era when policies that had restricted nonwhite immigration for decades were ending. Australia has become much more multicultural since then, but recently, she said, it has started to feel as if it is slipping backward.
“I thought the times of the 1970s was gone in terms of racial discrimination,” she said. “But now I can see it quite vividly.”
Yan Zhuang reported from Melbourne, and Damien Cave from Sydney. Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Sydney.