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Is China a threat?

Aug 20, 2019 • 17m01s

As Xi Jinping increases his power and ambition, there is tension over the influence China has in Australia. Progressive critics finds themselves aligned with right-wing voices.

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Is China a threat?

61 • Aug 20, 2019

Is China a threat?

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

As Xi Jinping increases his power and ambition, there is tension over the influence China has in Australia. Progressive critics finds themselves aligned with right wing voices. Mike Seccombe on how we assess the threat posed to our democracy by the Chinese Communist Party.

[Theme ends]

[Music starts]

Archival tape — Unidentified Man 1:

“It's all about China once again in Australian politics… are we afraid to even talk about this?”

Archival tape — Unidentified Man 2:

“Yeah, it does seem that way.”

Archival tape — Unidentified Woman 1:

“Ongoing unrest in Hong Kong has rippled to Australia and reveals a deep division in the Chinese community.”

Archival tape — Unidentified Woman 2:

“Hundreds of people have marched through the heart of Sydney's CBD, bringing traffic to a standstill”

Archival tape — Unidentified Woman 3:

“Before this whole China/Australian tension took place, Chinese communities practice this kind of flexible citizenship quite well and quite successfully. But now on a daily basis, their allegiance has been called into question.”

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Mike you spoke last week with Clive Hamilton. What did he tell you?

MIKE:

I sought Clive Hamilton out because of a book he wrote last year called Silent Invasion: China's Influence in Australia. This was a very controversial book at the time, in that it went in great detail into alleged Chinese manipulation of Australian institutions and its apparently malign influence in this country. It was so controversial, in fact, that he was having trouble getting it published.

Archival tape — Clive Hamilton:

“The book was about to be sent to paint proof stage and suddenly they said we're afraid that we might experience retaliation from Beijing and say we're going to drop the book.”

MIKE:

And at one point the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which of course Andrew Hastie chairs, was considering publishing it.

ELIZABETH:

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

MIKE:

In the research for this book, Hamilton spoke to John Garnaut, who's a former China correspondent, who then went on to work for Malcolm Turnbull, and at Turnbull's behest, compiled along with ASIO a classified report into exactly this issue, the extent of Chinese influence in Australia. He retailed to me that Garnaut was one of the first people he spoke to and at the end of their meeting Garnaut said to him and I'm quoting now, ‘You know it's important that you're writing this book, Clive.’ Hamilton asked why and and Garnaut replied, ‘Because you're from the left.’ Hamilton told me that he only understood what the import of this comment was after the book was published.

ELIZABETH:

And what did Garnaut mean?

MIKE:

Well, what Garnaut meant was that the resistance to stronger action on China stems in large part from certain elements of the left. There's a section of the Left that has a sort of reflexive anti-Americanism, which looks upon anything that is a counterweight to American influence in the world as essentially a good thing. That's one strand of it. The other strand, Hamilton calls the multicultural warriors, who are inclined to look upon criticism of the Chinese government as akin to xenophobia or even racism. So it was clearly significant that someone from the left with Clive's pedigree on the left was writing this book.

I mean he founded the Australia Institute, he once ran as a Greens candidate. His previous writings have been largely on subjects like threats to the environment, debunking climate change. He wrote one book that attacked the Howard Government over its undermining of democratic institutions and civil society in Australia. So he would have expected that he would have been protected to some extent from the left. But he wasn't. But even more surprising was the fact that he suddenly found himself with a whole bunch of new friends, many of them people with extreme right wing views. Strange bedfellows indeed. He said to me that he thought he would never appear on the Andrew Bolt show on Sky, for example. But he did so, a couple of times.

Archival tape — Andrew Bolt:

“Clive, great to see you again. Now Clive, every country, of course, tries to spread its influence. What’s so different about China doing it?”

Archival tape — Clive Hamilton:

“I mean, we see a whole range of what might be called agents of influence operating on behalf of Beijing in all of Australia's institutions, in our parliaments, in our media, in our universities. It's not arm twisting or buying people off. That's kind of old hat. It's subtly shifting people's views.”

ELIZABETH:

Mike, why is it important that Hamilton find himself agreeing with people whose views usually clashes with and vice versa. Like, did he think “I've hit on something” as a result of this kind of explosion of views that he wouldn't expect?

MIKE:

Well the issue goes more broadly to a conversation that Australia has not really been having, at least publicly. Hamilton's entry into the debate really scrambled the ideological picture in Australia. In that left believed one thing, and right believed the other. And it precipitated something of a break out, which I think we've seen more recently in Australian politics, where we've seen people on different parts of all the major parties, Labor, Liberal and Greens, crossing their usual ideological boundaries to either support or oppose stronger action on China. And Clive Hamilton's book and Clive Hamilton himself were sort of precursors to that.

It tends to be the case that politicians rely on this sort of stale formulation that we can maintain our relationship with our strongest ally, the United States, and at the same time maintain our trade relationship with our biggest trading partner, China, and that that can be managed quite easily. And to the extent that Chinese meddling in Australian affairs and affairs more generally is spoken of, it's spoken of in very generic terms. We talk about foreign influence, we talk about authoritarian regimes, but very seldom do politicians actually attach the name China to it. I mean, China's sort of the Voldemort of foreign policy issues in that you can talk about the threat it poses, but you cannot mention it by name.

ELIZABETH:

And at the same time this has to be discussed in terms of China's outlook and the changing power dynamic within China under Xi Jinping.

MIKE:

Yeah. Well, that's right. I mean, for a long time we've had this fairly comfortable assumption that economic engagement would inevitably lead China to hold values more closely aligned with our own. But since President Xi's ascension a couple of years ago, it's become quite clear that that isn't the case and China has become much more authoritarian. I mean we've seen their persecution of the Uighurs, we're seeing currently what's happening in Hong Kong and the expansion in the South China Sea and so on and so forth. In fact, it was the same week that Hamilton's book came out that the Chinese Communist Party abolished term limits for the president, effectively meaning that the Xi could be there for life.

Archival Footage — Presidential Inauguration Translator:

“‘...we work hard to help build a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful’, Xi Jinping.”

MIKE:

Xi's an interesting character. He's a very close student of Mao Zedong. He's way more ideological than his predecessors, and as various China experts have told me, his belief is that the Soviet Union failed because it wasn't ideological enough. This has led some in government to suggest that Xi’s goal is nothing less than the destruction of Western capitalism. That may be slightly overstating it, but there's definitely been a big shift here.

I talked to Richard McGregor who's an old China hand with the Lowy Institute about this, who made the point that not only has Xi been more willing to take a stronger position but is much more able.

[Music starts]

As he said, China is richer than it's been for 150 years, it's much more powerful diplomatically, it has greater military capability than it ever did before, which means that China can now do a lot of things that they previously dared not, simply because they lacked the capability to do it.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Mike, we're talking about how we assess China's influence in Australia and how it might be exercised potentially within Australia. When you say that, what is it that you’re talking about specifically?

MIKE:

Well, we're talking about a number of things. I mean, this is a very multifaceted influence-peddling issue. I spoke to Alex Joske, who's an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and he said one of the things that has been significantly overlooked is the effect of Chinese language media in this country. He says there's a disturbing number, that was his words, of groups seeking to represent the Chinese community that have either been influenced by or have actually been established to some degree by the CCP.

ELIZABETH:

What's his concern when he talks about Chinese owned media operating in Australia?

MIKE:

Well, it's a vector for Chinese propaganda in this country, and it influences the attitudes of the very large expatriate community here. Back in February, Australia cancelled the residency of Huang Xinmo and effectively kicked him out of the country, said he couldn't become a citizen on the basis of character grounds. He had been a very large donor to both sides of politics. The most obvious victim of association with him was Sam Dastyari. But the Australian Government, on the advice of its security agencies, said that he should not be here. And the reaction in the Chinese language media to that was quite extraordinary.

Archival Footage — Chinese-Australian media excerpt on the subject.

MIKE:

About 120 Chinese community groups signed a letter protesting this decision, and it was run very prominently in a number of Chinese media. In a couple of them it was on the front page. It was a pretty big deal. Now that's not saying that that is necessarily directly because all of the people who were signatories were agents of Chinese influence. But it does indicate that they were disturbed by the actions the Australian Government was taking to limit Chinese influence. And the other one, of course, is the one that we're seeing at the moment which is demonstrations in support of Hong Kong here, where it's pretty clear that a lot of the propaganda that's coming out of Beijing is being parroted by people here.

Archival tape — Unidentified Man 1:

“In Australia, when we catch people with bombs in their garages and homes. What do we call them? Terrorists. Correct.”

MIKE:

We saw a citizen panelist on Q and A suggesting that the pro democracy demonstrators should be considered terrorists...

Archival tape — Unidentified Man 1:

“...in Hong Kong, when you catch them with bombs and bomb making material, what do we call them? Pro-democracy protesters.”

MIKE:

...and suggesting also that this dissent in Hong Kong was being fomented by Western intelligence agencies. Well, those are exactly the lines that are coming into the country via Chinese propaganda.

ELIZABETH:

Mike, the other thing that we hear a lot about, especially recently, is China's influence on Australian university campuses.

MIKE:

Yes we do. There's been quite a bit of media recently about the influence of the Confucius Institute, which is connected to official Chinese communist entities. But, people I spoke to suggested that this was actually a bit overblown. I mean, Confucius Institutes essentially are language schools. Anyone can go there. They do not influence the course content of universities in Australia.

ELIZABETH:

But there's also been actual physical confrontations and protests.

MIKE:

Right. Well in response to the protests in Hong Kong, a number of student organisations in Australia have made public their support, quite often by setting up what they call Lennon boards where messages of support are written up. In response to this, counter protesters have taken to tearing these down. And this has led to a number of standoffs, most notably in Brisbane, it led to violence on the University of Queensland campus where pro-Chinese and pro-Hong Kong factions got physically involved.

Archival tape — Unidentified Man 1:

“Calm down, calm down.”

Archival tape — Unidentified Man 2:

“Communist Party thugs!”

MIKE:

Subsequent to that, it's worth noting also that the Chinese consul general in Queensland lauded the actions of the pro-Chinese students for their patriotism.

This is not either unique to Australia. Writing in The New York Times just this week, Louisa Lim, Melbourne academic here, said that the battle over Hong Kong is in effect being exported and pitting overseas Chinese communities against each other on campuses from Auckland to Vancouver to Hobart.

ELIZABETH:

And I think Louisa Lim said in that piece this is a battle over narrative control by Beijing and it sends far beyond the borders of China itself.

MIKE:

Yes, yes exactly. They are trying to portray pro-democracy students as, in fact, being terrorists and being ill-motivated.The more concerning thing is more covert involvement in Australian politics. I was told that, you know, there have been a couple of major hacks on the Australian National University and a couple on the Parliament itself. And while no one has directly said China is behind it, the suggestion very strongly is that China is behind it.

ELIZABETH:

Mike this is a, it's a worrying picture in in one view. But are there other voices urging us to sort of be less alarmed?

MIKE:

Well, one person I spoke to was David Brophy, who's a lecturer in modern Chinese history at Sydney University. Brophy sees the risks here of this debate sliding into areas of McCarthyism and racism. He particularly worries about a tendency to link all these disparate issues into a sort of common narrative, and he takes the view that if there is a sense that there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese students in this country who are part of some grand conspiracy to deprive us of our liberties and and/or our democracy, well that could turn into something quite nasty and he has he has a point there. It it is rather less monolithic than it is often seen to be.

ELIZABETH:

And Mike, after your reporting did you form a view about whether we're unduly alarmed about Chinese influence or not?

MIKE:

I don't actually think we're unduly alarmed. I think the interesting part about this is that up until this point, when Andrew Hastie came out and when various other politicians have come out in his support and called a spade a shovel, the government was taking a fair degree of action about this; We’ve had the foreign interference laws, we've had to step-up in aid to the Pacific to try and counter Chinese influence there. We've had various other bits and pieces that indicate the government is taking it seriously, but they have been very reluctant to actually put this stuff into the public domain. So I think it's interesting that, starting with Hamilton's book and more recently with the Andrew Hastie piece and other people who've spoken on that, I think it's probably a good thing that actually it is being debated more publicly. The risk is, of course, still that it could be taken over by people who are xenophobic and racist in their outlook. But nonetheless, there's a real problem here and we have to talk about it.

ELIZABETH:

Thank you, Mike.

MIKE:

No worries.

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[Theme starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Tensions between Australia and the Pacific continue to escalate, as the Prime Minister of Tuvalu threatens to withdraw from Australia's seasonal worker program. Enele Sopoaga said he would have no hesitation in pulling back from the program following comments from Nationals leader Michael McCormack, who said he was annoyed by the way the Pacific criticised Australia's inaction on climate change because, quote "many of their workers come here and pick our fruit".

And advertisers have begun a boycott of Alan Jones's show on 2GB after violent comments directed at New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern. Anytime Fitness and mattress company, Koala, have withdrawn their advertising expenditure, joining Snooze and ME Bank. Jones apologised for his comments last week and was cautioned by the network's owners.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Wednesday.

[Theme ends]

As Xi Jinping increases his power and ambition, there is tension over the influence China has in Australia. Progressive critics finds themselves aligned with right-wing voices. Mike Seccombe on how we assess the threat posed to our democracy by the Chinese Communist Party.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

How the China question split Australian politics in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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61: Is China a threat?