Chinese Communist Party influence: Why the critics are wrong

Published in Policy Forum, 9 April 2018

How committed is Australia to its foundational liberal values? Some of the responses to the emerging debate on CCP influence in the country provide plenty of reason for concern, Clive Hamilton writes.

My book, Silent Invasion: The Influence of China in Australia, has been met with an impassioned reception – more passionate than I expected from some Australian academics. In a long review that appeared in the Australian Book Review on the very day of the book’s publication, University of Sydney academic David Brophy denounced it as a “McCarthyist manifesto” and a “paranoid tome” that adds to “our all-too-rich library of Asian invasion fantasies”.

A PR company promoted Brophy’s review around the Canberra press gallery, offering the academic for interviews. Brophy then played a key role in drafting and promoting an open letter claiming that the current debate over Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence is racist and repeating the incorrect and offensive claim that commentators like me propose “punitive measures to restrict the rights of those identified as ‘pro-Beijing’”. Nevertheless, the letter was signed by some 50 self-described scholars of China and the Chinese diaspora.

The open letter was submitted to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is inquiring into the Turnbull government’s proposed foreign interference laws.

I wonder whether the signatories understood the political implications of lending their names to this letter, and whether they feel as comfortable with it now that the Global Times, the CCP’s nationalistic tabloid, has warmly welcomed their intervention as proof that the debate over CCP influence in Australia should be ended as it is only “fanning the flames” of racial animosity.

They have divided themselves sharply from the rest of the community of China scholars, some of whom composed a rival letter rejecting their substantive claims. (The propagandists of the Global Times wrote that those who signed the second letter are only stirring up trouble by supporting the government’s legislation.)

To come to grips with influence operations in Australia by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and therefore the purpose of the new legislation, an understanding of the objectives and modus operandi of the Chinese Communist Party is essential, and especially its United Front and overseas propaganda work. Equally important is a thorough understanding of the nature of Australian politics, broadly defined, and the strengths and weaknesses of the major institutions that govern this country, because it is through them that PRC influence has covertly been exerted.

Some of those who put their names to the first open letter have expertise in neither Australian politics nor the United Front work of the Chinese Communist Party. So if not expertise in the CCP’s influence operations in Australia, what do these scholars have in common that motivates them to sign an open letter denouncing “sensationalist spin” and calling on the government to withdraw its legislation?

The unseeing scholar

One seems to be a blindness to the well-known facts. They write that they “see no evidence … that China is exporting its political system to Australia”. No-one has said that the CCP is exporting its Leninist party governing system to Australia. If they are disputing the claim that the CCP is extending the operations of its system to this country then what did they see when Sam Dastyari was exposed for his links to Huang Xiangmo, president of the peak United Front body in Australia and named by the authorities as a man with “the closest links” to the Chinese state? How do they interpret the reported takeover by Beijing sympathisers of 90 per cent of Chinese-language media in Australia, turning it into a CCP cheer squad?

Presumably they don’t see Beijing’s active censorship in this country of social media platforms like Weibo as the extension of the CCP’s reach. Nor is the intimidation of family members in China of Australians who criticise the CCP. And when the Chinese Consulate in Sydney threatens economic retaliation if parliamentarians in New South Wales attend a lecture on forced organ removals of Falun Gong prisoners is it, in their eyes, a normal part of Australia’s political system?

If not blind, they seem to be blinkered. They complain that Chinese-Australians are being dissuaded from joining the public debate for fear of being associated with “a vast official Chinese conspiracy”, yet what do they have to say about the Chinese-Australians who have been silenced and marginalised for years by Beijing’s campaign of pressure and intimidation, a phenomenon only now beginning to be recognised by the mainstream and described in Silent Invasion.

The politics of race

A second commonality among these critics appears to be a belief that public debate over CCP influence in this country is being “racialised”. This is reminiscent of the tactic practiced by the CCP for years of accusing critics of the party of being “anti-Chinese”. I can’t put it better than John Garnaut recently did in Foreign Affairs:

“Key to the party’s operations in Australia is collapsing the categories of Chinese Communist Party, China, and the Chinese people into a single organic whole—until the point where the party can be dropped from polite conversation altogether. The conflation means that critics of the party’s activities can be readily caricatured and attacked as anti-China, anti-Chinese, and Sinophobic—labels that polarize and kill productive conversation. And it is only a short logical step to claim all ethnic Chinese people as “sons and daughters of the motherland,” regardless of citizenship.”

Naïve Westerners who allow the CCP to own “Chineseness” collaborate, however unwittingly, in the Party’s racialising of criticism of it. The Communist Party’s attempts to own Chineseness – and so all people of Chinese descent – has been taken to new heights under President Xi Jinping. But instead of acknowledging this, the signatories of the letter disparage those like me who highlight the seriousness of the CCP’s attempts to penetrate and influence the Chinese diaspora in Australia.

In truth, much of the heightened awareness of the CCP’s secretive activities in Australia is due to Chinese-Australians taking the risk of speaking out. Silent Invasionwas launched in Sydney by an enthusiastic group of Chinese Australians, an awkward fact for those who believe that the book reignites the prejudices of the White Australia Policy.

David Brophy is himself an expert in the politics of Uyghur nationalism. He has worked in Xinjiang and is very familiar with the extraordinary levels of repression of the Uyghurs, spearheaded by Beijing’s United Front operations. That’s why many China scholars that I spoke to expressed that they were baffled to see him come out so rapidly and vociferously to denounce a book that exposes Chinese Communist Party influence operations in Australia, including against Uyghurs here.

When, on 26 March, Uyghurs demonstrated outside Parliament House against the confinement of tens of thousands of their people in Chinese prison camps, I met one of the protest leaders. I asked him if he’d seen Brophy’s article. He said he had met Brophy and respects his work, but when he read the article he was bewildered. He shook his head and said: “How could he write that? He knows.” But for Brophy the CCP’s extraordinary repression in Xinjiang is irrelevant to Australia. For us, he writes, the problem is “American imperialism”.

Yankee go home

A predilection shared by many of the signatories is a knee-jerk anti-Americanism. The open letter argues that a media panic is singling out individuals and organisations “thought to be linked to the Chinese state” in a way that “isolates them from a context of comparable activities” by other nations (meaning the United States).

It’s a non-sequitur, but you see what they mean. When evidence arises of the PRC’s interference in nations like Australia, it’s now common for some on the left to respond “What about America”. Yes, the United States has a history of meddling in Australia (and much worse in other countries), but how does this fact negate the facts about the PRC’s interference? On the left, some of the sharpest critics of the CCP have long histories of criticising Australian subservience to the United States on foreign policy. So “What about America” is not an argument but a form of denial.

It’s glaringly apparent from some of the commentary around these issues just how deeply this denial, rooted in visceral anti-Americanism, runs. For some, China is not doing anything unique, the Americans have been doing the same. This looks like the offence of ‘moral equivalence’, but in fact its purpose is to elevate American wrongdoing in order to obscure the PRC’s, which by any measure is far more dangerous to our freedoms than anything the Americans have attempted here.

Mounting this argument requires a breathtaking denial of the nature of the Chinese Communist Party and its explicit rejection of liberal values including academic freedom, a free press, the rule of law and human rights. It trivialises the Party’s foreign interference activities and dismisses the large body of scholarship published by China scholars and researchers around the world. (I could provide a reading list, beginning with the work of James To, Gerry Groot and Anne-Marie Brady.)

The first open letter tries to distract us from the CCP’s activities by referring to “comparable activities” by the United States. Really? Then let me ask:

  • How many American-Australians have had their social media censored by the US government?
  • How many have been sacked from their jobs for their political views, or feel they must keep them to themselves?
  • How many have had their families threatened in the United States?
  • How many have had their businesses boycotted at the behest of the US Consulate?
  • How many have had their social organisations hijacked by “pro-US” forces?
  • How many have been deported from the US for their political views?

These are awkward questions so let me make it easy and reduce them to one: Is it conceivable that publishers in Australia would be frightened out of publishing a book critical of the United States for fear of reprisals from Washington?

We cannot imagine that happening, yet Silent Invasion was almost not published in this country because publishers are afraid of punishment by Beijing. The message sent to China scholars is that if their next book is too critical of the CCP then they are likely to have trouble getting it published in Australia. Yet this real and present threat to the academic freedom of the China scholars does not appear to concern them.

David Brophy argues that if we don’t like China’s intrusions into the Asia-Pacific then we should equally criticise American imperialism. That far from being subject to Beijing’s influence Australia is subservient to Washington; we are the “bully’s sidekick”, the bully whose bombs have rained down on China’s neighbours.

If Brophy is locked in the past, China’s neighbours are not. They are frightened of the PRC and intimidated by its aggression, notably by its illegal activities in the South China Sea. They want the United States to remain in the region. Vietnam, bombed by the Americans and twice invaded by China, is the obvious case. It is now being bullied by China out of drilling in its own sea beds and has just welcomed a US aircraft carrier for a visit, the first time a US warship has returned since the end of the war in 1975 and powerfully symbolic of the geopolitical shift in the region.

This helps explain why the United States, despite the absurdity of Donald Trump, still has many allies around the world, while China has none.

I understand this anti-American sentiment: my first political act as a 17-year-old was to join the Labor Party, turn up at a local branch meeting and move a motion calling on the Australian government to close Pine Gap. (The motion was carried.)

I don’t believe I have become more conservative since then, although judging by the attacks on me over the last decade or so by the Murdoch press, the fossil fuel lobby and various right-wing politicians, I must be more dangerous. But when the world changes, I change. And the rise of China has changed the world dramatically. Power has shifted and so have the threats and dangers. Despite the manifold faults of the United States, it still shares Australia’s foundational values and democratic institutions.

But for critics like Brophy the world hasn’t changed; it’s Chomsky or bust. And so with the proposed foreign interference laws, the “party plotting to undermine intellectual freedom in Australia today is the Liberal Party of Australia, not the Communist Party of China”.

Incidentally, the NSW branch of the Labor Party has a lot to fear from the exposure of it in my book, and from the new laws. Heavyweights from the right faction (Bob CarrPaul KeatingGraham Richardson) have all launched venomous attacks on me, as has Tim Soutphommasane, also a long-standing Labor Party member.

Late entrants

A fourth commonality among many of the open letter’s signatories is that many of them have been missing in action in the China interference debate. The debate has been heating up for a couple of years, culminating in the introduction of the proposed foreign interference laws last December. That the signatories of the open letter have been missing in action is no surprise because they don’t seem to recognise there is a problem. China’s rise is not a threat but merely has “implications” and poses “challenges for Australia”.

Other China scholars and well-informed journalists have been uncovering disturbing evidence of the erosion of academic freedom in our universities – summed up in a devastating presidential address by Professor John Fitzgerald to the Australian Academy of Humanities. Were these scholars looking the other way as the PRC stepped up its interference operations in this country? If so, haven’t they failed in their social obligation to use their expertise to inform the Australian public about a growing threat to the nation?

Now that the federal government is responding they are complaining about how the new laws threaten their academic freedom. As far as I know (and I have been watching closely), not one of these champions of academic freedom spoke out when Australian publishers, intimidated by a foreign power, refused to publish my book, perhaps the biggest scandal over academic freedom of recent years, and in exactly their area of expertise. Where were they? In their letter they express outrage at any suggestion that they have been “intimidated or bought-off by pro-PRC interests”. Other China scholars have admitted to me that they censor their own work because they need to obtain visas to do their research in China.

Blame shifting

Brophy clangs the xenophobia alarm bell for all it’s worth. Hamilton is stirring up fears of an Asian invasion, letting the White Australia Policy out of its box and giving succour to far-right racists. But where is this white backlash against Chinese-Australians? Perhaps critics are listening to pro-Beijing radio stations, which have had on high-rotation warnings from the Chinese Embassy that Australia is a dangerous place for students and they must take extra security precautions.

As John Fitzgerald pointed out, there is no basis for the warnings in actual incidents of assault or abuse. The alarms are agitprop designed in Beijing to pressure the Australian government to crack down on “anti-Chinese racism”, that is, news stories exposing CCP influence operations and criticism of them coming from people like DFAT boss Frances Adamson, Prime Minister Turnbull, ASIO head Duncan Lewis, and former defence supremo Dennis Richardson, not to mention a number of prominent China scholars. In other words, they are part of Beijing’s strategy to head off the proposed foreign interference laws, which it fears will be copied by other nations.

David Brophy and like-minded scholars need to be careful that they are not legitimising Beijing’s agitprop by lending their stature as experts to it. The petitioners who put their names to the first open letter play perfectly into the CCP’s hands when they insist that if the Party is infringing on the right to free speech in this country then it is our fault. To blame foreign interference “where it might exist”, they write, is “to ignore Australian society’s own failure” to allow more diverse viewpoints. David Brophy puts it bluntly in his long review of my book: “This unwillingness to confront our own failings and shift the blame onto China runs throughout today’s Chinese influence scare and reflects a deep malaise in Australian society.”

This self-criticism is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. The objective is to root out and confess to the shameful behaviour of the nation. What we need are not new laws aimed at “imagined subversion” but a national struggle session, ending with a collective confession of our crimes.

Other China scholars believe that Australians are for the most part mature enough to understand the issues and come to grips with the problem, without being spooked by a handful of xenophobes. They were also irritated that the first open letter was represented as the collective view of all China scholars. Their competing open letter lays out the nature and extent of CCP interference in Australia and the threat it poses to our freedoms. While not endorsing my book, they reject the first open letter’s attempt to shut down debate on CCP influence with accusations of racism. It’s a debate that must be had, they write, noting that Chinese-Australians have been among the main initiators of it. They pointedly say that the debate should not be stifled by self-censorship.

For David Brophy, if there is CCP influence in Australian universities then it should be blamed on our government for not funding them sufficiently. Presumably if he is mugged at night because the bus is late, and he has to walk home, then it’s not the mugger’s fault but the bus company’s. He tells us that if a Chinese billionaire has been buying influence in Australian politics on behalf of Beijing then “who could blame” him; it’s our fault because we allow corruption in our political system. According to this logic, if a wealthy foreign businessman ever found himself in court charged with subversion his barrister would put the attorney-general in the stand and harangue him to admit that Australians put the country in the position where such a thing could happen. “Weren’t you asking for it?”

Blaming the victim is comforting because we don’t have to face up to the threat to us posed by the perpetrator. In this case, blaming Australia’s shameful past or exaggerating our subservience to the United States fits comfortably into the standard narrative of the left. Admitting that the narrative has been superseded by a new geopolitics centred on an aggressive new power requires cognitive hard labour. I get it; over the last two years I had to do it. Many people who have read my book have told me that it scared them. It scared me as I wrote it. Avoiding something fearful is understandable. Yet there it is; we can’t deal with it until we face it.

What do we believe in?

When deployed by Australian experts like David Brophy, the moral relativism prevalent in the arts faculties of the country’s universities becomes a boon to Xi Jinping’s determination to resist Western pressure to respect human rights. Mainstream Australia, Brophy writes, “is defined by a set of myths about distinctive Australian ‘values’”. The mainstream is always perplexed to hear post-modern intellectuals tell them that free speech, representative government, the rule of law and the separation of powers are myths.

This subverting of basic democratic values by Western academics over-eager to prove their respect for different cultures is all too common in the China debate. The most direct expression of it has been made by Hugh White, although in his case not out of political correctness but out of his self-styled realism and apparent doubts about the inherent desirability of those values. Those who attended White’s public lecture on the topic last year could be mistaken for believing he thinks “China’s values” are no better or worse than ours. Of course, the Chinese values in question are those of the Chinese Communist Party. The argument must overlook the preference of many Chinese people on the mainland and elsewhere, including Taiwan, to live according to the principles of liberalism first developed in the West.

I don’t believe too many of those who signed the first open letter would agree with this subversion of Australia’s democratic values, although I have been disheartened at just how weak is the commitment to liberal values among sections of elite opinion in this country. For me this goes to the heart of the matter. How committed are we to defending the foundational values and institutions that have made Australia the free and democratic nation it is today?


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