While the United States is investigating about Russia’s attempts to interfere in last year’s presidential election, the Chinese government has come under increased scrutiny in Australia in recent weeks for its attempts to influence public life. A recent documentary entitled ‘’Power and Influence: the hard edge of China’s soft power’’ has provided an insight into the way China is trying to influence politics in a G20 country. Australian intelligence agencies, politicians, senior public servants, journalists and academics have all contributed to the discussion, and to the growing concern, about China’s growing interference in Australian political life.
China is an enormously powerful force in Australia which is so economically reliant on trade. Indeed, Australia is a secure provider of raw materials for China, especially of iron ore, gold, coal and wool, and its economic growth is extremely dependant on China’s economic success. Australia’s combined exports to China of merchandise and services, including tourism and education, represent slightly less 1% of Australian GDP. Nevertheless, Canberra has several times expressed its concerns over the Chinese construction activities in the South China Sea which threaten freedom of navigation and the free passage of aircraft in the region. It has also stressed the need for China to respect international law, especially the verdict by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea at The Hague.
China’s influence in Australia is not necessarily new and concerns have mostly been confined to Chinese organisations buying large and strategically important Australian entities. The most prominent example of this occurred in March last year when the Northern Territory Government announced it had leased the Port of Darwin for 99 years to a Chinese company, the Landbridge Group, for $A506 million. This sale sparked concerns among the Australian Defence Force and in the USA which has a Marine force stationed in the north Australian port. Other examples include in August last year when the Australian Government blocked a $A10 billion deal to lease the nation’s biggest electricity grid to Chinese and Hong Kong investors because of “national security”. In 2012, the Chinese telco Huawei was banned from tendering for projects under the National Broadband Network for security reasons.
However, there have been other examples in recent weeks of Chinese interference in Australian life on a highly intrusive scale. The most recent revelations came after it was revealed that two largest political parties kept accepting political donations from Chinese sources despite being warned by the nation’s domestic spy agency, ASIO. These revelations have led to Prime Minister Turnbull announcing an inquiry into foreign political donations and Labor is calling for a parliamentary inquiry as well.
The unregulated system of political funding in Australia makes difficult to detect foreign donations. There are no limits on fund-raising, donations and spending, all this resulting in some sort of corruption that the Chinese might easily exploit, according to the critics. Individuals and corporations are able to make anonymous donations and politicians are not obliged to explain where the donations come from. PM Turnbull, announcing his willingness to ban foreign donations, stated: ”Just as modern China was based on an assertion of national sovereignty, so China should always respect the sovereignty of other nations, including our own”.
Two Chinese billionaires, Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo, have been identified as having direct ties with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is estimated that they both have donated around 6.7 million AU$ to major political parties and to the academia too. Mr. Huang is said to have promised 300,000 million AU$ to the Labor party last year but he later decided to withdraw the donation because he did not agree with a party official saying that Australia should join the America’s patrolling initiative in the South China Sea. Many Chinese companies may act according to the Party’s directives, said Peter Varghese, former Head of the Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Mr. Chau Chak has firmly rejected the allegations of being attached to the CCP. He has also stated that he has only dedicated all his life to promote trade between the two countries. Moreover, he has also warned about possible discouragement of Chinese investments in the future because of the unfair treatments to which he and other Chinese entrepreneurs are being subjected.
The documentary also detailed an ASIO raid in 2015 on a former senior intelligence official, Roger Uren, former assistant secretary at the Office of National Assessments (ONA), the office in charge of giving information to the PM about classified documents. It is said that his wife, Sheri Yan, had direct links with the Chinese intelligence. She had also been later arrested by the FBI, together with other Chinese businessmen, for bribing the President of the United Nations General Assembly. In the apartment of the couple, highly classified documents about China were found.
The political donations controversy has touched both sides of the political establishment. Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was implicated in the political donation when an Opposition MP asked about the “Julie Bishop Glorious Foundation”, allegedly set up by a Chinese mining magnate, during Question Time in Parliament. The Foreign Minister denied having knowledge of the foundation. The Foreign Minister also targeted the Opposition’s Agriculture spokesman, Joel Fitzgibbon, on his links to the Chinese during the same Question Time. Bishop made allegations about whether Labor’s decision to withdraw from a security dialogue in 2008 with the US, India and Japan was the result of the former Defence Minister Fitzgibbon’s ties with China who lost his position as Defence Minister in 2009 due to such alleged links.
China Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye argued the political donation coverage was a “sensational report”. He said the media reports about political donations were an attempt to create “China panic”. Chinese Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye has deemed the allegations as groundless and fabricated. “I’ve heard those allegations more than once since I was posted here. In Chinese, we call it ‘cook up the overnight cold rice’ – which means repeating the same stuff over and over again. Their main purpose, as I see it, is to instigate China panic” he said.
In May this year, the highly respected public servant Dennis Richardson spoke about China’s influence in Australia during a retirement speech to the National Press Club in Canberra. [Mr Richardson spent 48 years in the public service that included being head of ASIO and the Defence Department]. “It is no secret that China is very active in intelligence activities directed against us — and it is more than cyber. The Chinese Government keeps a watchful eye inside Australian Chinese communities and effectively controls some Chinese language media in Australia”, he said.
The former head of US national intelligence James Clapper recently visited Australia and likened the Chinese activities to Russia’s in the USA. ”It is no secret that China’s very active in intelligence activities directed against Australia, just as they are against us, and that China is increasingly aggressive in attempting to gain influence in your political processes as Russia is in ours,” he said.
The possibility of Australian classified information being leaked to Chinese operatives has led to the AUS government ending an agreement with the Global Switch data centre in Sydney. The government is concerned over its links to a Chinese consortium. The Australian Government is contemplating creating its own data hub.
What is motivating the Chinese government in pursuing these strategies? Chinese leaders are aware that China’s growing power has created a great deal of uneasiness in many parts of the world, especially in democratic countries. For this reason, China is more than willing to use all the tools at its disposal to defend the legitimacy of the Party and to persuade (or manipulate) foreign audiences to accept Party’s positions and policies despite these means are a challenge to countries’ national sovereignty. From the Australian point of view, how to deal with China has always been an existential question. Although Canberra might have huge reservations about Beijing, it is also aware that the relationship with the Dragon cannot be easily dismissed. The relationship with China is economically advantageous but these benefits are more likely to be lost if Canberra decided to cooperate more firmly with the US in opposing China’s ambitions in the region.