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Jason Yat-sen Li
Portrait of Jason Yat-sen Li
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in July 2022

Jason Yat-Sen Li is a proud Chinese-Australian. His parents migrated from Hong Kong in 1960. He was born in Sydney and grew up in Bexley in Sydney’s South West. He is currently the Member for the NSW State seat of Strathfield as of February 2022. Before entering Parliament, Jason was a businessman, lawyer and community advocate - an illustrious career which led him to live and work overseas in the Hague, New York and also in Beijing.

Jason believes passionately in the transformative power of education, in the vital importance of medical research and strong public healthcare systems, in small business as the most dynamic pillar of our economy and in the role of active citizens in democratic societies. Jason also believes in the importance of collaboration in solving the great challenges of society such as climate change and inequality.
I first heard about Jason on LinkedIn. One of my connections had liked a post celebrating how Jason was going to be the local Member for the Strathfield electorate. I live on the border of his electorate, and around 15 minutes away from Strathfield the suburb. Naturally, I was curious to check out who this older Asian Australian, representing a community so close to home, was and what he stood for. It was also unusual for me to see posts about or by other Asian Australians on my LinkedIn feed (something that I hope will change in the near future).

When I looked into Jason’s background, I was inspired by how much he had done as a community advocate as a young man (campaigning against Pauline Hanson and One Nation in 1998, and leading the movement to make Australia a Republic in 1999), a lawyer and as a successful businessman. He seemed to have a diverse range of interests - something which I related to very much - and had the courage and determination to pursue all of them, and to great success. It was really when I read Jason’s inaugural speech to the NSW Legislative Assembly, that cemented in me that I needed to meet and interview him. Not only did I really resonate with his story of growing up as an Asian Australian in Sydney, and saw so many parallels despite the difference in age - above all, I could see his passion for engaging with and helping the community and I respected his values and drive as an individual.

I hope Jason’s story inspires you as much as it did, me.
What are you currently up to, and what do you do in your spare time?
I’ve been the Member for Strathfield since February 2022. My job can be divided into three parts: the first part is to be really engaged with the community - speaking to residents, getting to know local community associations and understanding what their concerns are and how I can help solve their problems. The second part is the parliament side, where I debate legislation and speak on issues representative of my community. The third part is the policy-making where I think about questions relating to how we can make residents of the State’s lives better. How do we run a transport portfolio, and improve the healthcare and education system in a sustainable and impactful way?

In terms of spare time, I do as much as I can with my family. I’ve got three children - two of whom are teenagers and one who is almost a teenager. It’s tricky because politics can be all-consuming and it’s something you want to give 100% to. It leaves me with little spare time as such, so I want to do as much with my family when I do get that time.
After campaigning against Pauline Hanson and One Nation in 1998, and leading the movement to make Australia a Republic in 1999, you received a number of offers to enter mainstream politics. Instead you went into a career of law, business and community advocacy. How do you think your decision to enter the private sector at that time has influenced you as a political leader now?
I was really young, around 26-27, when I first got involved in a lot of these political issues and big national campaigns. Since I led a lot of those campaigns, there was a lot of attention on me. I got caught up in keeping up the public profile – granted, I was a lot younger back then. At the time I had an offer to run for political office, and I had to decide between that and a scholarship offer to go and do my master's at NYU. I remember, my dad came into my room when we were trying to make this decision. And he said – Jason, if you were to leave Australia now, it would be the worst thing for your political career – people will forget about you, people's political memories are really short, even if you're away for two years. But he could also see how I was getting caught up with all this stuff about keeping my public profile up and wanting to be seen and be on the right programmes. So he told me that it might be best for me to walk away from it now, and if I were to decide to come back to it when I was older, I would know that I was coming back for the right reasons. And I thought that was pretty good advice at the time.

That's why I went to New York. It took me on a completely different non-political path where I went into much larger organisations. I had a business career before coming back to politics. The main thing that I learned – apart from being older and more mature and having much more life experience – is the importance of organisational leadership.

A lot of politics that you see is almost a presidential style of leadership. It's about your profile and how you’re perceived in the media and in front of an audience. Big organisations favour organisational leadership. That is – how do you build a team? How do you motivate that team to get things done? And how do you bring a group of people together? You have to set a course for them, grounded in the right values, so that you can move forward together to achieve something. It's a very, very different type of leadership that’s often not about you. How do you push other people forward? How do you empower other people to do things? How do you set things up such that it's not actually your idea, it’s somebody else's idea? Because when it's somebody else's idea, they will own it and they will want to take it forward. How do you help somebody build that capability and make them confident that they can take something forward rather than you. It’s such a different type of leadership.

When you think about being a well-rounded leader, and if you think about the complexity of the sorts of issues that not just governments but everybody deals with nowadays, I think you do need that well rounded leadership capability in order to tackle the big issues. If you're entirely a presidential leader, your team is going to be a mess, and you're not going to be able to manage the complex bureaucracies and politics around people to get things done. If you're purely an organisational leader, you might struggle with building that personal brand and profile to be successful in a presidential style of politics. That’s really the benefit of having seen both sides – getting the change to develop that more well-rounded leadership capability.
What has been one of your favourite memories, as Member for Strathfield?
It would be the celebration on election night. My dad was just so excited because it hasn't just been a journey for me, it's been a journey for my family as well. My mum and dad have always been such great supporters. They’ve been through the highs and lows with me. That night when we knew that we'd won, and all the supporters and the party were there to support me, my dad was so excited that he rushed onto the stage and gave me a big hug. For me, that was a really really special moment.

I think one moment that really summed it up for me was something I spoke about in my first speech to the NSW Legislative Assembly. When I was at a local girls high school, all of a sudden these two girls ran up to me out of nowhere. One was Asian and the other one was Eurasian. They told me that they were really proud of me, and that it was great for them to see some representation. That was amazing because, whether I'd articulated it or not - the heart of what I'd always wanted to do was to inspire young people who don’t fit into the main Australian demographic to say, look this is our country too, we are just as Australian as everyone else, we can participate in the democratic institutions of this country. Especially as Asian Australians growing up in this country, we just haven’t seen a lot of people who look like us, in these democratic institutions. We haven't had a lot of role models that inspire us. And if I can just do a little bit of that, I'd be super happy.
What are some of the biggest issues and values that the Strathfield Electorate cares about, and how do you ensure that you are consistently representing these concerns?
So the Strathfield electorate is a really special place. About 60% of residents were born overseas. We also have a huge amount of socio-economic diversity. In some places in Strathfield, there are houses that sell for $20 million, but at the same time we also have the state's fifth highest level of homelessness. At other parts of the electorate there is a large amount of socio-economic and educational disadvantage. So in that way, unlike most other electorates, we're kind of like a little microcosm of the state.

This gave me the ambition or the insight to realise that Strathfield would be a really good place to pilot different policy interventions. If you want to trial a policy at the national or even state level, it’s extremely complex. If you do it on a small scale, at an electorate level - for example Strathfield has about 100,000 people within 20 square kilometres - it’s much less complex. If you look at what works with the right evidence, you can then scale it up. So that's one thing about Strathfield.

The next thing is that Strathfield is so reflective of my family's background. The migrant story, upbringing, and value set around the importance of education, diligence and the sacrifice that parents undergo for their kids’ education - we’re surrounded by these values here. You can feel it when you talk to the people. Strathfield is just one of these places that gives expression to who my family is and who I am as a person. It's great that there is this resonance, and I hope it means that I can be a really good representative.

What I really hope to do, is address all the concerns that the residents have told me about - whether it's COVID-19, the cost of living, the state of the economy, the state of our hospitals and our health care system, the quality of education, climate change and the damage to our environment. All of these integrate and relate to the central, long-term strategy that I'm trying to put into the local community, an initiative called Healthier, Happier Strathfield. The initiative is based on two key principles: firstly that physical, mental, social, environmental and economic wellbeing are interconnected and mutually dependent - you can’t tackle one aspect without the others; and secondly that our initiatives and projects must be collaborative and owned and driven by the community to have real, grassroots impact. This is the central thing that I really want to do here in Strathfield.

This idea was really inspired by the notion of Blue Zones, places on earth where people live longer, healthier and happier lives, often to 100. There’s Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy and Loma Linda in California. People just naturally live to 100, and there’s not one reason. It's partly their diet which is very healthy, partly physical activity since they live active lives, and partly their strong social connections and having a strong sense of purpose and belonging in their community. All of these things together somehow means that people live up to 100. And I thought, what if we could make Strathfield a Blue Zone? It's not going to happen right away, but over 10, 20 years, what if we could say this is a place where people just live longer? Where we make tangible improvements on all of those aspects I’ve mentioned. That's at the centre of my thinking around how I want to help the local electorate.
Do you have any advice for young Asian Australians who want to participate more in civic engagement but don’t know how to, and perhaps don’t feel like they are encouraged to?
A good definition of being Australian should have nothing to do with where you're from, or your cultural background or the colour of your skin or what religion you are. It should have everything to do with the contribution that you make to your community or to your country. In participating, you define who you are as an Australian because you give to this country, and you’re a part of this country. So that's the first thing - the importance of just getting involved and participating.

The second thing - be proud of your culture. Be proud of where you come from, but always, always believe that it is reconcilable with being Australian. Regardless of what's going on out there geopolitically - aside from First Nations people, everybody comes from somewhere. It is intrinsic to Australia being an immigrant nation and an indigenous nation, that people come from different backgrounds. That is an innate part of being Australian. Be proud of your upbringing and your cultural background, and know that it is completely consistent with being Australian at the same time.

The third thing is, acknowledging that there are still barriers out there. There is still discrimination. There is still a bamboo ceiling. It's still hard to find the right role models. Something I see quite a bit is if you’re ambitious and belong to a minority, there’s almost the sense that you want and need to get somewhere first - be the first person to be a CEO, get a certain award, be the first Asian in Parliament or as a minister. I get that, but it's much better if we can work together with our peers, support each other, promote and push each other forward. Under the understanding that if one of us makes it, there is a reciprocal responsibility to bash down the doors and let the others through. It's a team effort. I think this is so important because I often see how internally competitive the different Asian communities are. We argue a lot and we're not sufficiently united. I hope that moving forward, we can be more united and support each other more, with the understanding that those in positions of influence or authority, have a responsibility to bash down the doors and pull the others up.
on culture and identity
Growing up in Sydney, what has your personal experience with your Chinese background been like?
I remember when I went to primary school at Kingsgrove Public School - I think I was the only Asian kid in my class in Kindergarten to Year 2, which is so different now. On face-value, being Asian back then meant you were much more of a minority. I was really conscious of my difference because there were far fewer Asians in Australia. And the racism I experienced was a very in-your-face but simple, almost innocent type of racism based on the fact that I looked different: your eyes are a different shape, your skin is a different colour, you speak a different language. So people would call that out - you’re different. This was the kind of racism I experienced back then.

Growing up Asian Australian is much more different now. In the 70s, being Asian Australian went to the heart of my identity. As a young person, I would always find myself asking whether I was really Australian. I wanted to fit in. I didn’t like being different. I didn’t like speaking Chinese because I didn’t want to sound different. I just wanted to be the same - like everyone else. There was so much less cultural power back then.I think that for a lot of Asian Australians my generation and even older ones, our pride and our culture was a much more private thing. It wasn’t as much a public thing and certainly for kids wrestling with their identity it’s something we wanted to hide and suppress because we just didn’t want to be different.

How did your experience studying and working abroad affect your identity as an Australian?
These questions of identity, I think go to the heart of a lot of what people who come from different cultures wrestle with because we have a cultural background that cannot be escaped. It’s the culture of your family, it’s rooted in the language that your parents speak to you when you’re young, the stories that you’re told, the food you eat, how you celebrate special occasions like Lunar New Year.

I have Chinese heritage, but at the same time, I’m Australian. I was born in Australia, my nationality is Australian and I can’t be anything else, I’m not anything else. In many ways, certainly, many Asians of my generation felt like it was hard to reconcile these things especially when we were younger - I think we tried to hide a lot more of our Asian-ness. I think as we became older and more confident of who we were - but at the same time when Asia became more powerful, more trendy and more cool, when there was a lot more cultural power and cultural currency to be Asian - we got the confidence to express our Asian-ness, and for me my Chinese-ness a lot more in Australia.

So when I first went overseas as a 21-22 year old, this experience almost unshackled me from this identity pressure because I felt like I could more openly say that I was Australian, and really proudly say that I was Australian. Interestingly, being overseas made me feel a lot more Australian than when I was growing up in Australia.
You lived in Beijing, China for 10 years, when you were appointed as General Manager, Sales & Marketing for IAG’s subsidiary China Automobile Association. What was it like to permanently live in China for a substantial period as an adult?
It was amazing. I always wondered - where did all these habits come from? Taking your shoes off in the house, fighting for the bill, having a shower at night…where did all these cultural things come from? So from a young age I’ve always wanted to experience living and working in China.

When I was working for IAG the opportunity to start their division in China came up. So I was a part of the team that took them to China. When I first went there, my Chinese wasn’t great. I knew Cantonese because of my family. I studied a little bit of Mandarin in high school so I knew pinyin (a system that spells out the pronunciation of Chinese words with the Latin alphabet). And that was kind of enough - I’ve always been reasonably good at languages and studied them. But the combination of having Cantonese and knowing pinyin, along with getting thrown in the deep end where I had to manage a big team all in Chinese and almost no English - I found that I learnt Mandarin very very quickly, just drawing on my Cantonese language background. I found that within a few years I found that my Mandarin was at a point where I could conduct business, manage people. I’ve managed to keep up my Chinese now.

It was an amazing experience in the sense that I think that I discovered my Chinese-ness in a much deeper way. Up until when I went to live and work in China, I didn’t really understand my Chinese-ness. It was always something that stayed a little bit hidden, and something I wasn’t completely confident to speak about. When I did speak about it, it was politically related such as when it was threatened in the Pauline Hanson times and in political debates. In that context I could talk about it in terms of the importance of multiculturalism. But it was still something I wasn’t 100% confident in talking about, and that was unlocked when I lived and worked in Chinese. I kind of discovered my Chinese-ness and became much more confident in that aspect of myself, and felt that I could reconcile it with being Australian. The problem now is that it’s no longer as easily reconcilable. Back in the day, Australia and China had a great relationship that was mutually beneficial. Now it’s backtracked, and it’s like we’ve gotten back to that point where it’s very difficult to reconcile your Chinese-ness and Australian-ness - and I think that’s what most Chinese Australians face today.

Also, from living in China for so long and living amongst Chinese people - it becomes pretty obvious that the people in China really aren’t that different from ourselves. Chinese people living in China aren’t all raving Communists dressed in Mao suits, sitting around the dinner table plotting the downfall of Western democracy. They’re just regular people. They have very similar conversations as we do in Australia, just in Chinese - they talk about their jobs, their promotions, horrible days at work, all their kids’ activities and how it takes up all their time, cost of living pressures, where they’re going to take their next holiday etc. Exactly the thing that Australian families talk about.

It reinforced the universality of how we are all just human beings, in this modern society. So it’s very disturbing when you hear in the Australian media the framing of the entire notion of the Chinese State and all the people living in it as being an aggressive, monolithic threat to modern Western democracy and modern Australia. That sort of language is tremendously unhelpful and inaccurate. It buries the fact that, whether deliberately or not, that we as people, from all sorts of cultures, are all the same.
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
It’s probably to do with my grandma. So when I was growing up, my grandma (mum’s side) lived in New Zealand - she migrated over from Hong Kong in 1958. We used to see grandma every Christmas, spending around 4-5 weeks there.

I remember every night before she went to bed, she used to have this ritual of praying. Around her living room there would be all these different shrines. There would be one shrine where she kept the ashes of my late grandfather, some other pictures of ancestors with incense at the front. She would recite these prayers for 5-10 minutes. Then she would move to her right where there was an effigy of the Virgin Mary - our family is Catholic as well - and there she would spend 5-10 minutes praying to the Virgin Mary. And then she would shuffle to the right again to a statue of Buddha and pray in front of Buddha. I would watch this ritual she did and find it quite funny, seeing my grandma covering all of her bases.

This struck me - this is what happens with migration. This is what happens when you take someone from one cultural context and to another - people adapt and evolve. And a mixture of all these cultures become a part of who they are. I think this is a story that a lot of migrants can relate to. It’s almost an allegory for the way we live our lives.