Concerns Mount in Australia Over Beijing’s Influence

In recent years, concerns have been mounting over Beijing’s expanding soft cultural influence in Australia—including editorial sway in AU-based Chinese-language media, donations from the government and CCP-tied tycoons to public universities, and allegedly CCP-sponsored protests on hot-button political issues such as the . Meanwhile, concerns have also been raised over Beijing-connected individuals taking advantage of Australia’s federal-level foreign political donation allowance to give to major political parties and candidates in hopes of buying hard influence—a practice that the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) this week warned against.

In a two-part interactive multimedia exposé, Fairfax Media’s The Age delves into both issues. Both were reported cooperatively with the Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)’s Four Corners program, which also aired a video report on the topic this week. In part one, Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker, Sashka Koloff, and Chris Uhlmann report on the ways that Beijing is aggressively applying soft power in Australia, encouraging support for the Party line from the overseas Chinese community with rewards, and dissuading dissent through intimidation:

From a Brisbane share house littered with books and unwashed plates, the Queensland University of Technology  student [Tony Chang, whose parents in Shenyang were “invited to tea” by state security agents over Tony’s involvement in the AU-based pro-democracy movement] told a Fairfax Media-Four Corners investigation that the agents had intelligence about his plans to participate in a protest in Brisbane on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and also during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Australia.

[…] On university campuses, in the Chinese-language media and in some community groups, the party is mounting an influence-and-control operation among its diaspora that is far greater in scale and, at its worst, much nastier, than any other nation deploys.

[…] The depth of the concern at the highest levels of the defence and intelligence establishment can be measured in recent public statements by the departing Defence Force Chief and the director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

[…] Australia’s domestic spy chief Duncan Lewis warned Parliament that foreign interference in Australia was occurring on “an unprecedented scale”.

“And this has the potential to cause serious harm to the nation’s sovereignty, the integrity of our political system, our national security capabilities, our economy and other interests,” Lewis said. […]

[China expert and Swinburne professor John Fitzgerald says,] “Members of the Chinese community in Australia deserve the same rights and privileges as all other Australians, not to be hectored, lectured at, monitored, policed, reported on and told what they may and may not think.” […] [Source]

Part one also includes input from Australian security officials and China experts on the threat Chinese activities pose, details on CCP efforts to support and encourage patriotic activity on Australian campuses via the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (a government affiliated student group known to organize on campuses globally), and an interview with Dr. Feng Chongyi. Dr. Feng, a University of Technology Sydney scholar and AU permanent resident, was prevented from leaving China after a trip to interview rights  lawyers in China in March. Before he was finally allowed to return to AU, he was forced to sign a document forbidding him from discussing his questioning, but broke his silence on the affair with the Fairfax-ABC journalists.

ABC has also reported on the threats that CCP activities are believed to pose on Australian sovereignty:

The depth of the concern at the highest levels of the defence and intelligence establishment can be measured in recent public statements by the departing Defence secretary and the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

Australia’s domestic spy chief Duncan Lewis warned Parliament that espionage and foreign interference in Australia were occurring on “an unprecedented scale”.

[…] The outgoing Defence Department secretary, Dennis Richardson, named China as being “very active” in espionage and pointed to an equally troubling campaign of monitoring and coercion here. […] [Source]

Part two of The Age’s exposé focuses on ASIO concerns over multi-million dollars in donations to major AU political parties from two Chinese businessmen believed to have links to Beijing. Nick McKenzie, Chris Uhlmann, Ruchard Baker, Daniel Flitton, and Sashka Koloff report:

These two men were known to dislike each other. Both had amassed significant wealth in China. Both are significant donors to Australia’s political parties. One of them was a businessman called Huang Xiangmo. The other was Sheri Yan’s sometime employer, Dr Chau Chak Wing.

[…] Chau declined to answer questions put by Fairfax Media and Four Corners, and he appears to have shrugged off the matter. Two weeks after CC3 was identified in FBI documents, former prime minister Kevin Rudd attended Dr Chau’s Guangdong conference centre to speak at a global leadership event, pocketing a presumably hefty speaker’s fee.

[Former assistant secretary of the Office of National Assessments Roger] Uren is also confident that Chau does not have any connections of concern to the Chinese Communist Party.

ASIO, though, appears not to share his conviction. […] [Source]

For more on the gains China is attempting to make by leveraging AU’s political donation allowance, see a New York Times report from Damien Cave and Jacqueline Williams.

Following the Monday airing of ABC’s Four Corners video report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying was asked to comment in her June 5 press conference, in which she questioned the credibility of the reports:

Q: I wonder what is your response to reports today by the Australian media that the Chinese government backs Chinese students that harass, intimidate and threaten other students at Australian universities, and also that the Chinese government is operating a network of spies that threatens Australia’s national sovereignty.

A: I understand you are working with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation where this report originated. I wonder how much credit you give to this report. What’s told in the report is totally unfounded and irresponsible, and not worth refuting. I want to stress two points: first, China commits itself to conducting friendly exchanges and practical cooperation with Australia on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit. The development of China- has brought tangible benefits to the two peoples and served the common interests of the two sides; second, China urges the relevant Australian media to abide by the professional ethics of journalism, discard ideological bias and report on China’s development and China- in an objective and fair manner. Your reports should encourage friendly exchanges, mutual understanding and trust, and greater cooperation between the two peoples instead of creating obstacles for China-. [Source]

State-affiliated and often nationalistic tabloid Global Times reported on Hua’s “slamming” of the Fairfax-ABC exposé, highlighting her warning that the reports could damage ties between the two nations. The next day, Hua was again questioned on the reports and on AU’s inquiry into espionage laws which allow the alleged government interference. She reiterated the above June 5 response.

The Age’s editorial board today replied to the foreign ministry and state media condemnation of their reporting, explaining why the exposé is essential for the continuation of functional Sino-Australian relations:

[…] Chinese state-controlled media has condemned our publication, suggesting the stories will damage ties.
On the contrary, we believe this type of reporting to be essential to the foundation of a trusting partnership. While the extraordinary growth in the economic relationship with China over the past two decades has created strong connections, misalignment in attitude and practices will only be understood by close scrutiny.

[…] One arena is education. Australia is an increasingly popular destination for Chinese studying abroad, with a contribution that is most welcome. But the value of education in Australia is predicated on freedom of expression – the ability, even the willingness, to challenge authority and received wisdom.Beijing’s efforts to covertly monitor the activities of Chinese students on Australian campuses has the potential to damage the educational experience. China’s authoritarian rulers undoubtedly fear a democracy movement and have forcibly cracked down on most dissent. It is not for Australians to tell the Chinese people how to run their country, but the respect should also extend to how Australians choose to run their own. Intimidation is not the Australian way.

In politics, Australia has for too long allowed potential influence peddling through a set of opaque rules to govern to political campaigns. The Age revealed interest by security agency ASIO in two prominent Chinese billionaires, Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo. It was stressed that neither man was accused of any wrongdoing, but that their close ties to the Communist Party in China have been notable. […] [Source]

See also a special Sino-Australian relations issue from the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.