Commentary | 07 June 2017

China's influence in Australia is not ordinary soft power

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review

  • Rory Medcalf

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review

  • Rory Medcalf

At a security summit in Singapore last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned of risks of coercion as China's power rises.

He subtly noted that the most troubling question may not be whether Asia finds itself at war – which no nation wants – but rather what kind of peace we will have.

He is right. Australia is discovering that its paramount China challenge is not a few thousand nautical miles away in the South China Sea. It is right here at home.

Revelations are emerging of Chinese involvement in Australia's domestic affairs, which amount to sustained efforts at influence over our independent policy making.

Chinese influence

Russian interference in the American presidential election may be the most brazen assault by an authoritarian power on democratic institutions. But it is not the only one.

Forensic media investigations by Fairfax Media and ABC TV's Four Corners have uncovered multi-faceted interference by the Chinese Communist Party in Australia.

This includes propaganda and censorship in much of this nation's Chinese language media as well as even more troubling channels of interference through political donations, intimidation of dissident voices and the establishment and mobilisation of pro-Beijing organisations on Australian soil.

Australia's main political parties have received millions of dollars in donations from individuals and entities with credibly reported links to the Chinese Communist Party.

This is in addition to a pervasive but predictable espionage effort including human and cyber intelligence.

This is not ordinary soft power

All nations project the "soft" power of attraction, of winning the debate. Australia should welcome and facilitate Chinese voices in a transparent and evidence-based contest of ideas about this country's future.

But a picture is emerging of excessive influence through money, censorship and coercion. This is neither the soft power of free expression nor the hard power of military force.

Instead it is the sharp power of intrusive influence, including through the strategic granting then apparent withholding of political funds.

The reported Chinese Communist Party efforts to distort Australia's sovereignty go beyond what is acceptable in an even vaguely rules-based global system. It breaches historic norms of states' non-interference in each other's affairs, which China's leaders say they support.

And it undermines the principles of trust and mutual respect that are meant to inform worthy efforts by both nations to build a durable and comprehensive relationship.

Protecting Chinese Australians

Whether those providing the cash are seeking simply status or something else, their donations are damaging what should be constructive, respectful and beneficial relations between Australia and China.

It is essential to underline that criticism of Chinese state influence is not about ethnicity. In fact, among the more than a million Australians of Chinese origin, many are worried about the role of the Chinese party-state inside this country.

They are also understandably worried about the harm the actions of a small number may do to the reputation of the Chinese diaspora here, whether citizens, permanent residents or students.

Foreign interference and the rights of Chinese Australians now needs to become a set of issues addressed in a bipartisan manner and at the centre of Australian politics, to avoid any risk of the matter being dismissed as xenophobia.

As respected China scholar Professor John Fitzgerald has noted, the Chinese community makes an enormous contribution to this nation and is Australia's greatest asset in engaging with China. Prominent voices in this community are leading the pushback against Communist Party orchestration of influence in media, society and on university campuses.

Shutting up the critics

That is why it was so disturbing that one of those outstanding individuals, Associate Professor Feng Chongyi, was detained recently in China while on an Australian Research Council-funded visit.

He has now explicitly identified his 10-day interrogation as being an effort "to shut me down and set an example to dissenting views and critical voices among the Chinese diaspora and beyond".

Foreign interference in Australia is not solely a national security issue. It is a fundamental test of Australian social inclusiveness, cohesion, equity and democracy that we ensure all in this country have freedom of expression, freedom from fear and protection from untoward intervention by a foreign power.

The challenge now for our political class is what to do. Pressure is building not only for transparency but for significant law reform. Prime Minister Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis have initiated a comprehensive review of Australia's espionage and foreign interference laws (which at best seem flimsy and outdated).

This review is vital. It is essential to define what about foreign interference counts as criminal, what is more in the realm of unacceptable diplomatic practice, and what is merely a side-effect of the many benefits of global and regional connectedness.

An even more immediate question is whether there is within the Liberal and Labor electoral machines, and thus the Australian system of parliamentary democracy, enough self-respect to function without money linked to the Chinese Communist Party.

This is after all a secretive and self-preserving political entity with 82 million members worldwide, significant mobilising power within Australia and an agenda sometimes directly at odds with Australia's interests and institutions.