Australia Mulls Response to Feared Chinese Influence

In recent years, concerns have been mounting over China’s increasing soft cultural influence in Australia—including perceived editorial sway in local Chinese-language media, donations from the Beijing and CCP-tied tycoons to public universities, and allegedly Party-sponsored protests on political issues such as the . Meanwhile, concerns have also been raised over Beijing-connected individuals taking advantage of Australia’s foreign political donation allowance to give generously to major political parties and candidates in hopes of buying hard influence—a practice that the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) warned against earlier this year. Australia’s Attorney General George Brandis last week met with officials in Washington to discuss U.S.-style “foreign agent” laws to guard local and national politics from CCP influence. At The Sydney Morning Herald, James Massola, Nick McKenzie, and Richard Baker report:

Mr Brandis intends to bring laws similar to the Foreign Agents Registration Act to Parliament by November, as part of broader legislation to target the “sub-espionage” level of foreign interference. This includes individuals covertly lobbying, infiltrating or donating to political parties on behalf of foreign governments.

The US legislation requires people working for, or lobbying on behalf of, foreign powers in a “political or quasi-political capacity” to publicly disclose their relationship or risk civil or criminal penalties.

[…] The laws will complement a promised ban on political from overseas nationals, although the details of the ban are yet to be unveiled.

[…] The government believes there are a range of covert activities taking place in Australia, which do not amount to espionage or spying but which are a form of interference in the Australian political process.

Three Chinese Australians involved with a Chinese Communist Party-aligned lobby group, the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, recently contested NSW council elections, while a Chinese businessman has sought to develop ties to senior former defence officials via sponsorship of a think tank. […] [Source]

See also a wide-ranging two-part multimedia exposé from Fairfax Media and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Beijing’s increasingly aggressive application of soft power in Australia from earlier this year (via CDT). A commentary piece in The Sydney Morning Herald from McKenzie (who its an investigative reporter for The Age, also owned by Fairfax Media) further describes the “hard” methods Beijing is using to influence Australian politics and to limit the speech of AU-based , arguing that a media focus on China’s use of “soft power” misrepresents the true risk of Chinese influence in Australia:

To downplay this effort by equating it to “soft power”  is misguided. Soft power doesn’t involve coercion, no matter how subtle. To ignore this effort is worse. It should go without saying that those in Australia being intimidated are entitled to the same freedoms as everybody else, regardless of where they are born.

It’s not just the Chinese language media where Beijing is deeply engaged in efforts to “guide” overseas Chinese. At universities, nationalistic students – sometimes of their own volition and sometimes with the “guiding” hand of Chinese consulate-sponsored student groups – are enmeshed in the broader CCP effort to shape or silence debate.

[…] Leading the pack is the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China. Among the serving and past key members of this Sydney organisation are political donors who have cultivated relationships with politicians of all persuasions.

The most stunning thing about the ACPPRC is not that it’s an active CCP organisation, despite its repeated claims to the contrary. (Its own website has described the ACPPRC’s meetings with the CCP’s “ Work Department” to discuss “directions and actions for profoundly promoting the development of the anti-independence and pro-reunification movement globally under new circumstances.”) […][Source]

The United Front Work Department, a domestic and foreign lobbying organization that reports directly to the CCP Central Committee, has been significantly expanded under Xi Jinping’s first five-year term. For more on Xi Jinping’s reinvigoration of the United Front Work Department, see a 2015 report from Gerry Groot at The China Story, or a 2017 brief on United Front work from Marcel Angliviel de la Beaumelle at The Jamestown Foundation. Concerns related to the massive political influence that Beijing has gained in Australia have spread across the Tasman Sea and into New Zealand, and a recent case study on United Front work from The Wilson Center’s Anne-Marie Brady focuses on political influence activities in New Zealand. Brady’s study notes that Beijing “regards as an exemplar of how it would like its relations to be with other states,” and outlines the recently publicized case of National Party MP Dr. Yang Jian, who prior to moving to NZ in 1999 had deeply cultivated ties to China’s military and intelligence agencies. (For more on the Yang Jian case, see coverage from the Financial Times’ Jamil Anderlini, who focuses on China’s exploitation on the openness of democratic countries, and the NZ case a “testing ground” for wider global espionage campaigns; or Michael Reddell at Newsroom, who asks readers to imagine a former KGB officer being an acceptable MP a generation ago.)

Xi’s United Front expansion has run parallel to a domestic campaign to reinforce ideological orthodoxy throughout the Party and the populace. The latter campaign has established institutes of post-secondary learning as a frontline. The nationalism that has been reinforced among university students at home amid the campaign has also begun manifesting in public protest by some of the many Chinese students abroad, most frequently and widely-covered lately in Australia. Some have expressed worry that a continuation of protests over content deemed politically incorrect by the growing number of Chinese students in Australian could threaten to slow Chinese enrollment in Australian education.

There are currently over 140,000 Chinese students on Australian campuses—accounting for 30% of Australia’s International students—who help offset shrinking federal university funding. While international fees from students have become significant portions of university revenues, direct partnerships with the Chinese government on research and innovation projects are also beginning to have economic appeal in Australia. Last year, Prime Minister Turnbull and Premier Li Keqiang jointly unveiled a $100 million innovation project at the University of New South Wales, the first overseas precinct of the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology’s “Torch” program which since 1988 has partnered businesses with universities in China.  At The Guardian, Anders Furze and Louisa Lim report on the “Pandora’s box of strategic and commercial risks for Australia” that analysts see in the partnership:

Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University, said: “I think the Torch program will make UNSW in effect a client university of the People’s Republic of China in its science and technology areas, and more broadly because PRC and its agencies will have a huge amount of sway over university decision-making.”

Rory Medcalf, the head of the Australian National University’s national security college, has expressed concern that research with potential for military use could bypass existing controls.

[…] UNSW has been explicit in its motivations for seeking alternatives to Australian government funding. “We didn’t want to keep going back, cap in hand, to Canberra asking for more,” Ian Jacobs, its vice chancellor, wrote in an in an article for the Australian newspaper last year. “Instead, we went to China.”

[…] UNSW is not the only Australian institution wooing Chinese Torch officials. In May, a 20-strong Torch delegation from China visited Griffith University’s Gold Coast campus as part of an exploratory tour of south-east Queensland. That came two months after Queensland minister Kate Jones met Torch representatives in China to discuss promoting the Gold Coast “health and knowledge precinct” as a future Torch project. […]. [Source]