A funny thing happened on the way to Beijing: Reflections on spy recruitment practices

Sep 14, 2023
Spy, intruder. Unauthorised entry. Security check

An innocent invitation to a conference could turn into a nightmare. Next month I shall be on my way to an Australian Studies conference in Beijing, but already I am nervous about my travel plans because of recent stories about the attitude of Australian spy agencies to information exchanges with China. Friends, if I fail to board the Qantas flight out of Hong Kong on 27th October, please alert Foreign Minister Penny Wong as soon as possible!

Here are the reasons for my nervousness: Number one: As reported earlier this month by Ben Doherty in The Guardian, a Chinese Australian Studies expert visiting Australia was raided by the Federal Police, offered thousands of dollars for information and had his phone and computer confiscated. The scholar, who has not been named, cut short their visit and returned to China.

Reason number two: The ABC has highlighted the participation in last week’s bilateral High Level Dialogue by Professor Chen Hong of East China Normal University, pointing out that his Australian visa was cancelled by the Morrison government in 2020 in connection with an alleged foreign interference plot in New South Wales. Chen Hong is a noted professor of Australian Studies who has published on Australian politics, culture, language and literature as well as bilateral relations. As a spokesperson for the Australian Embassy pointed out, his participation in the Dialogue was a matter for the Chinese side.

Reason number three: According to reports by the ABC and other media, Australian businessman Alexander Csergo, who returned from living and working in Shanghai in July this year, was charged with “reckless foreign interference” for passing information about Australia to his Chinese contacts, even though he only had access to open sources such as are available to the general public.

Security organisations seem to have concluded that conferences, academic exchanges and the collection and passing on of information about China in Australia, or about Australia in China, are all highly suspicious activities and possibly offences under national security legislation. That makes me nervous.

Next month I shall be attending the ninth China Australia Transcultural Studies Symposium hosted by the Australian Studies Centre at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. This symposium has been held regularly in recent years, alternately in Australia or China. This year notable Australian participants will include journalist Stan Grant and artist Xiaoping Zhou. All of us will be presenting our frank and sincere views and will be open to hearing others’ points of view. These exchanges will not be about “telling China’s story well” (a current Chinese aphorism) or “showcasing Australian excellence” (an objective of the National Foundation for Australia China Relations). They will, hopefully, be soundly based on research and will lead to real academic exchange.

The question is whether our security organisations are sophisticated enough to distinguish academic exchange from tendency towards disloyalty and treachery. National security is essential for both Australia and China, but it should not be paramount. There is a point when security should be balanced by consideration of national advantage. At this time, when Prime Minister Albanese has announced that he will visit China later this year, it is well to remember his statement when meeting Premier Li Qiang in Jakarta,

“When our relations are good and sound, both peoples benefit and when things are not going so well, both sides lose from it. A sound and steady China-Australia relationship serves the fundamental interest and common aspirations of both peoples.”

Surely a sound and steady relationship can only be achieved if it is based on facts and not propaganda.

It is instructive to remember that Australia does not feature highly in the general consciousness of China’s citizens or even its political leaders. For them, immediate neighbours including Japan, Korea and India, as well as the US, Russia and Europe, rank much higher. Australia does however have one solid group of committed and interested supporters in the network of around forty Australian Studies Centres, including many postgraduate students and researchers. Their work does not go unnoticed, as outlined in a recent research paper by Taotao Zhao and Ke Xiao on how academic work feeds into the decision-making processes of the Chinese Communist Party. It is surely in our interests to support the work of the Centres. It is not productive to intimidate them by accusations of seeking to exert undue political influence. It is also not productive to seek to coopt them to work for our intelligence agencies.

In the Sondheim 1960s musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the slave Pseudolus tries to win freedom by helping his master with his love affairs. The complicated plot involves Pseudolus spreading a rumour that there is an outbreak of plague in Crete that causes involuntary smiling, and another that the house is haunted and can only be exorcised by travelling seven times round the seven hills of Rome. Lies, misunderstandings, false accusations, double entendres belong to stage farces not the real world, and particularly not Australia-China academic exchanges.

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