Young Chinese students wave small Chinese national flags around a big one to celebrate the National Day holiday at a primary school in Guangping county, north China's Hebei province, 30 September 2014. More than 120,000 people from across China gathered at Tian’anmen Square in the heart of Beijing at daybreak yesterday (1 October 2014) to watch the raising of the national flag on the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The crowd stood in silence as the national anthem was played and the five-star national flag was raised. Then, to cheers and applause, some 10,000 doves and 30,000 yellow and red balloons were released to mark National Day. The flag-raising ceremony is held every day but yesterday’s ceremony was witnessed by people who had come from all over the nation and abroad to be in the capital for the historic occasion.

It’s a new law from China that could be imposed on Chinese people living in Australia.

In January, Beijing launched its first law about its decade-long patriotic education campaign designed to promote nationalism among young people.

It legislates obligations of schools, institutions, families and individuals in delivering patriotic education to young people, while clearly stating the do’s and don’ts of being patriotic.

But one code of the law has sparked concerns among some members of the Chinese Australian community.

In Article 23, the law states it is Beijing’s responsibility to deliver patriotic education tailored to the people of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

It also states Beijing needs to “strengthen interaction with overseas Chinese, protect their rights and provide services, enhance patriotism among overseas Chinese, and promote patriotic traditions”.

What does it mean? Will Chinese nationals and Chinese Australians be subjected to this rule even if they reside in Australia?

But first … what is China’s patriotic education?

China isn’t the only country that implements patriotic education at schools, nor the first one that legislates the educational scheme.

In 2020, former US president Donald Trump proposed the creation of a “patriotic education” commission with a new “pro-American” school curriculum, which inspired Texas to create the state’s own patriotic education law the following year.

However, when China’s patriotic education was introduced in the 1990s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faced its biggest ideological crisis since its founding.

Desperate to boost the country’s economy in the aftermath of a decade-long political turmoil, the socialist leaders decided to embrace markets they once saw as the symbol of capitalism.

In order to maintain their control of the nation’s youths — especially after its crackdown on Tiananmen protests in 1989 — the party used nationalism to make young people patriotic.

Governments and schools also tried to incorporate patriotic education with mandatory lectures and extracurricular events such as school camps and documentary watching to make the teaching more engaging with students.

But after decades of practice, some young people still find it difficult to take the lessons to heart.

Ed*, a 23-year-old Chinese international student in Melbourne, said amid pressure to achieve good scores, many of his classmates prioritised their academic education over these ideological studies.

“For the patriotic education, especially the mandatory ones, people like me [will] feel annoyed,” he said.

He remembered being requested by his school to attend a three-hour mandatory lecture during a summer break on the topic, “and on the halfway [point], students were almost booing him and wanted to leave. They just wanted to go home and enjoy their holiday,” he said.

But some also find it necessary to go through patriotic education.

Fachon*, also a Chinese international student in Melbourne, said patriotic education was only a small proportion of her school life in China.

“I actually feel OK with it because I’m Chinese and it’s kind of necessary for me to know what our society is and what our ideology or value is,” she said.

“Because not many people will hand ‘you need to love your country’ in the mouth, most of us still think insisting [on] your own position and supporting your own side is natural.”

How powerful is this law?

Now with a law requesting Beijing extend its patriotic education overseas, some in the Chinese diaspora critical of the party worry the law could be a trap.

“I feel the CCP’s meaning for patriotism is really just [that] you can’t question their leadership and you can’t question injustice,” said Ed, who argued the law signalled Beijing’s attempt to restrict dissidents’ voices.

He also said that if patriotic events were held in Australia, the targets would be international students and newly arrived migrants, as these groups were still in the process of adapting to Australian life.

But the law itself may not be as powerful as it seems to be, according to Chinese law professor Bing Ling at the University of Sydney.

He said the board statements from the law showed it was mainly a political statement that set out “a broad program of certain policies”, rather than for law enforcement.

“They are not meant to be used by the courts or by lawyers in deciding legal disputes. Their main purpose is to validate and restate certain policies or policy objectives that the Communist Party and the government want to promote,” Professor Ling said.

“There are many other Chinese laws that are much more specific, prescribing clear standards and penalties and so on. But this law belongs to another category: It is essentially a way of formalising [and] validating certain Communist Party and government policies.”

Professor Ling said the law did not generally apply to Australian citizens but it still held a lesson for Australians — especially those who want to travel to China.

“If you have a very deep engagement with China, you will want to educate yourself about Chinese politics and Chinese legal institutions in general just to make sure that you will always act in a way that is safe for you and your family,” he said.

“We’ve already had some unfortunate incidents in which Chinese Australian citizens or residents have been in legal jeopardy in China. And certainly nobody wants that to happen to anybody else in Australia.”

The Patriotic Education Law isn’t the first Chinese law that eyes people living overseas.

In 2020, Beijing launched the National Security Law in Hong Kong, stating that foreign nationals living outside Hong Kong could also be criminally liable under the law.

A spokesperson at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the ABC that laws applicable in Australia were “determined by Australia”.

“Freedom of expression and assembly are essential to our democracy, and the Australian government will support those in Australia who exercise those rights,” the spokesperson said.

Can a law make people automatically more patriotic?

Wei Zhang from the University of Western Australia has been researching China’s patriotic education for years.

She said the law was not just the latest development in China’s three-decade patriotic education campaign, but also a unique result of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s growing control in the past 10 years.

“We are living in this unsteady world where there are competing ideologies or truth,” Dr Zhang said.

“So, in this way, the patriotic education is seen as a channel to help the students to build a strong identity toward the country and people in China that may help them to better understand the context.”

At Australian universities, there has been growing concerns in recent years about the CCP’s attempts to influence free speech and academic freedom on campus.

But Dr Zhang says it is also an opportunity for Australian universities — which enrolled more than 162,000 international students from China in 2023 — to help young people develop skills to navigate and reflect on their own identities.

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