It literally went from close to full to nearly zero in the space of minutes.
Someone with more China know-how than me cocked an eyebrow. “You didn’t bring a burner phone?” they asked. The “you idiot, ya probably got hacked” went unsaid.
Go to China, and you’ll likely be spied on. That Chinese-flavoured espionage spreads throughout the world, with a side serving of bribery and corruption. And yet, our politicians continue to accept ludicrous donations from the influence-seekers.
On another political trip to China the whole team was warned about “gifts” with spyware enclosed. “Honey pots” who might seduce you to give away national secrets, and plain old cyberhacking.
A colleague told me hotel staff once gave him a lovely seashell; but a security expert swiftly snatched it out of his hands and smashed it, to reveal the recorder inside.
Outside China, the pervasive spying network is augmented by its “soft diplomacy” strategy.
That strategy means the Chinese Government — or Chinese businesses that effectively act for the Government — fund projects all over the world to cement relationships and obligations.
There are schools and infrastructure projects and Confucius Institutes. Friendship societies, exhibitions.
A guide on a Pacific Island trip confided that in some places they’re now calling it “shit diplomacy”. China has built huge structures on tiny islands; generally gyms. Our guide guffawed at their construction, saying they were slipshod affairs and the toilets were always blocked — because Chinese pipes were not built for Pacific diets, he said.
This “stadium democracy” is a real thing. Trade between China and the Pacific Islands has almost doubled in less than three years, and China is on track to become the biggest aid donor to some nations. Sometimes they’re gifts; sometimes China funds them through concessional loans. Often, they bring in their own workers — and those workers sometimes stay behind.
That island, then, will have a long-term connection to China.
That bolstering of its presence in the region comes — neatly — as it is building up islands in the South China Sea.
This is hard power, China’s explicit attempts to wrest control of navigational channels. It’s boldly launched into a contested area, claiming existing islands and building others. Then putting weapons on them.
There are concerns about the belligerence, and about the quieter threat of China controlling the passageway for about $7 trillion in trade every year.
Intelligence experts consistently warn of cyberattacks and cyberespionage from China (although they don’t always want to name the nation). All three bidders for the Future Submarines project — Japan, Germany, and France — were targeted by Chinese spies.
Chinese fingers are all over power networks around the world; Hong Kong-based Cheung Kong infrastructure owns just over half of SA Power Networks while ElectraNet is part owned by the State Grid Corporation, which is Chinese Government owned.
Phew. China’s pretty busy. At home, abroad, and right here. The growing giant has hardly made a secret of its plans.
This may sound like scaremongering, like some sort of reds under the bed hysteria.
But China’s hunger for power is directly relevant to what has been revealed in Australia about the large donations that politicians have accepted, against the backdrop of all this.
If that wasn’t enough, our spooks warned politicians about the millions of dollars flowing their way. ASIO told both major parties that donations could open the way for Chinese interference in politics.
An investigation by Fairfax and Four Corners found one Chinese businessman gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence Australia’s policy on the South China Sea.
This is not a feel-good exercise. And it goes far beyond soft diplomacy. Former chief diplomat Peter Varghese said “where groups are channelling money into political parties or to politicians, they are doing it with a purpose”.
Anyone with a passing acquaintance with China — or the world around them at all — knows that the People’s Republic operates this way.
But they still took “donations”. The only way to be sure that Chinese influence — or that of any other overseas power — is contained is by once and for all stopping foreign donations to the political process.
After all this diplomacy, it’s time to go hard.
By Tory Shepherd