Election regulations culturally insensitive

When campaigning gets lost in translation

image of board candidate Zhixian Wang with campaign slogan Zhixian Wang was elected to board despite being temporarily excluded

On Monday, the University of Sydney Union (USU) Electoral Arbiter announced that Zhixian Wang, an international student from China running to be a Board Director who had been excluded from the election for breaching electoral rules, would be reinstated. Despite her controversial exclusion, and two missed days of campaigning, Wang was ultimately elected to the USU Board.

Two complaints were filed against Wang, and both were initially ruled to be sufficient for her exclusion. The Returning Officer found Wang had breached USU Regulation 8.10.1 (l) regarding bribery in her use of “Red Packets” to send money to a group of international students on WeChat. He also ruled that one of her chalkings, which contained Chinese phrases “办证” and “迷药”, violated Regulation 8.10.1(p)(ii) for being “misleading or deceptive, or likely to be misleading or deceptive”.

In their successful challenge to both determinations, Wang and her campaign argued that the amount of money sent in the WeChat group, equivalent to $2 AUD, is too minimal to constitute bribery. They believed it to only be a small advertisement fee — similar to what people pay to boost their posts on Facebook. They also contended the phrases graffitied are common in China and people with some knowledge of the context are unlikely to be misled.

The current USU Regulations ban any forms of bribery, direct or indirect. Bribery is defined as the use of “money, employment, position or material resources” in exchange for “preferential treatment or to induce a voter to vote or to refrain from voting or to vote in a particular way”. The Electoral Arbiter’s decision indicates that such a small amount of money involved in this case would not constitute “indirect bribery” for “preferential treatment”.

With regard to the chalking, most debates focus on the meanings of “办证” and “迷药”. The literal translations of “办证” and “迷药” are “forging IDs”, and “drugs that create hallucinations” respectively. In China, where these phrases are often painted in public spaces accompanied by a phone number, they usually allude to a means to obtain fake IDs and date rape drugs. If “misleading or deceptive” is interpreted to mean that students believe are likely to believe that they can obtain these illegal items from a USU candidate in Sydney, the decision to reverse the Returning Officer’s decision makes sense. It could be expected that most people with some knowledge of Chinese language and culture will consider the chalking an attention-grabbing campaign tactic.

The fact that the phrases were in Chinese also demonstrates clear intent to only target those familiar with the language and broader contextual meaning. Moreover, the Returning Officer’s claim that “there is nothing to suggest that the imputations were conveyed in jest” always seemed untenable. Candidates should not be expected to explicitly state where they are making a joke. If they were, one would expect the memes, which have been clogging Facebook newsfeeds over the last week to come with a disclaimer. Furthermore, a series of “666666” were painted next to the phrases, which to some extent indicates the satirical nature of the chalking.

Irrespective of whether the original decision to exclude Wang was justified, this incident shows the inadequacy of existing mechanism to cope with disputes. Firstly, many regulations do not account for the use of online platforms. Messaging Apps like WeChat, popular among Chinese international students, have become the prime campaigning channels for many candidates. This calls for more nuanced regulations to prevent unfair campaign practices. The “Red Packet” function on WeChat, for instance, allows users to conduct online transactions. Importantly, people can exchange the virtual money they receive for actual currency and they can send red packets to both groups (as occurred in this case) and individuals.

In addition, more culturally sensitive rules need to be made to prevent inappropriate campaigning tactics. The chalking of “办证” and “迷药” is problematic even if it did not merit a termination of Wang’s candidature. First, the connotations of these phrases normalise appalling and illegal behaviours such as sexual assaults. Appropriating these phrases undermines efforts to fight against gender violence on campus. Second, it exposes some students to messages that might potentially harm them. What’s worse, the fact that they appear in public spaces means people are less prepared to deal with them. Finally, such messages contribute to a misunderstanding of foreign cultures and the stigmatisation of international students. Framing some negative elements as an essential part of Chinese culture, as many of Wang’s defenders have done, could perpetuate racial misconceptions and distortions. The Returning Officer’s original decision could therefore be understood not as a retrospective punishment, but as a deterrent that aims to send a message to other candidates.

With more and more international students becoming involved in student politics, similar cases are only more likely to arise in the future. Ultimately, this incident emphasises the need for reform of the current regulations and greater cultural sensitivity in order to better accommodate this change.

Disclaimer: Kida Lin campaigned for Liliana Tai.