How to handle the finger-wagging from Beijing
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How to handle the finger-wagging from Beijing

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review (Photo: 

The bad news is, so we're constantly told, China is trying to influence Australia. And from time to time, it appears to be having some success.

The good news is that we might not need to be so alarmed. Alert, yes, but not alarmed. And that's because, firstly, the ways in which China wants to influence us are clearly evident, and secondly, because they're not always very good at it.

Chinese political elites make no secret that they believe the global story about China to be biased and unfair. They feel that the Western media portrays China negatively and inaccurately. It is Chinese government policy to, as they see it, engage in and influence activities to rebalance this misrepresentation. Or, put another way, engage in a Leninist ideological battle. The investment in Chinese international media is one obvious example – figures are not exactly known, but somewhere in the region of $US6 billion was invested in Chinese media going abroad in 2009. The goal, as President Xi explains clearly, is to "tell China's story well" and "strengthen discourse power" – both at home and around the world.

There are several particular points that Chinese elites wish to convince us of. At the highest level are the country's "core interests''. These were broadened considerably in 2009 from the previous understanding simply of sovereignty – over Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang. Core interests are now: maintaining the existing political system under the rule of the Communist Party; defending sovereignty and territorial integrity; and economic development. These are seen as sacrosanct and non-negotiable. What comes under these is somewhat flexible, but as far as Australia is concerned, currently includes: not chastising China about human rights; not disputing its claims in the South China Sea or East China Sea; not supporting Falun Gong which is seen as a threat to Communist Party rule; sending back Chinese fugitives in Australia to be dealt with according to Chinese law; not being so concerned about Chinese investments and business acquisitions in Australia; and not questioning China's sovereignty over Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet or Xinjiang, for example by meeting leaders like the Dalai Lama or Rebiya Kadeer.

Undiplomatic approach

Like others in the foreign policy world, at the Lowy Institute we enjoy many meetings with delegations from various countries. None are as good as China at telling us why Australia is wrong about any or all of the above. I am not exaggerating when I say that sometimes senior Chinese delegation members will ask us what we think, and then talk loudly over the top of us when we answer, literally wagging their fingers in our faces as they scold us for our mistaken views.

I should note this is not always the case, and we do from time to time have very open and honest discussions with serious and highly competent Chinese interlocutors. We also know of examples in which sophisticated Chinese elites have successfully persuaded Australian politicians that, for example, the South China Sea is none of Australia's business, or that signing the extradition treaty is really no big deal.

But for the most part, those whose mission is to persuade rarely do so with subtlety or flair. This undiplomatic approach, seen also for example in Chinese behaviour at an international conference in Western Australia in May, has a counter-productive effect. It alerts Australians to the issues at stake, and, frankly, gets the backs up of even the most pleasantly-disposed of us.

So, given that we know what China's attempts to influence Australia involve, what should we do?

Critical faculties

Fortunately, we can choose how to respond. Quite simply, we can choose not to agree. While of course we should be open to and respectful of different views and beliefs, we can at the same time be clear on what we think and believe. We can use our critical faculties developed through our education system to objectively weigh up what we are being told. We can use our public forums to rationally debate, discuss, and even passionately argue various perspectives. We can, ultimately, continue to think and believe what we see as right.

We are in a time of uncertainty, as Julie Bishop likes to say, and as Australia's recent Foreign Policy White Paper describes it. Under President Donald Trump, Australia's most "powerful friend" seems to be questioning its long-held role in the region, leaving us feeling uncertain and vulnerable. At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping's rhetoric around China's strength under the leadership of the Communist Party is increasingly confident. The recent debates about Chinese influence are hitting a raw nerve, but perhaps we are reacting with more heat than light.

Areas of expertise: China; Chinese foreign and domestic policy; Chinese development policy