Mon, Mar 11, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Australia canary in the coal mine

By Gray Sergeant

In March last year, journalist John Garnaut warned readers of Foreign Affairs that “Australia is the canary in the coal mine of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interference.”

He highlighted numerous cases of the CCP working to covertly manipulate his country’s political system, from access buying and Beijing-linked political donors to the hijacking of universities for party propaganda.

Similar meddling has also been documented in New Zealand by academic Anne-Marie Brady, a China specialist, who as a result has herself been the target of pro-China harassment.

Miners used to quickly exit the toxin-filled mine shafts after their caged canaries dropped dead, but when it comes to Beijing and its suffocation of free societies, liberal democracies have been slow to notice the early indicators.

A report by former British diplomat Charles Parton published last month by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank documents multiple accounts of CCP interference in the UK which, like much of its meddling abroad, has been subtle and underreported.

Parton’s compilation of cases points to a wider CCP campaign to promote self-censorship throughout British public life. It is a campaign that seeks to legitimize the CCP’s one-party rule at home and abroad. Most importantly, the efforts aim to build respect for the People’s Republic of China and ensure that foreigners adhere to the territorial borders the CCP claims for itself.

The CCP’s United Front Work Department, in cahoots with other government agencies, pursues this agenda with the help of slightly more “arm’s-length” think tanks and other “people-to-people” organizations — thus making it more difficult to trace Beijing’s tracks in any given deal. China can give or withhold money, as well as threaten to revoke access to the country and its markets.

Quite simply, governments and institutions that rely on this money and access are pressured to keep quiet and conform to CCP standards. Nowhere is this link between dependency on China and self-censoring more concerning than in higher education.

By now, most people are aware of Confucius Institutes, especially as a number have been closed down over the past few years. Controlled by the CCP’s propaganda department and subject to Chinese law, the institutes either do not discuss issues deemed controversial by Beijing, such as Tibet, or present them in a distorted manner.

Yet as Parton demonstrates, it not just the teaching inside these classrooms that remains an issue, but the wider effect that the institutes have on academic institutions.

These well-funded institutes, which can be critical for Chinese language and cultural learning in universities, can create an unhealthy dependency.

The RUSI report highlights cases in the UK where Confucius Institute staff have meddled at China Studies faculties, including at the University of Nottingham, where academics have had to step down or avoid inviting certain external speakers because of CCP sensitivities.

A more visible attack on academic freedom came in 2017, when the publisher of China Quarterly, Cambridge University Press, removed access in China to articles from its back catalogue relating to Taiwan, Tibet and the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Although this interference from China was eventually resisted, it nonetheless highlights the pressure on and control over academics that the CCP seeks.

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