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China’s influence in Australia: Maintaining the debate

China’s influence in Australia Maintaining the debate
03 April 2018

This article was originally published on Policy Forum.

On Monday, Policy Forum published as an open letter a submission made to Australia’s parliamentary review of new national security legislation. The open letter was signed by a group of scholars of China and the Chinese diaspora.
In response, there is now another open letter, by a second group going under the name Scholars of China, the Chinese diaspora, China-Australian relations, and Australia’s relations with Asia. This will also be submitted to the relevant parliamentary committee. Policy Forum publishes that second letter below:
We the undersigned are scholars of China, the Chinese diaspora, China-Australia relations and Australia’s relations with Asia. We are deeply concerned by a number of well-documented reports about the Chinese Communist Party’s interference in Australia. We strongly believe that an open debate on the activities of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in this country is essential to intellectual freedom, democratic rights and national security. This debate is valuable and necessary.
It is vital that the debate is driven by fact-based research and reporting rather than sensationalism or racism. It is also vital that this debate is not stifled by self-censorship. We firmly believe the current debate is not characterised by racism and that it is crucial for Australia to continue this debate. Indeed, Chinese Australians are among the main initiators and drivers of this debate.
We also believe in the need to encourage careful research into the CCP’s covert and sometimes coercive activities here in Australia and in other countries, where we note that concern is also rising. Identifying, recognising and winding back CCP interference as an unacceptable and counterproductive part of bilateral engagement is a step towards developing a healthy China-Australia relationship over the long term.
We believe that some of the CCP’s activities constitute unacceptable interference in Australian society and politics. We believe these have in a number of instances sought to restrict personal freedoms, impede democratic processes and affect national security, with the potential to harm Australia’s interests and sovereignty. We recognise the need to consider seriously the extraordinary warnings about foreign interference from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. These warnings were certainly not made lightly.
Accordingly, the Australian government and civil society must remain vigilant against such activities as:
  • Espionage and other unlawful operations by Chinese officials or their proxies on Australian soil
  • Attempts to interfere in political elections
  • Direct and indirect control of Chinese-language media in Australia
  • Intimidation of Chinese Australians (both Australian citizens and permanent residents) for their political views and activities in Australia
  • The use of political donations and agents of influence in attempts to change Australian government policies
  • The takeover and co-opting of Chinese community groups to censor sensitive political discussions and increase the Chinese government’s presence in the community
  • The establishment of Chinese government-backed organisations on university campuses used for monitoring Chinese students
  • Interference in academic freedom
  • The cultivation of prominent Australians in attempts to sway public and elite opinion
  • The covert organisation of political rallies by the Chinese government.
Where clear evidence of such activity exists, the Australian authorities should be willing and able to take appropriate steps to counter foreign interference and threats to sovereignty. We recognise the concern that existing legislative instruments are not sufficient for these purposes and acknowledge the need for laws suitable to today’s circumstances.
Like the many people and interests whose perspectives have been conveyed in recent submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, we hold a range of views about whether the Bills as currently drafted are acceptable or whether they will need some significant amendment. We also recognise that the proposed laws are not targeted solely at China and nor should they be.
In recent years the CCP’s efforts at influence and interference in Australia have become increasingly bold, including an overt agenda to influence Chinese communities in Australia. The recently announced consolidation of Chinese state media outlets under the Propaganda Department and the expansion of the United Front Work Department’s mandate for overseas Chinese suggest that the CCP’s activities in Australia will continue and potentially intensify.
Any and all forms of racism, including against people of Chinese heritage, deserve condemnation. Racism was a deplorable part of Australia’s history and continues to find expression in modern Australia. We oppose it unreservedly.
However, we strongly believe that the growing public discussion on unacceptable CCP activities in Australia and many other countries around the world is not motivated by racism. The debate here has originated from genuine concern for Australia’s national interest including this nation’s fundamental value of tolerance for and protection of minority rights. For some of us, the debate has been motivated by the need to protect the interests of migrants from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and of those in Uyghur and Tibetan communities in Australia, all of which have been targets of the CCP’s interference.
There is a critical need to clearly distinguish between Chinese people and the CCP and avoid conflating the two in public discussions. We recognise that people of ethnic-Chinese heritage in Australia may have a range of national origins, and that it is inappropriate for the CCP to claim that they should have primary allegiance and emotional connection to a ‘China’ as defined by the CCP.
Alarmist and racist sentiments will exist at the fringes of any debate that touches on ethnic-minority communities, but they do not define the valuable discussion underway about CCP interference in Australia. The solution is not self-censorship but rather the normalisation of this debate as a part of the regular discourse about Australia’s national interests. This is essential to avoid any risk of it being distorted by sensationalism or hijacked by extreme agendas.
Accusations of racism must be taken seriously, and great efforts must be made to avoid and end racism. We are mindful also that racism is precisely the accusation that is encouraged and levelled by the CCP itself as it tries to silence the current discussion. Through these accusations and its efforts to infiltrate Chinese communities, the CCP seeks to position itself as the protector of overseas Chinese and drive a wedge between Chinese communities and the rest of Australia.
Should the CCP’s operations of interference be allowed to continue in Australia, they will fuel divisiveness between Chinese communities and other Australians, weaken the Australian government’s ability to communicate with Chinese communities and harm the democratic rights of Chinese Australians.
We appreciate and welcome the deep and dynamic connections between China and Australia in society, culture and trade. We believe that people of Chinese origin in Australia, whether citizens of this country or not, expect and deserve the same freedoms as others in our democratic system: to express opinions on any question, and to support or criticise any policy. Whether a scholar at an Australian university, or a student from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong or Taiwan, all should be able to express their point of view free of fear or censorship, whether from forces foreign or domestic.
We have in Australia’s mature multicultural society the capacity to conduct this important debate with rigour, balance, honesty and transparency, and without unnecessarily escalating either community tensions or diplomatic differences. We call on all involved in this debate to work towards these ends.
Signatories to the response
Nathan Attrill, PhD candidate, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University
Børge Bakken, Visiting Fellow, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University
Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, the University of Western Australia
Nick Bisley, Head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University
Kevin Carrico, Lecturer, Chinese Studies, Macquarie University
Anita Chan, Co-editor of The China Journal, Political and Social Change Department, Australian National University.
Chen Jie, Associate Professor, Political Science and International Relations, the University of Western Australia
Chin Jin, Greater China researcher, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney
Malcolm Cook, Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Non-resident Fellow at Lowy Institute
Feng, Chongyi, Associate Professor in China Studies, University of Technology Sydney
Antonia Finnane, Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne
John Fitzgerald, Emeritus Professor, Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology
Gerry Groot, Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies, University of Adelaide
Gu Ming, PhD in Political Science/China Studies and post-doc Research Assistant, University of Technology Sydney
Ian Hall, Professor of International Relations, Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University
Terence Halliday, Honorary Professor, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University
Ben Hillman, Associate Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University
Bruce Jacobs, Emeritus Professor of Asian Languages and Studies, Monash University
Alex Joske, China researcher and Australian National University student
Mei-fen Kuo, Research Fellow (DECRA) in History, University of Queensland
James Leibold, Associate Professor of Politics and Asian Studies, La Trobe University
Lin Bin, Political Scientist, PhD University of New South Wales
Paul Macgregor, Historian/heritage consultant on Chinese Australian history, The Uncovered Past Institute
Anne McLaren, Professor, Chinese Studies, FAHA, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne
Dominic Meagher, Independent China analyst and economist
Rory Medcalf, Professor and Head, National Security College, Australian National University
Paul Monk, former head of the China Desk at DIO, PhD in International Relations from the ANU, author of Thunder from the Silent Zone; Rethinking China (2005)
Adam Ni, China researcher, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University
Benjamin Reilly, Professor and Dean, Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs, Murdoch University
Kaz Ross, Lecturer in Asian Studies, University of Tasmania
Fred Smith, Lecturer, Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University
Jonathan Unger, Professor, Political and Social Change Department, Australian National University
Sue Wiles, China scholar, editor and translator
Wai Ling Yeung, retired academic, former Head of Chinese Studies, Curtin University of Technology
Zhong Jinjiang, PhD candidate in Chinese Economics, Cambridge University, President of Chinese Alliance for Democracy
Signatories: (after 28 March 2018)
Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, retired professor of political science, City University of Hong Kong and convenor of the Alliance for True Democracy
Andrew Forrest, former policy adviser (China) in the International Division of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, PhD Deakin University
John Minford, Emeritus Professor of Chinese, Australian National University
Terry Narramore, Lecturer in International Relations, University of Tasmania
David Schak, Adjunct Associate Professor, Griffith University
Martin Williams, PhD, University of Technology Sydney
The authors invite scholars of China, the Chinese diaspora, China-Australia relations and Australia’s relations with Asia who would like to endorse this letter to contact jointletter2018@gmail.com


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