Chinese whispers push Canberra to change the law

Labor Senator Sam Dastyari in the Senate, at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday 6 December 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Dr Feng Chongyi. 16th May 2017. Photo: Steven Siewert
Nanjing Night Net

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – FEBRUARY 12: Xiangmo Huang and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull walk along dixon street before the official lantern lighting ceremony at Tumbalong Park on February 12, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media)

The disgraced former US national security adviser Mike Flynn is now the world’s most famous peddler of foreign influence. His woes began when it was revealed he had accepted $US45,000 to appear on the Kremlin propaganda machine posing as a news outfit, Russia Today, or RT.

The next domino to fall was the revelation that he had been paid about $US500,000 by the Turkish government. Things spiralled from there.

Another former Donald Trump adviser, Paul Manafort, has already been charged with failing to register under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, despite reportedly being paid millions of dollars to promote a pro-Moscow Ukrainian political party.

The US laws have come under criticism for being ineffective. But Australia has no equivalent laws at all. Flynn and Manafort would have done nothing illegal and would not even have been compelled to disclose their foreign connections.

Similarly, Sam Dastyari did not appear to meet the threshold of any illegality in his dealings with the Beijing-connected businessman Huang Xiangmo, Attorney-General George Brandis said this week when he and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a sweeping package of proposed laws to curb foreign influence and interference on Wednesday.

The government’s argument is that Australia’s laws are outdated and in serious need of overhaul in an era in which the incidence of foreign interference is at “unprecedented” levels – higher than during the Cold War, according to Brandis.

Globalisation and connectivity allow more vectors of interference. Foreign governments can communicate instantly with large numbers of proxies, agents and supporters, while large diaspora communities provide fertile ground for lobbying efforts. Business communities are closely linked across the globe. Cyber attacks allow the theft of secrets electronically to coerce or interfere in democracies – as was the case with Russia’s meddling in the US election.

Perhaps most importantly, Australia’s strategic circumstances have been transformed. It now has a rising great power in its region that wants to become Asia’s hegemon, which means decoupling the US from its allies, including Australia. For China this means emphasising the economic advantages its has to offer to an export-dependent country and normalising – as much as it plausibly can – its own system of government, the Chinese Communist Party.

Australia is particularly ripe because China is by far its biggest export destination.

It is also a bellwether country in how it handles Beijing’s increasing assertiveness, according to Rory Medcalf of the Australian National University.

“Were Australia to privilege China’s preferences on matters such as its disputes with Japan, India and South-east Asian countries, or over human rights and governance issues, other small and medium powers could follow,” Professor Medcalf wrote in the Australian Financial Review. “The ripples would be global.”

While it might not be realistic to break US alliances in Asia, “Beijing will keep trying to weaken them”.

Former Labor leader and ambassador to Washington Kim Beazley said foreign interference was certainly “elevated” now. He said China had a clear intention to influence Australia political decision-making, though it was different from Russia’s interference in the US which aimed to “discombobulate American society”.

“China wants us to support their foreign policy objectives and cull us from the US alliance. That is their purpose. There’s nothing surprising about it, nor about our resistance to it,” Beazley said.

China’s reaction to the Turnbull laws, which seasoned observers predicted would likely be muted, turned out to be quite the contrary. In a three-pronged attack, its foreign ministry, its embassy in Canberra and the state mouthpiece China Daily newspaper all launched broadsides.

In doing so, it called the Turnbull government out, demolishing the polite diplomatic fiction that this package was about an abstract collection of countries that are trying to influence Australian politics and not China per se.

Medcalf described this heated reaction as “a soft power own goal” on Beijing’s part, smacking of desperation and frustration.

Feng Chongyi, a Sydney professor who is a vocal critic of Chinese influence and who made headlines earlier this year when he was detained for week while trying to leave China, has studied how the networks of influence operate.

Between business groups, student associations, alumni groups and overtly political associations such as the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China – of which Huang Xiangmo stepped down as chairman a fortnight ago – there are about 300 groups in Sydney alone, Feng said.

Huang and his predecessor, the council’s late founder William Chiu, a Chinese-Malaysian businessman, were especially politically active, which is why there are photos in the public domain of them with virtually every senior Australian politician.

Through its United Front Work Department, the Chinese government has created a structure of patronage and coercion, whereby “if you work with authorities of China, then you get can benefits financially and socially”.

“Patriotic Chinese community leaders, including owners and editors of media outlets and heads of community associations, are rewarded with annual training programs and tours in China paid by the Chinese government, which also establish valuable contacts and create business opportunities,” Feng said.

“[They are] are invited to the dinners organised by the Chinese embassy or consulates and to the parties welcoming the visits of high-ranking officials from China, activities valuable for business, contacts and social status.”

Ultimately it means that businessmen and women with interests in China can win contracts there if they do Beijing’s bidding in Australia, but find their businesses under investigation if they do not.

These “patriotic proxies” in turn try to influence politics, media and business circles, he says.

Anne-Marie Brady, from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, who has done ground-breaking research on Chinese influence, says that as Beijing’s foreign policy becomes more ambitious, its influence reach has “gone into hyperdrive”.

She says it’s important to remember most Chinese businesspeople are that and nothing else. But those like Huang – who have clear connections through front organisations like the reunification council, to the United Front to the Chinese Communist Party – need to be called out.

Everyone is entitled to put their case in the marketplace of ideas that forms the Australian democratic polity, but needs to be clear who they are representing. That is the thinking behind the Turnbull government’s planned “foreign influence transparency scheme”, based on – but improving on – the US foreign agents registry.

Feng and Brady both back this scheme, saying that if it is properly implemented, the value of subtle influence will be lost because everyone knows who’s behind it and what their agenda is.

“If [Chinese proxies] see economic, commercial or political risks here, they will stop the practice,” Feng says.

It remains to be seen how precisely this will be put into practice. How might it work, for instance, in the case of Chinese community newspapers, which Feng says come under significant pressure from advertisers who are Chinese state-owned enterprises or pro-Beijing community groups?

Media outlets are generally exempt unless they are foreign government-owned. Advertisers might be liable for listing if they are pushing a message from Beijing, but there will be a lot of judgement calls required by the Attorney-General’s Department as to who must and must not go on the register.

At the very least, a Flynn-like mover and shaker in Australia would need to declare themselves, which is why the new laws have been widely welcomed by experts.

At the more extreme end of foreign interference that goes beyond mere transparency, the Turnbull government is creating a new offence of foreign interference that covertly meddles in Australia’s democracy. It recognises the reality that Australia’s espionage and treason laws are virtually never used.

Anyone working covertly with a foreign power to influence government or political processes, interfere in elections, help a foreign intelligence agency or harm Australia’s national security will be liable for jail time of up to 20 years.

Brandis has indicated that had Dastyari conducted his business with Huang under the new laws, he might have been open to prosecution.

Brandis also highlighted the danger to political parties, which he said are “very porous organisations” of which it is easy to become a member.

“If a foreign government or a foreign principal wants to influence Australian domestic politics, one of the ways in which they can do that is by joining a political party, seeking to rise to a position of influence or power in that political party,” he told the ABC this week.

The government’s new laws also modernise laws covering treason, treachery, mutiny, sabotage and – most critically – espionage, which will become broader and mean that a person need not be caught literally in the act of handing over state secrets to a foreign power with the demonstrable intention of harming Australia.

Anne-Marie Brady says serious operators will still try to get around these laws. But the awareness created by the new laws will do as much as anything to make Australian decision-makers and opinion-shapers more canny in their dealings.

“Putting some sunlight on it is a good thing,” she said, noting there has been too much blindness to this for too long. “A lot of the pushback is going to have to come from people in Australian society having a better idea of what is going on and who they’re interacting with.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Leave a Comment