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China Learns the Hard Way That Money Can’t Buy You Love

Few countries have soured more rapidly against China than Australia, as decades of influence-building by Beijing come to naught.

Chinese Premier Lie Keqiang and Australian then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during a state visit in Sydney on Mar. 25, 2017.
Chinese Premier Lie Keqiang and Australian then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during a state visit in Sydney on Mar. 25, 2017. DAVID GRAY/AFP via Getty Images

China has long had Australia in its sights, and money is its favored weapon. China accounts for roughly a third of Australia’s export earnings. Until recently, it was also a big investor in Australia. Chinese international students occupy 10 percent of all university places in Australia, and Beijing has funded Confucius Institutes at 13 of Australia’s 37 public universities. China-linked donors fund several Australian think tanks advancing China-friendly policies. Nearly every major public institution in Australia has a “China strategy.” China’s presence looms even larger in Australia’s much smaller neighbor, New Zealand. If there’s one region of the (notionally) Western world where China has staked its claim to the future, it’s in the Antipodes.

Yet the proportion of Australians who hold a favorable view of China has plummeted from 64 percent to just 15 percent over the last three years, according to a Pew Global Attitudes poll released last week. (New Zealand wasn’t surveyed.) The proportion of Australians who view China unfavorably has risen to 81 percent, with only 3 percent undecided. Australia’s changing mood on China is part of a global shift, but it’s the most extreme reversal among the 12 countries Pew regularly surveys and started before the coronavirus. Despite a widespread and long-standing perception in Australia that its economic future depends on China, it turns out that—at least when it comes to public diplomacy—money can’t buy you love.

China has certainly spent the money. Australian ethics professor Clive Hamilton’s 2018 book  Silent Invasion traced the many paths through which Chinese and China-linked money has informed and potentially influenced Australia’s public debates, from massive donations to political parties to the takeover of local Chinese-language media to luxury junkets for journalists and politicians to visit China. The controversial China-born and based businessman (and Australian citizen) Chau Chak Wing has given tens of millions of dollars to Australian universities—and has made a series of donations to patriotic Australian causes like veterans’ charities and the Australian War Memorial. A confidant of Chinese President Xi Jinping, he has fought—and won—repeated lawsuits against Australian media that accused him of bribery and spying for China.
The proportion of Australians who hold a favorable view of China has plummeted from 64 percent to just 15 percent over the last three years.

On an even larger scale, between 2016 and 2018 at least eight Chinese state-owned and state-linked firms poured investment into the Australian state of Victoria, which then officially signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative in defiance of the national government’s warnings against doing so. Victoria’s state premier, Daniel Andrews, attended China’s flagship Belt and Road forums in Beijing in both 2017 and 2019, one of the few leaders below central government level to be invited. Australia’s national government did not participate. Perhaps coincidentally—and perhaps not—when China slapped tariffs and restrictions on Australian agricultural exports earlier this year, products from Victoria were largely unaffected.

Whether or not they were influenced by Chinese inducements, by 2018 many leading members of Australia’s political class were heeding China’s call for the country to pursue an “independent” foreign policy, meaning free from its historical alliance with the United States. Former Prime Ministers Paul Keating (in office 1991-1996) and the late Malcolm Fraser (1975-1983) actually recommended that Australia withdraw from its U.S. alliance, while the late Bob Hawke (1983-1991) made a lucrative second career out of lobbying for Beijing. A senior senator and former government minister even criticized a government-funded think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, for accepting a research grant from the U.S. State Department. Pro-China, anti-American viewpoints had become eminently respectable in Australia.

Meanwhile, the Australian public continued to support the country’s alignment with the United States and express skepticism about its burgeoning links with China. Between 2008 and 2020, public support for the U.S. alliance never dipped below 70 percent, according to the Australian Lowy Institute Poll. The majority of respondents consistently believed that the Australian government was allowing too much investment from China. And despite the personal unpopularity of U.S. President Donald Trump, the majority of Australians continue to trust the United States to “act responsibly in the world,” compared to just 23 percent who say the same about China.

As Abraham Lincoln never said, “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” If Hamilton’s Silent Invasion got people talking about Chinese influence in Australia in 2018, a real turning point came in 2019 when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Australians: “You can sell your soul for a pile of soybeans, or you can protect your people.” Of course, Australia doesn’t actually sell soybeans, but Pompeo’s point hit home, resonating with an Australian public that was already wary about Chinese influence undermining their country’s institutions.
Had China simply run its public diplomacy through a competent corporate communications firm, it might have avoided a breakdown in relations.

Then came the coronavirus. As in many other countries, China’s early misinformation about the pathogen dealt a serious blow to its credibility in Australia. But we should not overestimate the effects of the pandemic on Australia’s attitudes toward China. Relying on World Health Organization advice, the country’s chief medical officer even expressed confidence in China’s ability to prevent the international spread of the virus, while a leading Victorian state politician praised China’s lockdown response. The coronavirus has been a disaster for the world, but it didn’t have to be a disaster for China’s international relations.

But that was before China lashed out, in response to a call by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Secretary Marise Payne for an international inquiry into the world’s handling of the coronavirus. Never mind that the inquiry would be conducted by the China-dominated World Health Organization, or that China itself ended up signing the resolution to authorize the inquiry. China’s embassy in Australia complained that “Australian politicians are keen to parrot what those Americans have asserted and simply follow them in staging political attacks on China.” The Foreign Ministry in Beijing went much further, saying that Australia was “highly irresponsible to resort to politically motivated suspicion and accusation” and advising Australia “to put aside ideological bias and political games.” And as China’s deputy head of mission in Canberra explained, Australia’s call for an investigation “hurts the feelings of the Chinese people … all of a sudden, they heard this shocking news of a proposal coming from Australia, which is supposed to be a good friend of China.”

Taken aback by Australia’s apparent insensitivity to the “feelings of the Chinese people,” China’s own diplomats seemed strangely unconcerned about the effects their own comments might have on the feelings of the Australian people. Despite China’s extraordinary access to Australian politicians and public life, its diplomats proved either unable to comprehend the dynamics of democratic decision-making or unwilling to bend to its demands. Had China simply run its public diplomacy through a competent corporate communications firm, it might have avoided anything worse than a brief coronavirus pause in its march through Australia’s institutions.
Now that China has turned itself into an international pariah, the gravy train that has fattened so many Western wallets will grind to a halt.

Instead, Beijing faces the rapid unraveling of three decades of patient influence-building. In recent months, Australia has announced a serious tightening of its Foreign Investment Review Board procedures to make it harder for China-linked firms to acquire strategic Australian assets, proposed a new Foreign Relations Bill to give the national government veto power over state and local agreements with foreign entities, and taken steps to open an inquiry by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security into foreign interference in Australia’s universities. All these efforts have widespread support, and all are directed at China. It is a brave politician who takes a pro-China stance in Australian politics today. The pendulum has swung.

It’s the same story across nearly all of the world’s democracies: China’s global strategy of elite capture has failed. China has characterized Australia’s efforts to limit foreign influence in its politics as “blatant irrational behaviours.” Ordinary citizens are likely to see them as simple common sense. Now that China has turned itself into an international pariah, politicians in democratic countries will be very reluctant to be photographed shaking hands in Beijing, and the Chinese gravy train that has fattened so many Western wallets will grind to a halt.

Australia’s about-face on China reaffirms its commitments to liberal values and the Western alliance system, and parallels similar shifts in other countries. In New Zealand, which goes to the polls this week, incumbent Prime Minister (and strong poll favorite) Jacinda Ardern has joined international criticism of China’s record on human rights in Hong King and Xinjiang. This follows New Zealand’s earlier moves, clearly directed at China, to limit foreign election interference. In Europe, too, there has been a strong popular reaction against Chinese influence operations. Democracies may be slow to protect themselves from foreign threats, but they do succeed eventually. That’s a lesson China would do well to learn.

Salvatore Babones is a Foreign Policy columnist and an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones

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