Australian Scholars Debate Chinese Influence

On March 19, over 30 leading Chinese-born Australians and China scholars, including Australian National University’s Geremie Barmé, signed an open letter criticizing Australia’s proposed bill to curb foreign political influence, particularly with regards to Beijing. The next week, on March 26, an opposing second letter was published by other prominent China scholars and members of the Chinese diaspora, including professor Feng Zhongyi, refuting many of the first letter’s claims and arguing for open debate. This exchange has intensified the already heated discussion surrounding Chinese influence in Australia, and how Canberra should respond to it.

The bill in question is the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017, one of three bills comprising Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s sweeping intelligence law reforms announced December last year. The criticism centers on two areas. The first is the effect on free speech from the bill’s Division 121.1, which “criminalizes the handling of information deemed likely to harm Australia’s interests […], or to prejudice national security, which is defined to include Australia’s ‘political, military or economic relations with another country or other countries.'” Under the name Concerned Scholars of China, they write in the open letter on Policy Forum:

Scholars in our field frequently receive requests to discuss issues that touch on questions of national security, and we anticipate such requests only becoming more frequent as discussion surrounding the People’s Republic of China encounters issues of political interference, espionage, and the possibility of regional conflict. We are alarmed that the new legislation would criminalize the simple act of receiving information deemed harmful to the national interest, let alone discussing it in public. While exemptions have been proposed for journalists, this does nothing to assuage our concern that the freedom of scholars to fulfil their public function will be threatened by these laws. [Source]

Both Human Rights Watch and Australian Lawyers for Human Rights echoed this sentiment with supporting letters on the potential free speech violations that could arise from the proposed bill.

The second criticism leveled by the Concerned Scholars of China is a broader refutation of allegations of Chinese influence, which they claim are motivated by and contribute to a climate of racism against all Chinese in Australia. They continue:

We strongly reject any claim that the community of Australian experts on China, to which we belong, has been intimidated or bought off by pro-PRC interests. We situate ourselves in a strong Australian tradition of critical engagement with the Chinese political system, and it is precisely our expertise on China that leads us to be sceptical of key claims of this discourse.

We see no evidence, for example, that China is intent on exporting its political system to Australia, or that its actions aim at compromising our sovereignty. We believe the parliament would be wrong to be guided by such assumptions in its debate on these laws.

Where criticism of China’s actions is substantiated by clear evidence, there should be no hesitation in applying scrutiny and appropriate penalties. Too often, though, the media narrative in Australia singles out the activities of individuals and organisations thought to be linked to the Chinese state and isolates them from a context of comparable activity, engaged in by a range of parties (among them our allies).

In doing so it puts a sensational spin on facts and events. Instead of a narrative of an Australian society in which the presence of China is being felt to a greater degree in series of disparate fields, we are witnessing the creation of a racialised narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy. [Source]

Kirsty Needham of the Sydney Morning Herald quotes prominent supporters of the first letter:

The first Australian ambassador to China, Stephen Fitzgerald, is among the signatories. He told Fairfax Media: ‘It takes a lot to get China scholars to agree. The last time it happened in Australia was in response to the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. This time, it concerns what is happening here in Australia, and the way in which debate about China and our relations with it is being prosecuted.’

Mr Fitzgerald said it was significant that the signatories to the letter included notable critics of the Chinese government ‘and people who have long warned in a responsible way about the challenge of China as a Great Power and urged Australia to prepare for this’.

University of Sydney senior lecturer David Brophy [another signatory] said: ‘The idea that Australia’s sovereignty is threatened by a vast Chinese conspiracy has been a popular talking point in the debate around these new laws. We didn’t want parliament to debate the laws without knowing that many of Australia’s China experts reject this narrative. More than that, they see it as divisive and dangerous.’ [Source]

In contrast, the second letter doesn’t take a firm stance on the new legislation but calls for an open debate. The letter responds to the first’s criticism that the bill will pressure “one particular section of our society to demonstrate its loyalty to Australia at the expense of its freedom to criticize Australian policies and actions,” and further outlines its claim of Chinese influence:

We are mindful also that racism is precisely the accusation that is encouraged and levelled by the CCP itself as it tries to silence the current discussion. Through these accusations and its efforts to infiltrate Chinese communities, the CCP seeks to position itself as the protector of overseas Chinese and drive a wedge between Chinese communities and the rest of Australia.

Should the CCP’s operations of interference be allowed to continue in Australia, they will fuel divisiveness between Chinese communities and other Australians, weaken the Australian government’s ability to communicate with Chinese communities and harm the democratic rights of Chinese Australians.

We appreciate and welcome the deep and dynamic connections between China and Australia in society, culture and trade. We believe that people of Chinese origin in Australia, whether citizens of this country or not, expect and deserve the same freedoms as others in our democratic system: to express opinions on any question, and to support or criticise any policy. Whether a scholar at an Australian university, or a student from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong or Taiwan, all should be able to express their point of view free of fear or , whether from forces foreign or domestic. [Source]

Despite their opposing stances, the division between the two groups may not be as wide as depicted by some, as Stephen Dziedzic of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation notes:

The first group of China scholars included several heavyweights. But some of the scholars who signed this letter were angered by their suggestion they were speaking for all China specialists.

The second group of academics do not lay out a united position on the foreign interference legislation being put forward by the Government, and the letter makes it clear some of the signatories believe the proposed laws should be changed substantially.

But it also recognises concerns the current laws are not strong enough to counter the threat of foreign interference.

Their main argument is that the full-throated debate on foreign interference should not be smothered. [Source]

These letters build on a growing Australian debate over Chinese influence. John Garnaut, former journalist and senior advisor to Malcolm Turnbull, accused Beijing of interference, both in an article in Foreign Affairs and more recently when testifying to the U.S. House Committee on Armed Services. Clive Hamilton’s recent book “Silent Invasion” has been totemically used by both sides: some see it as an example of misinformation with racist undertones, others see the initial publisher’s cancellation of the book as an act of self-censorship ahead of pressure from Beijing. Indeed, an Australian man’s link to this book was used as partial justification for his deportation when visiting Shanghai to scatter his father’s ashes last week.

Supporters of the proposed bill look towards incidents such as former Australian trade minister Andrew Robb’s A$880,000 payment from a Beijing-affiliated company for a vaguely-defined role, and Senator Sam Dastyari resigning over links with an influential Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo. Affiliates of Huang were then found to have donated in excess of A$250,000 to the Labor, Liberal, and National parties. This is combined with Xi Jinping in his first term increasing the budget for China’s United Front Work Department, which lobbies for Communist Party interests abroad. With an new, unclear mandate agreed on during the 2018 National People’s Congress for the UFWD, see CDT’s analysis for greater explanation.

A notable signatory of the second letter, Professor of Sydney University of Technology, was detained for a week and interrogated by security officials when visiting China one year ago to conduct research on human rights. During a panel discussion on March 26 of the CCP’s influence in Australia, Shelley Zhang (@shelzhang) of The China Girls, tweeted:

Feng’s comments add to the recent discussion over Chinese-language newspapers in Australia, almost all of whom are aligned with Beijing and avoid publishing news critical of the CCP. With similar examples in Africa and Taiwan, this is seen as representative of growing encroachment by China into the media in other countries. The Federation for a Democratic China, in its letter supporting the second open letter and espionage bills, agrees:

Since 1986, Australia allowed a large wave of Chinese nationals to immigrate to Australia. About 45,000 Chinese nationals obtained permanent residency and later citizenship as a result of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. The PRC worked effectively on this enlarged Chinese community deeply connected with mainland China to win them over through diverse means, exploiting the freedom of association and press in Australia to infiltrate, monopolize and even control the Chinese language media and most of the associations with ethnic Chinese background. […] The FDC welcomes and supports the Prime Minister’s statement that Australian has stood up, defending the principles and values of Australia. [Source]