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Might democracies’ failure to embrace ethnic communities help China recruit agents of influence?

Posted By on February 26, 2024 @ 15:40

The Singapore government [1] has designated Philip Chan, a naturalised Singapore citizen from Hong Kong, as a ‘politically significant person’. It assessed that Chan was susceptible to foreign influence and willing to advance those interests, essentially naming him an agent of influence.

While Singapore did not identify the foreign country, Chan is likely to have been seen to advance the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) [2] as he attended China’s 2023 Two Sessions parliamentary meetings and publicly commented there that overseas Chinese communities have a duty to ‘tell China’s story well’. That’s a euphemism for China’s external propaganda [3] intended to enhance the power of its international discourse. Similarly, Australia recently convicted [4] Di Sanh Duong, an ethnic Chinese refugee who fled Vietnam in the 1970s, of planning to covertly influence a federal government minister to advance the aims of the CCP.

It’s surprising that individuals from Hong Kong, which has seen some of the biggest pro-democracy protests in recent history, and from Vietnam, where Communist Party atrocities are documented, to become agents of influence for an authoritarian government. It must be hard for those who have lived through such events to forget them—but the reality is that virtually anyone can become an agent of influence.

In Chan and Duong’s cases, some might assume that their loyalties and actions were based on their background or ethnicity, but those factors played less of a role than their beliefs and motivations. It is certainly not true that all ethnic Chinese people are supporters of the CCP. Neither are all immigrants or people from Western backgrounds unsusceptible to foreign influence. In some cases, actions can be driven by personal interests like money and power.

The CCP is seeking to control the information environment to shape the beliefs of those in the ethnic Chinese diaspora on China and the world. An ASPI report [5] from 2020 found that almost all Chinese language media in Australia was controlled by Beijing barring a few independent outlets and the Chinese language sections of our major broadcasters and newspapers. But the content on Chinese social media platforms is monitored and regulated by Beijing’s internet censors. Broadcasters like SBS Mandarin have also self-censored by not posting [5] sensitive content, such as stories about Australian journalists fleeing China, on their WeChat accounts.

It is very difficult for the diaspora community to get a complete picture of current events, especially developments in China or those related to Australia-China relations, when they rely on Chinese language media. They are much more likely to consume CCP propaganda and develop less critical views of the CCP through long-term exposure to biased or incomplete information. Eventually, some may grow distrustful of alternate viewpoints and become staunch supporters [6] and defenders of the CCP and its policies, even if they emigrated to Australia or other countries to escape authoritarian rule.

The narrative [7] that China has undergone rapid economic growth and development over decades feeds into the views that China needs to rise against Western powers after the ‘century of humiliation [8]’, and that China’s current military and economic prowess proves that it is possible.

The Chinese community is particularly vulnerable to this narrative. Many struggle to fit into their new country because of language and cultural barriers, and have faced racism, discrimination [9], and isolation [10]. The CCP preys on members’ ethnic identity and their sense of belonging [11] to their home country. Democracies and their governments can mistrust [12] individuals who have lived under authoritarian regimes and that can lead them to further questioning their of identity and sense of belonging [13]. Again, that could push them back into an attachment with the autocratic power they fled from.

By contrast, China’s rise and power may have given them ‘face’ in Australia, allowing them to feel proud of their Chinese identity.

There is nothing wrong with being proud to be Chinese, but the CCP has ingeniously tied the Chinese identity to supporting modern China, including its ruling party and its political system by replacing China’s cultural heritage with a ‘new culture congenial to the state’. [14]By controlling the information space, the CCP is dominating the definition of being Chinese.

A homogenous definition [15] of Chinese identity that is dictated by the CCP is dangerous. It can hinder the ability of democratic societies to truly foster diversity and multiculturalism, makes it easier to label those who are anti-CCP as anti-China, and it increases the likelihood of racism being directed at the diaspora community by those who do not differentiate between the party and the people.

Sometimes the CCP’s domination goes beyond disseminating propaganda into direct interference. Chinese consular officials protested Vision Times Media’s sponsorship of the Georges River Council’s Lunar New Year celebrations, leading to the council scrapping the sponsorship. Vision Times Media is one of the few outlets with no funding from, or connections to [5], the CCP or CCP-controlled social media sites. The council may not have wanted to anger its constituency or endanger the economic opportunities at stake. But its action has limited people’s access to alternative Chinese newspapers and enabled the CCP to further its control of cultural events and the definition of Chinese culture.

Having immigrants and members of the diaspora community such as Chan and Duong as agents of influence is especially powerful and consequential as they are likely to be viewed as trusted cultural representatives by democratic governments. Policymakers, journalists, and the broader community will overlook their true intentions as there is an assumption based on their background that they would not support the CCP. Their voices—which can effectively become the CCP’s voice—can become dominant within the broader Chinese community, drowning out dissenting voices.

We will probably never know why Chan and Duong became agents of influence. But their cases are a timely reminder of the CCP’s reach regardless of your background. Even the ethnic Chinese diaspora community living in the democratic system can be susceptible.

While this piece has focused on CCP actions targeted at the Chinese diaspora, ASPI research [16] has found that the party is also actively cultivating foreign influencers who ‘endorse pro-CCP narratives on Chinese and global social-media platforms’. The foreign interference allegations against Alexander Csergo [17] in Australia and Chris Cash [18] in the UK indicate that individuals with other than Chinese backgrounds can attract attention from a foreign government.

Australia’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS) is one step towards countering malign foreign influence. But it doesn’t address the long-term influence that comes from the lack of diversity in the Chinese language media landscape, and the CCP’s continued attempts to cultivate and develop domestic agents of influence within Australia. It is also failing to enforce transparency since many Beijing-controlled Chinese language media outlets have not registered under FITS for their communication activities.

Democratic governments should support the growth of neutral and unbiased Chinese language media. The Chinese language sections of Australia’s major broadcasters should be expanded, and independent Chinese language outlets should be protected from pressure and harassment [19] by the CCP. The Australian government should look to build media literacy by raising public awareness and understanding of the implications of being exposed to selective media sources.

There must be a clear distinction between Chinese ethnic and cultural identity and one’s support for the CCP. The Chinese community should be able to celebrate its heritage without political interference or being perceived to be advancing foreign political interests. It must also be made clear in the broader community that one’s background does not define a political stance.

Otherwise, we risk both losing [20] the skills and valuable first-hand knowledge of the members of ethnic communities, but also driving them into the arms of an authoritarian power they may well have once escaped from.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/might-democracies-failure-to-embrace-ethnic-communities-help-china-recruit-agents-of-influence/

URLs in this post:

[1] Singapore government: https://www.mha.gov.sg/mediaroom/press-releases/intended-designation-of-chan-man-ping-philip-as-politically-significant-person-under-the-foreign-interference-countermeasures-act/#:~:text=The%20Registrar%20of%20Foreign%20and,Countermeasures)%20Act%20(FICA).

[2] advance the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/who-is-mr-philip-chan-the-man-against-whom-s-pore-has-invoked-its-foreign-interference-law

[3] external propaganda: https://chinamediaproject.org/the_ccp_dictionary/telling-chinas-story-well/

[4] convicted: https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/australasia/article/3245640/australian-court-finds-ethnic-chinese-man-guilty-foreign-interference-first-its-kind-verdict

[5] ASPI report: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/influence-environment

[6] supporters: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/6/13/china-spinning-a-web-of-influence-campaigns-to-win-over-taiwan

[7] narrative: https://www.recordedfuture.com/blog/chinas-narrative-war-democracy

[8] century of humiliation: https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/3.10.11Kaufman.pdf

[9] racism, discrimination: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-04-19/chinese-australians-still-face-discrimination-despite-less-abuse/102239078

[10] isolation: https://www.smh.com.au/opinion/end-the-isolation-of-chinese-students-in-australia-20170902-gy9iv6.html

[11] sense of belonging: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/diaspora-and-chinas-foreign-influence-activities

[12] mistrust: https://theconversation.com/why-security-vetting-in-australia-can-be-detrimental-to-diversity-199782

[13] belonging: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/dec/10/australian-spy-agencies-urged-to-overhaul-1950s-era-security-vetting-to-rise-to-china-challenge

[14] ‘new culture congenial to the state’. : https://eastasiaforum.org/2016/10/03/the-ccp-returns-to-chinese-cultural-roots/

[15] homogenous definition: https://thediplomat.com/2018/08/the-dark-side-of-the-china-dream-erasing-ethnic-identity/

[16] ASPI research: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/singing-ccps-songsheet

[17] Alexander Csergo: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-10-04/nsw-businessman-alexander-csergo-accused-of-foreign-interference/102933340

[18] Chris Cash: https://www.smh.com.au/world/europe/british-parliamentary-aide-denies-being-a-chinese-spy-20230913-p5e470.html

[19] harassment: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-07/china-pressured-sydney-council-over-media-organisation/10962226

[20] losing: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-02-10/dfat-accused-of-bungling-2023-graduate-program-recruitment/101954814

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