By 2017, however, Australia’s prime minister at the time, Malcolm Turnbull, had arrived at a much bleaker assessment of China’s direction, declaring that his country would “stand up” to Chinese meddling.
Last year, Mr. Turnbull said in an interview that Australia had come to see Mr. Xi’s government as imperial, and that it needed to resist Beijing’s “bullying.” Australia was increasingly alarmed about China’s regional demands and power, including in the South China Sea.
In Australia, there was added domestic concern about Chinese government efforts to influence companies, universities and politicians. The issue erupted in 2017, when news reports revealed that an Australian Labor Party senator, Sam Dastyari, had given a statement supporting China’s maritime claims after accepting money from a Chinese businessman.
Not as loudly spoken was growing worry that the United States’ weight in the region was weakening compared to China’s, said Richard Maude, a former diplomat who helped write an Australian foreign policy document in 2017 that laid out the shift in strategy.
Australian government officials knew that China was likely to react harshly to the hardening policies, Mr. Maude said. Less foreseen was the damage Australia would inflict on itself.
The rising concern about Beijing’s political influence fed suspicions that politicians, business executives, academics and above all members of Australia’s large ethnic Chinese population had been co-opted.
When three Chinese Australians appeared before an Australian Senate committee hearing last October, Senator Eric Abetz, of the Liberal Party, asked them whether they were willing “to unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship.”
After one of the witnesses asked why Chinese Australians would be singled out to declare their condemnation, Mr. Abetz bristled. “But can you not pick a side to condemn the oppressive ugliness of the communist regime in China?” he said.
Jieh-Yung Lo, director of the Center for Asian-Australian Leadership at the Australian National University, said in an interview that Australians of Chinese heritage, including those whose families have been in Australia for generations, felt “wedged into a corner.”
“Unless we go out and condemn China, our place in Australia will be in doubt,” he said.
Anxiety among Australians of Chinese descent has focused on the new legislation against foreign interference. The laws require registration and self-reporting for anyone engaged in activities on behalf of any foreign government, not just China. When Mr. Turnbull introduced the legislation, he said that it was intended to protect Chinese Australians and other communities from intimidation.
Defenders of the laws say they have helped weaken Chinese government efforts to dominate local Chinese Australian groups. Still, the influence law and an accompanying expansion of espionage crimes have yet to produce a conviction or a significant increase in transparency around lobbying on behalf of China.
Such efforts have cast an intimidating shadow over Chinese Australians, discouraging them from joining public life, said Yun Jiang, a former policy adviser in the Australian government who now produces the China Neican newsletter.
“There is a lack of representation of Chinese Australians — and Asian Australians in general — in Parliament, in policy, in media,” Ms. Jiang said. “There is a real diversity of views among Chinese Australians, but often their perspectives are missing in public debate.”
Critics of the influence law now include at least two former prime ministers, one of them Mr. Turnbull. Now retired from politics, he registered under the law because of speeches he gave to audiences in South Korea and Taiwan. He said such a requirement was “not intended or contemplated” when he brought in the legislation.