The Chinese government uses a sophisticated network of supposedly non-political organizations to suppress criticism, cultivate relationships and exert influence over Australia’s business, academic and political worlds.
Lawmakers investigating foreign interference have been handed evidence with unprecedented detail of the complex network of soft power used by extensions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in boardrooms and on university campuses across Australia.
The submission, by prominent Charles Sturt University author and professor of ethics Clive Hamilton and Australian National University researcher Alex Joske, said China uses the CCP’s United Front Work Department to exert its influence on Australian society.
The United Front’s purpose, Hamilton said, is to “mobilize sympathetic or potentially sympathetic Chinese community groups to serve the interests of the CCP” while marginalizing those opposed to the party.
Its influence extends across Chinese associations on university campuses and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
The Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA) was “the core of Beijing’s presence on university campuses” and an “integral component” of United Front activity in Australia, with the primary purpose of “monitoring the thoughts and behaviors of the 130,000 Chinese students on campuses across Australia,” Hamilton said in his submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security
There are at least 37 associations active on Australian campuses “covering nearly all Australian universities, including all Group of Eight universities, as well as the CSIRO,” Hamilton said.
“CSSAs play a central role in the Chinese government’s efforts to monitor, control and intervene in the lives of Chinese students in Australia and to limit academic freedom on universities,” the submission said.
While some of the associations “attempt to downplay or hide the fact that they are guided by the Chinese government,” others are more explicit.
The University of Newcastle’s Web site said that the campus association is “supervised by the Chinese general consulate Sydney.”
Hamilton said the associations are tasked with ensuring that Chinese students “remain patriotic and supportive” of CCP rule, but are also used to mobilize Chinese students to oppose campus activities that might embarrass Beijing.
“As the Chinese government’s ears and eyes on university campuses, CSSAs are likely behind many of the incidents of students and lecturers being reported to Chinese authorities for comments that run contrary to the party line,” the submission stated.
Hamilton cited a recent example where the Chinese consulate-general entered a dispute with the University of Newcastle after a lecturer showed a table that listed Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate countries.
The submission also said that the influence of pro-Beijing organizations in Australian business has been “supercharged” by the rapid growth in trade and investment flows between China and Australia.
“Many leading figures in the Australian business community now serve as megaphones for Beijing’s messaging to the Australian government and the wider public, not least in warnings about ‘damaging the relationship’ and the risks of retaliation when statements are made that Beijing does not like,” the submission states.
It details “a proliferation of front organizations whose purpose is to deepen personal relationships and subtly shift the perspective [of the Australian business community],” including the Australian-China Belt and Road Initiative (ACBRI), which is linked to former Australian minister for trade and investment Andrew Robb.
The ACBRI is partially funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but said in a statement that it “does not accept funding from Chinese government or Chinese companies and operates with full disclosure” to the department.
However, in the submission, Hamilton asked whether Australia’s foreign interference bill — which contains secrecy provisions that could see journalists and whistle-blowers jailed for 20 years — would actually help to combat Chinese government influence.
“It is not clear that the legislation as currently framed would capture some of the more important foreign interference operations that are being undertaken by the PRC [People’s Republic of China] in Australia, including the United Front work,” the submission states.
The bill aims to target “covert, deceptive or threatening actions by foreign actors who intend to influence Australia’s democratic or government processes or to harm Australia.”
However, Hamilton said the notion of “influence” was difficult to measure, and that while “blatant” cases might be captured by the act, most forms of Chinese government influence are subtler.
He gave examples of instances that would “naturally be thought of as foreign interference operations, but which may not be successfully prosecuted under the new laws,” such as a university publisher rejecting a manuscript critical of the CCP because it fears losing revenue from Chinese students and research collaborations with Chinese universities.
Publisher Allen & Unwin last year canceled plans to publish Hamilton’s book about the Chinese government’s methods of asserting influence in Australia because of fears that the Chinese government could sue for defamation.
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