Foreign Affairs

China Down Under

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is driven by a single goal: to attain stability to continue to reign indefinitely. As part of its efforts, much of its foreign policy in neighboring regions has been focused on stealing states away from the West and bringing them into its own sphere of influence. With the world on its side, the party can ensure its place at home. In February, Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) and the Vice-Chancellor’s Chair in Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, Clive Hamilton, published the book “Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia” detailing how the CCP uses this approach to influence Australian politics and society. This isn’t a Southeast Asian nation being swallowed up by the Belt and Road Initiative. Rather, Australia is very much considered part of the West. While the country sometimes gets ignored due to its far-off Southern location, this remains true: Chinese success there can mean Chinese success elsewhere. In a special Clements Security Center lecture earlier this month, Hamilton discussed the book and his findings.

According to Hamilton, China focuses on its perception in Australia. The CCP employs its “magic weapons” of psychological techniques, aimed at both the Chinese diaspora in Australia and the rest of the country’s population. The strategy suppresses negative views and promotes positive ones. If the Australian people and government see China in the context of friendship and benevolence, China-friendly policy will follow.

The United Front Work Department (UFWD) is the main agency that controls these activities of suppression and promotion. The department is tasked with handling relations with individuals and entities outside of the Party. Its primary objective is to garner support and utility for the CCP, mainly through soft power schemes. Everything from overseas propaganda, foreign relations, monitoring of Chinese students studying abroad, and secretive operations get funnelled through the UFWD. Australia hosts a number of agencies under the agency, with the main Australian body being the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC).

As dictated by the UFWD and ACPPRC, Australian higher education has been influenced by China through programs like Confucius Institutes and Classrooms. These are collaborations with Chinese universities for Chinese language and culture education. The most innocent view of the program instills China-friendly experiences on Australian campuses. However, it has also been accused of being a vehicle for propaganda and considered a threat as it offers direct Chinese influence in schools.

Going further, the control of Chinese students studying in Australia is another issue in the education sector. There have been accusations of the CCP using students to spy on research, spread propaganda, and challenge academics who disagree with the CCP. The main concern is over censorship of collegiate works and opinions criticizing China. Hamilton himself was forced to delay publishing his book due to threat of defamation action.

In addition, these agencies exploit the business ties between Australia and China. The allure of trade gains and economic benefits from China can be utilized to attain pro-Beijing attitudes and policies. In 2015, China and Australia signed a free trade agreement to boost economic activities in both countries. Here, the CCP was associated with the export boosts and market access — all positive things.

Also, Chinese embassies work with these agencies in Australia’s major cities to promote ethnic Chinese organizations and hometown associations, which foster pro-China sentiments among Chinese-Australians. Arguably direct representatives of China, these people have been used to disseminate and encourage support for Chinese stances. In 2016, Chinese community groups protested the Hague international tribunal ruling against Chinese presence in the South China Sea. It’s one thing to read pamphlets or see pro-Chinese government leaders on a screen, but these organizations and associations provide more direct connections.

Lastly, cultural events are run by these agencies to “showcase” Chinese culture and, again, foster goodwill among Australians. Used as a way to celebrate the country’s multiculturalism, China has a favorable image and is made an important part of Australia’s makeup. This year’s Lunar New Year celebration in February saw the Sydney Opera House bathed in red to celebrate the Chinese celebration. Such events also give Australian leaders the chance to personally show support for China, seen when former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull took to Twitter with his granddaughter to wish a happy Lunar New Year.

Initially, these activities were largely ignored and allowed for the purpose of maintaining economic relations. Sure, some elections and politics were being affected by pro-Beijing players, but that was perceived as a small price to pay for the continued flow of trade with the Asian power. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, Chinese exports to Australia amounted to $43.8 billion in 2016. The continuation of this massive Sino-Australian trade was deemed necessary no matter what. Recently, there has been a realization that this attitude severely endangers the sovereignty, democracy, and security of Australia. As a result, the government is actively passing policy to address the issue.

The most severe legislation was passed in June, which criminalized covert or threatening action on behalf of foreign entities for influence purposes. In addition, foreign lobbyists are required to register on a public list for greater transparency. The “Foreign Interference Law” now makes Australia an international leader in implementing measures against espionage and interference in democratic processes. While not outright aimed at the CCP, Chinese operations will now be under legal scrutiny. Beijing has protested against this as the CCP believes it to be a direct discriminatory attack against the Chinese people. Australians have expressed worry over how the law will be effectively implemented. There is specific concern over how broad the definition for “foreign interference” is. The law could undermine free speech, evidenced by follow-up legislation seeking to ban foreign political donations. While these concerns persist, general anxiety over Chinese influence has culminated into this legislative action.

Australia is likewise addressing Chinese presence in the business world by committing to more extensive review of foreign investment. A lack of review in the past was most clearly seen in 2015 when the 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin was awarded to the Chinese company Landbridge Group. Critics have labeled the acquisition a security threat due to the port’s proximity to Australian naval forces, not to mention the presence of a marine supply base on the port. The lease has also stoked fears of foreign ownership of national infrastructure. Landbridge founder and chairman Ye Cheng expressed intent to incorporate the port into the Belt and Road Initiative. Additionally, Landbridge sought a $500 million loan from Chinese state-run Export-Import Bank with the port as security, meaning a default could hand the lease over to the Chinese government. Furthermore, there were concerns that the government had been compromised when former trade minister Andrew Robb, who supported the lease, accepted a job at Landbridge shortly after. These controversies over this single port have led to calls for greater caution in future Chinese investments.

Australia is also working on visa reform, specifically for Chinese students and scientists travelling for research. In a recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Australia and other Western powers are lacking caution in allowing Chinese military scientists to collaborate with their universities. There is a risk that the findings from Australian universities could be taken back to Beijing to develop Chinese military programs. In response, Australia has been more stringent in awarding visas, specifically seen in denying student visas to Chinese students.

This commotion is happening in Australia, so why should the U.S. be concerned? China would have less success implementing these same tactics in the States. The U.S. has a greater population, which requires greater work to influence. For example, there is a larger amount of Chinese students studying abroad in the U.S., but universities here experience less influence than their Australian counterparts. On top of this, the U.S. has greater economic power than Australia that it can leverage. Its media is also arguably more powerful and harder to sway.

Despite this, China can still have its way in some cases, and has exhibited the same soft power “perceptual” influence on the U.S. In 2013, Bloomberg News infamously pulled investigative pieces on Chinese elites after threats that they would be kicked out of China if they published. Hollywood has increasingly featured movies appealing to China to access the behemoth market of the Chinese box office. As in Australia, threats and incentives alter Chinese perception for the benefit of the CCP. The implementation of these tactics abroad still affect the U.S. as well, with Australia struggling both to satisfy long-term military and political commitments to the U.S. and maintain economic ties with China.

The more tangible clashes with China are widely discussed in conversations about the U.S. economy — such as the continuing trade war — and military confrontation — such as when ships from both nations recently sailed dangerously close to each other in the South China Sea — are easy to notice and publicize. The more subtle cultural and perceptual influences are just now being widely realized. Australia seems to have already experienced much of this, therefore demanding legislative action. The U.S. is just now realizing the threat.

What should we do? What can we do? The current situation in the U.S. doesn’t really warrant the same, severe legislative action as in Australia. Additionally, the U.S. tends to act xenophobically when it faces foreign threat, evident in the internment of Japanese at the breakout of World War II. We cannot afford a similar discriminatory response. Moreover, there is so much we could lose by outright restricting any interaction with China. The immense amounts of trade and research we exchange is mutually beneficial, and ceasing all flows will harm us in the end.

What we need is further discussion so we can clarify how deep China is in the U.S, and where they’re projected to go. We need calm clarification and realization. This is an interaction with the government of the CCP that needs to be dealt with, not a crisis that justifies discrimination against the Chinese people nor our complete isolation from the Asian power. There is an inherent threat, but we cannot let it devolve into a second Red Scare or a new Cold War.

Categories: Foreign Affairs

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2 replies »

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