On a warm Sunday summer evening a few years ago, two officials from the Chinese consulate in Sydney travelled to Melbourne to send a message.
They were interested in a caller to an occasionally provocative Sunday evening talk back show on Chinese radio station 3CW. The two men’s message was relayed to the caller through a Chinese consulate official in Melbourne.
The caller, who had gone on air and queried the Chinese Communist Party’s activities, was told he needed to consider more carefully what he said publicly.
The caller recently relayed this story to me in a meeting in a quiet CBD hotel. Accompanying my source was a second Chinese-born Australian. He works in Melbourne’s Chinese language media industry, which is now dominated by savvy commercial operators in joint ventures with Chinese Communist Party controlled companies.
This man had been warned that if he wanted to keep his job, he needed to avoid broadcasting content that annoyed Beijing.
My two sources asked for their identities to be withheld because they wished to visit family and friends in China and did not want to risk being denied entry.
Their stories illustrate the CCP’s quiet efforts to exert influence in the lives of Chinese Australians by shaping not only what they read and hear (as is the mission of the US government Voice of America radio program), but what they are allowed to say.
To downplay this effort by equating it to “soft power” diplomacy is misguided. Soft power doesn’t involve coercion, no matter how subtle. To ignore this effort is worse. It should go without saying that those in Australia being intimidated are entitled to the same freedoms as everybody else, regardless of where they are born.
It’s not just the Chinese language media where Beijing is deeply engaged in efforts to “guide” overseas Chinese. At universities, nationalistic students – sometimes of their own volition and sometimes with the “guiding” hand of Chinese consulate-sponsored student groups – are enmeshed in the broader CCP effort to shape or silence debate.
This is dividing the Chinese student community in Australia and risks undermining the spirit of free debate that underpins our tertiary education system.
Guidance backed by coercion isn’t mere guidance. This deceit in describing purpose and form is also apparent in some of the “community” associations who claim to be independent from the CCP, but which are in fact deeply embedded in the party’s United Front system of exerting influence.
Leading the pack is the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China. Among the serving and past key members of this Sydney organisation are political donors who have cultivated relationships with politicians of all persuasions.
The most stunning thing about the ACPPRC is not that it’s an active CCP United Front organisation, despite its repeated claims to the contrary. (Its own website has described the ACPPRC’s meetings with the CCP’s “United Front Work Department” to discuss “directions and actions for profoundly promoting the development of the anti-independence and pro-reunification movement globally under new circumstances.”)
Rather, what is extraordinary is how many serving and ex-politicians have affiliated with the group as honorary patrons, or taken large donations from its members, in the apparent absence of any due diligence.
Earlier this year, the Australian official in charge of collating the white paper on foreign affairs, Richard Maude, hosted a private workshop with China experts and business groups. A discussion ensued about the extent to which Australia needs to worry about the CCP’s influence operations.
Some commentators – former foreign minister Bob Carr springs to mind – insist Australia’s main game with China must be expanding areas of mutually beneficial co-operation, especially in light of China’s continuing ascension and our critical trade relationship, and that debate about influence operations (that are ineffective if they exist at all) undermine this task.
Maude told the workshop of concern that the CCP’s long-term intentions for Australia’s place in our changing region may differ from what Australia is hoping for. This concern is front of mind among our intelligence agencies.
It follows that those engaged in pushing these intentions (and silencing dissenters) on behalf of the CCP in Australia through the cover of community, student groups and media outlets, need, at a minimum, to do so openly, transparently and in a manner that allows and encourages debate.
Restricting foreign donations will be a start. Attorney-General George Brandis’ plans for new laws to deter, expose and criminalise the activities of covert CCP influencers are also welcome.
But much else needs to be done.
Independent Chinese language media needs support, while the CCP’s media proxies in Australia should make clear they are so. Universities should also make clear that free speech on campus is non-negotiable, while state interference in what is taught or debated has no place at all.
And our serving and former politicians should stop cosying up with undeclared CCP lobby groups or pretending their activities are no big deal.
By Nick McKenzie
Sydney Morning Herald