Framing the Australia–China relationship
24 Apr 2018|

A flurry of attacks on the Turnbull government’s handling of the Australia–China relationship has captured the media’s attention. First a columnist for the Financial Review on a Fortescue-funded trip to China’s Bo’ao Forum punched out three stories critical of the government’s ‘considerable anti-China rhetoric’, citing businessmen and nameless Chinese officials.

In due course, China’s ambassador granted the Australian an interview in which he stated that ‘systematic, irresponsible and negative remarks’ had harmed bilateral relations. ‘It is detrimental to the image of Australia in the eyes of the Chinese public. It is something that neither side would like to see,’ Ambassador Cheng Jingye said.

On Monday Kevin Rudd told Sky News that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull thinks it’s smart to ‘publicly punch the Chinese in the face’. That night Bob Carr of the University of Technology Sydney’s Australia–China Relations Institute echoed Rudd’s comments on ABC Radio National, but not without falsely and recklessly claiming that former Turnbull advisor John Garnaut had described Chinese students as ‘representing a threat of ethno-nationalist chauvinism’.

But how much truth is in these characterisations of the Australia–China relationship? The common factor is that they appear to absolve or ignore any blame the Chinese government might bear for the current state of relations. We seem to have forgotten what was evidently a key impetus in the Turnbull government’s decision to introduce legislation to counter foreign interference: the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) interference in Australian society and parliamentary sovereignty.

The case of former Labor senator Sam Dastyari is only the best-publicised example. Dastyari courted hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations from Huang Xiangmo, a Chinese citizen and property developer, going as far as providing Huang with counter-surveillance advice and contradicting Labor’s policy on the South China Sea. These events not only compromised the integrity of our political system, but also laid bare and took advantage of gaps in our laws that the proposed legislation seeks to combat.

While donating over a million dollars to both major political parties, Huang Xiangmo was president of the Australian branch of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification, an organisation run by the CCP’s United Front Work Department. In 2016, the Council even printed Huang’s smiling visage on the cover of its official magazine, Reunification Forum. The accompanying article praised Huang for his ‘broad influence in Australia’s overseas Chinese world, political world, business world and scholarly world’.

The United Front Work Department coordinates a system for undermining opponents and supporting allies through manipulation, deception and reward that’s known as the United Front. Xi Jinping has referred to this system, which originally helped the CCP undermine the Kuomintang and ultimately seize control in 1949, as one of the party’s ‘magic weapons’. This magic weapon is now being used across the globe in countries such as Taiwan, Australia and Canada, to name only a few examples.

The United Front and the CCP’s propaganda system also seek to establish influence over Chinese diasporas. Here in Australia, large numbers of Chinese newspapers and radio stations have been purchased by Chinese state media. Financial pressure is exerted on Chinese media outlets that remain critical of the CCP.

As Sinologist John Fitzgerald points out, the CCP’s plans to mobilise Chinese-Australians for political purposes assume that the primary loyalties of Chinese-Australians lie with the People’s Republic of China. That’s probably not true, and most Australians of Chinese heritage weren’t born in the Chinese mainland. Nonetheless, CCP United Front and propaganda efforts are widespread in Chinese community groups and media, and constitute deliberate interference that could drive a wedge between Chinese-Australians and the rest of the nation if allowed to continue.

In addition to this interference, the CCP appears to be engaging in its own campaign of anti-Australian rhetoric to weaken Australia’s willingness to confront CCP interference. In the process, the CCP has sought to characterise the Turnbull government’s response to foreign interference as ‘anti-Chinese racism’, blurring the line between Chinese people and the CCP.

Following isolated assaults on Chinese students in Australia, the Chinese embassy posted an alert on its website and across Chinese media stating, ‘All Chinese students in Australia are warned to be on the alert for possible threats to their safety.’

Many were led to believe that Chinese students in Australia faced a wave of racially motivated violence connected to similarly motivated legislation. After working to generate fear and anger among parents, China’s consular officials in Melbourne encouraged local contacts to communicate their concerns about racial abuse to the Australian government. By John Fitzgerald’s reckoning, this strategy had ‘the implied threat that students would stop coming if the government did not change its tune’.

More recently, a few dozen Chinese students hoping to pursue graduate studies in Australia had their visas significantly delayed. Chinese state media first broke the story and the delays were framed as a political act related to tensions between Australia and China. ‘I’ve already given up on Australia … and I advise others who want to pursue a PhD degree to be cautious and choose [your destination country] wisely,’ one anonymous student told the Global Times, a Ministry of Propaganda outlet.

The CCP is clearly aware of the social and economic importance of our universities, and in these instances appears to have sought to influence Australian politics by threatening the flow of Chinese students.

There is much to be criticised in the Turnbull government’s management of our relationship with China. At times the government has been inconsistent, with ministers contradicting each other. It has been provocative, as in the case of Concetta Fierravanti-Wells’s comments on China’s influence in the Pacific region. And it has been clumsy, as in Turnbull’s proclamation in Mandarin that ‘the Australian people stand up’. Criticism of the legislation should also be welcomed, and the concerns many journalists and academics hold as to its implications are important.

But CCP interference is real, not mere rhetoric, and it’s the central reason for bilateral tensions. Mistakes in how the China–Australia relationship has been managed shouldn’t lead us to lose sight of that crucial fact. Until we confront this interference, Australia cannot claim to have a healthy relationship with China.