Two weeks ago, a Chinese international student running for election on the University of Sydney Union board was disqualified for bribery and graffiti painting on campus walls. My initial reaction was of pity. No one taught this poor girl how to run a proper election campaign. How could she know any better? Chinese politics are not based on elections. It was great she tried; it was not a surprise she failed. I thought that was the end of the story.
What did surprise me was that on the radio one week later it was announced that University of Sydney had allowed her to resume her campaign. From there she won the election! It made me very curious as to why and how her disqualification had been overturned. After some brief research, I was impressed with her actions, not least of all because of her determination.
She knew that the disqualification was an unfair judgement based on a misunderstanding of cultural differences. Not accepting the unsatisfactory result, the student looked carefully into the university's decision and presented an eloquent argument explaining her conduct and why her actions were misconstrued by those unfamiliar with Chinese culture. She had great faith in the Australian political and education system, where diversity is not only accepted but important, and was successful in her appeal.
This winning candidate is a great example of the 90-hou (born post 1990) Chinese that I describe in my book The New Chinese, with fantastic English skills and understanding of Western culture far superior to those of my 80-hou generation who came to Australia a decade ago.
Though it turned out favourable in the end, what can this young Chinese girl (and all Chinese international students and migrants) learn from this incident? Plenty. Most importantly, never send out money directly when you do an election! Even though the WeChat 'red envelope' (money transferred electronically through a Chinese messaging system) was accepted by the university as a "culture difference" and the campaigner had no intention to win votes through bribery, I'm certain there will be a bigger drama when someone does it in a more serious election.
While the 'red envelope' was explained as simply a mechanism to generate ren qi ("atmosphere") within the chat group, as well as a bit of fun (the total amount claimed to be sent out was approximately $2, with members competing to win larger portions; the average amount received was $0.05) it should be remembered that cash is cash: regardless of amount, it's frowned upon.
I found it amusing when in my first road test the RTA officer asked me to remove the coins in my cup holder (for the tolls in the days before E-Tags) because it could be seen as bribery. I knew he would not let me pass the road test for a small bit of change, nor would anyone vote for a candidate because of five cents received, but integrity is both essence and appearance. I feel sorry that she learnt it the hard way, but I'm proud that she didn't give up there.
In her Facebook explanation to her followers regarding the bribery accusation was also the candidate's explanation of the message "666666" seen around campus. It caused great confusion to the Returning Officer – and the truth is, it would have confused me as well had I not learnt what it meant only a few months ago. It's a popular expression among today's young Chinese, apparently derived from an online game, and briefly translated to "good at something" or "well done".
Even though the student and I are from the same Chinese background understandings can be vastly different and take effort to comprehend. It would be even harder for general Australians to fully grasp them, hence the returning officer's confusion and disqualification decision. But in my opinion, it's new migrants' and visitors' responsibility to make sure that their actions and words are fully understood, to save from misinterpretation and judgment.
The Sydney student therefore did a fantastic job explaining herself and helping her university move forward with their campaign policies. Simultaneously, support and tolerance for cultural difference from Australian society makes a great difference to the new Chinese and every new migrant in this country.
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