Searching for evidence of ‘Chinese influence’ in Australia? Look no further than the census. Around 1.2 million people declared themselves of Chinese heritage. About 600,000 were born in mainland China. And while recent coverage of alleged Chinese ‘influence’ in Australian politics might suggest otherwise, the Australian-Chinese community is not a dagger pointed at the heart of Australian democracy — it is a diverse community with every right to participate in the political process.
There are also more than 170,000 Chinese nationals at Australian universities. The overwhelming majority come at their families’ expense to buy an Australian education.
There is a narrative that would have Australians think that a shadowy cabal of Chinese-born businesspeople is trying to control national policy with cash and that Chinese students are bent on overthrowing Australian institutions, freedoms and rights.
It is an insinuation with scant evidence.
People of Chinese origin and China-domiciled business people do make donations to politicians, universities and other Australian institutions, but for the same reasons that other people do: to gain prestige, to establish standing, to gain access to certain social circles or because they feel affinity with the ideas of the politicians or parties they support.
Some doubtless hope to influence policy outcomes to their advantage, as do donors of all nationalities. This does not mean those hopes are realised. Nor can it be assumed that they are acting at the behest of a government agency in Beijing.
Do Chinese students bring world views to campuses that are different from those of Australian, Indian or other foreign students? Of course they do. Some of them are actually members of the Chinese Communist Party, though the overwhelming majority are not. Most are profoundly influenced by the experience of Australian culture, society and institutions. Not all — but nor are Australia’s own.
So why are donors of Chinese background or students of Chinese origin being targeted now?
Importantly, there is an elevated demonising of China to quell deep and gnawing anxieties that surround the unpredictability of the US alliance under President Donald Trump.
The hype also reflects shallowness in the way that some Australian commentators understand the Chinese political system and expresses anxieties about the directions that it might take. The Chinese Communist Party has 90 million members: larger than the entire population of Germany. It is ludicrous to imagine that they are all spies, or that Beijing is capable of marshalling every single businessperson or student in foreign countries to prosecute its geopolitical agenda, even if it wanted to.
Another error that does damage to Australia’s understanding of China is to buy into a false dichotomy of liberal democracy and totalitarianism. China is no Jeffersonian polity, and the political system appears to be regressing on the freedom index. But nor is it North Korea. No knowledgeable person would think there is political equivalence between them.
Different systems do not prevent close ties between Australia and Singapore or between Australia and Thailand. Differences with China’s system are of another order. But in areas like global trade and climate change, Beijing is becoming a critical defender of the rules-based order on which the world relies for economic and political security. Their systems differ profoundly, but Australia and China have common cause and goals.
Does the Chinese government have perspectives about China’s interests that it promotes abroad? Of course, and when they differ from Australia’s there is every reason to make Australia’s positions clear.
What might prevent close ties between Australia and China from delivering their economic and political benefits is failure to do the thinking needed about managing the relationship. Mutual trust on key issues is attainable as long as a framework of engagement exists for continued dialogue — and as long as Australia can engage in debate based on facts rather than false logic and association. To act otherwise does no credit to confidence in and loyalty to Australian national values and institutions.
China is set to remove many of the restrictions on where and how its citizens can save and invest. This will reshape the world’s financial landscape, driving change in political behaviour in China itself. For Australia, it will mean financial inflows that lift business investment and underwrite nation-building infrastructure. Similarly, the interaction between Chinese students and Australian classmates creates essential connections and invaluable assets as the two economies become more interdependent.
These opportunities will be squandered if Australian policy towards China is bungled. Australian policies must give Chinese investors confidence in being treated fairly, not scapegoated for what are the failures of Australian policymaking rather than malevolent foreign influence.
Political donations in Australia should be more tightly regulated to prevent their being used to curry favour improperly or distort policymaking processes. If rules are tightened, they should be tightened for everyone equally. It is inappropriate to blame one ethnic community or foreign country for a phenomenon that is not unique thereto.
Australians’ future prosperity and security depends on rejecting simple Cold War thinking, and they need to start on the large but necessary task of building a knowing but constructive trust-based relationship with China.
Peter Drysdale is Emeritus Professor at The Australian National University, Director of the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research and Co-editor of East Asia Forum. John Denton is CEO of Corrs Chambers Westgarth.