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Chinese-Speaking Police to Play Key Role in Australian Gang Crackdown - 2002-09-27

Australian police are recruiting Chinese-speaking officers in Hong Kong and China to help the police force in the crackdown on Chinese criminal gangs in Sydney. The aim is to help protect an immigrant community that has deep-seated suspicions of the white-dominated police force.

Australia's Chinese population is one of the country's biggest and most diverse immigrant communities. At a Catholic Church in Sydney, Mass is celebrated in Chinese by hundreds of people every week.

Australia's economic opportunity and political stability have been a magnet for the Chinese for more than a century. In the 1800s, miners came from southern China to join the gold rush. More recently, waves of business migrants have arrived from Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as the mainland.

The community may be diverse, but Ernest Wong, the deputy mayor of the inner city district of Burwood, says one thing Chinese of different backgrounds share is a lack of faith in the police.

"Very much like two very separate units. The Chinese community or the Chinese business - they work in a unit where they find the Australian police a bit difficult to approach," he explained. "Having said that, it doesn't mean that they haven't actually tried to contact the police or tried to cooperate with the police but I think there is still because of the language barrier, because of the different culture, there is still sort of a gap in between these two units."

There are slightly more than 14,000 policemen and women here in New South Wales. Fewer than 50 speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Senior police commander Glenn Harrison hopes officers recruited from China and Hong Kong will help win the trust of Chinese Australians.

"If we look at the Chinese culture it is built on suspicion about police, mistrust about police involvement in crime or they won't be helped or supported by the police," he said. "They've come to Australia and they've held those same beliefs. Now whether that's right or wrong, we've got to build a bridge and we've got to build that bridge to say 'you can trust us' and that can only be done by demonstration. But getting there in the first place, the language barriers are a problem and it's not just being able to speak the language but it's about having officers that can actually understand the culture at the same time."

For many years, gang activity has gone largely unchecked in Chinese communities here. Police say Sydney's Chinatown has experienced a surge in extortion attempts by organized crime syndicates in the last couple of years. Fear of retribution usually stops victims from approaching the authorities.

Ken Wong is a businessman in Sydney. He said he welcomes efforts to recruit officers from a Chinese background, but believes people's suspicions won't easily be erased.

"They are probably frightened to speak out, whether because they don't trust the police force. I think a lot of times they probably scared to speak out, I would say," he said. "Too scared their family will get hurt. We should encourage our family to speak out a bit more in the future."

Ken Wong believes the addition of Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking officers from overseas will help the community feel safer, but he says the police should do more to convince Australian-born Chinese to join the ranks.

"I would 100 percent support this move," he said. " I think we should encourage our children to be in the force to help to fight crime - in the whole Australian society."

Professor Hans Hend-Rischke is the head of the Department of Chinese Studies at the University of New South Wales. He believes the failure of Australian police to bridge the cultural divide with the Chinese has created significant problems in the fight against crime.

"The wall of silence is the language barrier. There are a very large percentage of those communities who don't speak English still, so they can't be interviewed. Then there is other forms of community pressure that people might feel they are vunerable to pressure from criminal gangs and they can't talk to the police," he explained. "There's nobody to talk to them, nobody who speaks their language except for some civilian officers mainly, which is a big problem so even if they wanted to [they] can't talk to the police."

Senior police officers in New South Wales admit it may take many years to win the confidence of the local Chinese population. Australia has yet to ensure the safety and social inclusion of one of its most vibrant and successful ethnic communities.