Is China Pulling the Strings Down Under?

Revelations about Chinese influence have rocked Australian media and politics. Should the U.S. have the same debate?

The national flags of Australia and China are displayed before a portrait of Mao Zedong facing Tiananmen Square, during a visit by Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Beijing on April 26, 2011. The trip is Gillard's first to China, Australia's top trading partner, and comes at a time when the communist country is waging its toughest crackdown on dissent in years. AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
The national flags of Australia and China are displayed before a portrait of Mao Zedong facing Tiananmen Square, during a visit by Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Beijing on April 26, 2011. The trip is Gillard's first to China, Australia's top trading partner, and comes at a time when the communist country is waging its toughest crackdown on dissent in years. AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

The Chinese Communist Party is waging a covert campaign of influence in Australia,” went the claim in the newspaper The Age, in a series of articles exploring China’s hard and soft power “Down Under.” The articles, and an episode of the popular documentary show Four Corners titled “Power and Influence,” set off a domestic debate about just how wary Australians should be about their largest trading partner. How carefully should Australia manage its ties with China moving forward? And, although American attention remains focused on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, should the United States have the same debate? —The ChinaFile Editors

Peter Mattis, Fellow, Jamestown Foundation:

A number of the things reported on the Four Corners program would, in fact, be crimes if they occurred in the United States. Part of the reason for the program’s controversy is that Australia’s laws create massive openings for a foreign government to exercise direct influence without breaking any laws. The central question for Australians is not really about China so much as the kind of democracy they want.

The Australians are not debating Chinese influence; they are debating Beijing’s attempt to exercise influence covertly and twist the integrity of the Australian political system. These are distinctions with a difference. In the crudest terms, it is one thing to play a person’s emotional and intellectual weaknesses across the table; it is quite another to compromise them.

This also is not about intelligence operations. Countering influence operations is a fundamentally different challenge than counterintelligence and counterespionage. When an intelligence service recruits an agent, there is an exchange for information. The exchange is not always clear, but it is present. When controlled information is at stake, the breach of legally-protected trust creates the grounds for prosecution. Influence is necessarily softer and more elusive. It may be reserved for a critical moment. It may be questions that go unasked.

The problem also is not Chinese soft power. Soft power in its original formulation meant the kind of intrinsic attractiveness of a country’s culture and international image. One might think of it as a society’s gravity in international affairs. The mobilization of people through enticement and coercion is not passive and is not a cultural megaphone broadcasting out beyond a country’s borders. This is about control.

Framing the Four Corners program and the issue it raises in any of these ways distracts from a few basic points that should be understood by skeptics and advocates alike.

First, conspiracy can be institutionalized and is not solely the product of a revolutionary party. The Soviet Union proved that with its disinformation departments, formal policymaking procedures, and the development of coherent operational methodologies. In China, the institutions and operational mindsets are present, but we frequently choose to forgo even raising questions about key pieces of the system. For example, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC) has been led by such figures as Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, Li Xiannian, and Li Ruihuan. The CPPCC sits atop the united front system, which still has part of its mission described in Mao’s words: “to mobilize [China’s] friends to strike at [China’s] enemies.”

Second, influence operations most often run on “mission orders”—borrowed from the German General Staff term Auftragstaktik—under which the key players have the latitude to decide what is appropriate under the circumstances to achieve objectives. The search for a clear chain of orders, decisions, and exchanges will not yield results. The Soviet example is again instructive. No orders to shape U.S. policy appear in the Venona intercepts, but tracing the document trail strongly suggests Soviet agents inside the U.S. Government kept the Soviet diversion of Lend-Lease equipment to Japan from becoming a policy issue involving President Roosevelt.

One need not ascribe monolithic stature to the Chinese party-state to develop a case that Beijing can direct wide-ranging operations abroad at students, overseas Chinese communities, foreign government officials, and foreign intellectuals. We know other aspects of the Chinese system operate this way. The propaganda and censorship apparatus provides lanes in the road in which writers must stay. There are simply too many published words in China for it to work any other way. Contrary to at least one critic’s assertion, no one interviewed in the program assumed a monolithic China.

Third, whatever else we think of the Chinese party-state, it is actively hostile to democratic ideas and values. Those who made it this far should consider re-reading Document No. 9 (2013) entitled “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere.” To protect itself, the Chinese leadership believes it must shape external actors to see China in particular ways and to preempt the wielding of the West’s greater material power against China. This is a battle of hearts and minds for what Chinese leaders fear may be the party-state’s very survival—and Party leaders have not shied away from this kind of language.

Fourth and finally, the racism at play in this issue is not about C.C.P. actions, but Western governments treating their ethnic Chinese citizens as second-class citizens. The most consistent element of racism in Western countries toward Chinese people is a Chinatown mentality dating back decades. This mentality is that we do not care what occurs in Chinatown and we do not have to understand it, so long as trouble stays inside Chinatown. Within a generation or two, these overseas Chinese became citizens of their new countries yet they have not received the protection they deserve as citizens from the predations and pressure of either the martial law-era Kuomintang or the C.C.P. Only Sweden and Germany in recent years have stepped in to stop problematic behavior.

Kerry Brown, Professor of Chinese Studies, King’s College:

Rumors of covert Chinese influence within Australia over politics, academia, and other areas have been rife for a number of years now. Ever since China became Australia’s largest trading partner around 2010, they have intensified. But it is hard to pick apart the ways in which this is simply the reappearance of long established local fears about vulnerability as a predominantly white, European-founded nation-state in the midst of Asia, or something new and more specific.

Its apprehensive attitude towards its neighbors is not something new. This is a country that ran the infamous “White Australia” policy until only a few decades ago. Australia, what Mao Zedong called “the lonely continent,” has been nervous about its other neighbors since long before China figured prominently. Indonesia under Suharto until the late 1990s was an issue. Then there were the worries about Japan during its economic ascendancy buying up the nation in the 1980s.

This is not to say the latest reports of increased Chinese influence in Australia are wrong. But it does put them in a broader context. While Australia’s nervousness about its identity and role is well known, what is novel is that a country in its own region with wholly different values and political systems is now so present as an investor, trader, and supplier of immigrants and students.This is exacerbated by the uncertainty created by Australia’s largest security partner, the United States, under its new maverick president, and deep internal divisions within the country itself, between the more liberal, outward-looking, and diverse cities, and the often profoundly conservative more rural or provincial areas.

Australia seems to be perpetually caught in an attitude towards the People’s Republic that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott indiscreetly characterized as dominated by “fear and greed.” It avoided the recession everyone else experienced from 2008 because of the vast quantities of commodities it was happy to export to its northern neighbor. But it also turned down two huge new investment opportunities over 2015 into 2016—the massive Kidman estate and the State Grid—which originated from China, on the grounds of security.

Through its geography, and its sense of vulnerability and isolation, Australia therefore offers a different sort of response to China than most other places. The U.S. has much more security and confidence, and so the China Threat narrative there is less stark. China figures as a problem in the Asia Pacific, rather than in America’s own sovereign space. For Australia, China raises much more intimate, almost existential problems. It is conceivable that Chinese investment could become dominant one day, or that the trade dependence would carry increasingly overt, heavy political price tags. After all, China is very aware of its importance. And only altruism would stop it not trying to exert some influence where it sees opportunities—an altruism it has failed to show over any other issue, anywhere else.

So we have to expect these reports of increasing influence to become more frequent, and for the Australia China debate to become more complex. The harsh reality for Australia is that this is a relationship it might have huge reservations about, but can’t walk away from. China knows how that feels. They are in exactly the same position with the U.S.

Kevin Carrico, Lecturer in Chinese Studies, Macquarie University

We must remain focused on the real effects of such influence, which primarily targets so-called “overseas Chinese” communities. Certainly, as the Four Corners report made clear, there are very real concerns about murky political donations and influence peddling at the top. But such concerns are, at the end of the day, precisely why we have a free press that engages in this type of detailed investigation. If we are all honest with one another, no matter how many donations are made, how many clumsy Beijing-based “news” supplements are inserted into newspapers, or how many A.C.R.I. polls are conducted, in an open society in which people are free to debate issues openly and logically, there seems to me to be little risk of political elites or general public opinion in Australia or the United States shifting in favor of Beijing’s frankly preposterous and expansionist claims to Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea.

These headline-grabbing trends are not the most disconcerting in Beijing’s drive for influence. Far more troubling are Beijing’s attempts to keep tabs on those labelled “overseas Chinese,” meaning either Chinese citizens living abroad or people of Chinese descent. As demonstrated by the state’s rapidly escalating internal security budget, the Beijing authorities are essentially at war with their own people, while at the same time paradoxically presenting themselves as the people’s sole defender and savior. The crux of P.R.C. influence abroad is a continuation of this war by other means, primarily through media and monitoring.

It is a considerable understatement to note that critical coverage of the complex realities of contemporary China is not common in Chinese-language media in either Australia or the United States. As a regular consumer of such media, I am often struck by the degree to which these texts read as if they written in Beijing. This is likely because they were, or may as well have been. Through a combination of political and market pressures, Chinese-language media (with a few valiant exceptions) often studiously toes the Party line. Critical discussions are conspiratorially dismissed as part of an “anti-China conspiracy,” effectively shutting down debate. Any country truly concerned by P.R.C. political influence should consider providing funding to encourage real dialogue and diversity in Chinese-language media, to ensure that all residents are able to enjoy the benefits of open and frank debate on any and all matters.

Even more insidious are the controls exercised on overseas Chinese students. Newly-arriving students are often given the mistaken impression that they are required to sign up for Chinese Student and Scholar Associations, which have extremely close ties to P.R.C. embassies and consulates. People with different political viewpoints are ostracized and their indiscretions are reported back to China: I have had students tell me that their parents received news of politically sensitive presentations that they made in class, and I have seen students maliciously smeared as “traitors” for voicing disagreements with seemingly sacred state policies. Any country concerned by P.R.C. political influence should investigate state-affiliated associations’ role in local communities, and should provide funding to encourage truly independent community associations that foster open debate and dialogue on the very real issues facing China and its relationship with the outside world.

It is thus extremely important to have an open and honest discussion about P.R.C. influence abroad. But amidst the headlines about Sam Dastyari’s painfully clumsy but fundamentally meaningless South China Sea balancing act, let’s not lose sight of the real targets of these policies. While some have already predictably dismissed the Four Corners report as a sign of “Yellow Peril” thinking, the sole entity targeting and exerting pressures on Chinese residents overseas today is in fact the P.R.C. state itself. It is thus necessary to produce effective counter-policies that encourage diversity of thought and thereby challenge Beijing’s growing power abroad.

Photo credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Kerry Brown is a professor of Chinese politics, director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and an associate fellow of Chatham House, London.
Kevin Carrico is a lecturer in Chinese studies at Macquarie University, the translator of Tibet on Fire, and the author of The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today.

Peter Mattis is former deputy staff director of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.