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.
Other smaller cases should also raise concerns about the deterioration of academic freedom.
The report highlights the absurd situation young China-born academics working in the UK face when they are “invited to have tea” at the Chinese embassy and told to support the Chinese line.
It also says that in February 2017 at the Durham University Debating Society, members of the local Chinese Students and Scholars Association barricaded the building in which a Falun Gong advocate had been due to speak.
On this occasion, the Chinese embassy also accused the debating society of damaging UK-China relations and asked it to revoke the speaker’s invitation.
Parton speculates what reaction would come from London-based Chinese diplomats if a university in the UK invited the Dalai Lama to speak.
He concludes that it would be similar to what happened at the University of California — where Beijing refused to process Chinese government scholarships for the university after it hosted the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.
The report also points to less visible uses of money and access for British academics, who it says might feel the need to “shade the truth or avoid the awkward.”
At a public lecture he attended, an academic who holds a position at a UK university alongside posts at three Chinese universities argued that censorship in China was marginal, Parton says.
At the talk, the academic claimed that investigative journalism was “alive and well,” but failed to mention incarcerated journalists or the vast network of censors employed by the party, he says.
Of course, such academics might genuinely believe this — after all, as George Orwell said: “Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.”
Yet it is not just academics being duped, or corrupted, by Beijing’s influences.
Parton highlights the threat posed to press freedom by Chinese money due to the possibility of Chinese companies withdrawing advertising and the business interests media company owners have in China — as well as the ￡750,000 (US$976,270) reportedly paid to the Telegraph every year to feature propaganda content from the CCP-run China Daily.
While the influence this has had on the paper cannot be determined, the Telegraph carried twice as many articles by the Chinese ambassador to the UK than the Financial Times, the Guardian and the Daily Mail combined, he says.
In the realm of British politics, the tool of giving or denying access to China is once again being deployed.
In a recent example, Beijing staged a failed attempt to ban a British pro-Taiwan lawmaker from a cross-party committee trip to China, Parton says, adding that the tactic has also been tried against politicians in Australia and Germany.
The report is timely and important reading: It should serve as yet another warning to free societies about the corrosive effect of CCP money in their institutions.
However, are such reports even needed to figure this out?
Perhaps all that people need to do is ask themselves a very simple question — a question put forward by the writer and journalist Edward Lucas:
“If you think you live in a free country, ask if your politicians feel free to meet the Dalai Lama. If the answer is no, then you are part of the Chinese empire — you just haven’t realized it yet,” Lucas wrote.
Gray Sergeant is a postgraduate student in Chinese politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He also works in human rights advocacy.
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