Like so many members of the security establishment Director of ASIO Duncan Lewis adopted the time-honoured tactic of implicitly saying to the public ‘trust us because we know things you don’t know and which we can’t tell you’.
About this time last year, the recently retired Director of ASIO Duncan Lewis made a series of startling public announcements. He warned the public that the Chinese government was seeking to use ‘insidious’ interference operations to ‘take over’ Australia’s political system. Anyone in office could be targeted and the strategy’s full impact might not be apparent for decades. ‘You wake up one day and find decisions made in our country that are not in the interests of our country.’ Striking assertions indeed but accompanied by little supporting evidence.
The heated rhetoric notwithstanding, the Lewis declaration must be taken seriously. He has been close to nation’s decision makers for 20 years in a career that has ranged from the military, the bureaucracy, the diplomatic corps, ministerial offices and the security establishment. He was the head of ASIO from 2014 to 2019. It may not be accidental that this period witnessed the sharp deterioration of the relations between Australia and China.
It is a perfectly reasonable assumption that Lewis’s opinions were not his alone and fairly represented the majority view of Canberra’s security agencies. That being so, China had to be seen as an enemy and it was a patriotic duty to do whatever was necessary to disrupt hitherto amicable relations that had reached an apogee with the state visit of President Xi in November 2014.
Lewis took up the reins at ASIO two months before the Xi visit. If that is indeed the case the public declaration of October last year, referred to above, must be seen as the equivalent of an athlete’s victory lap. During his tenure, ASIO and its allies have carried out a successful takeover of Australian foreign policy and China has become an enemy in a manner that astounds many objective observers.
ASIO did not change direction when the new Director, Mike Burgess, assumed the leadership late last year. Hostile intelligence activity, he declared last month, ‘continues to pose a real threat to Australia, our sovereignty and the integrity of our national institutions.’ But if anything, key elements of the strategy have recently become clearer.
The intention is to target that complex web of social, cultural and intellectual relationships between the two countries that have developed over the past decade or so. They involve artistic bodies, universities, think tanks, local government and even personal friendships. None can be above suspicion. All are of interest to the spies.
The extraordinary attack on the prestigious think tank China Matters in June was a calculated move and a warning that any organisation that sought to maintain close relations with Chinese scholars and intellectuals was likely to be a target of hostile scrutiny.
Meanwhile, local governments have been cautioned about the many sister city relationships and warned that personal friendships should be avoided. The universities have also received similar exhortations to be wary about developing scholarly camaraderie. State and federal politicians have been cautioned about friendships with Chinese constituents. The serious harassment and humiliation of New South Wales Labor MLC Shaoquett Moselmane was a deliberate, monitory strike against a politician with close relations with the Chinese community in his electorate. In a recent letter to federal politicians, Burgess warned them of the danger of what he called ‘a proxy’ courting with dubious intent, ‘an unwitting relative, friend or business contact.’
Anyone who experienced the first Cold War as an adult will have seen it all before — the constant harassment of communist suspects and those thought to be fellow travellers. ASIO agents infiltrated social, political and cultural organisations; they followed suspects, raided homes, damaged reputations and inhibited careers. The availability in recent years of ASIO records has confirmed what often appeared at the time to be exaggerated fears about the pervasive spying.
But the differences with today’s witch hunting are noteworthy. The present generation of public figures has had no Cold War experience. They have a gullible trust in the security services. This is particularly pertinent in relation to the ALP. Leaders in the 1950s, 60s and 70s often had personal experience of ASIO’s behaviour or knew of friends or relatives who had been subject to unwanted and frequently uncalled for attention. An even more significant difference is that the great majority of actual or suspected communists, and the wide range of assorted ‘fellow travellers’, were otherwise unexceptional Australians with Anglo-Celtic ancestry.
The fundamental difference with today’s crusade by ASIO is that the suspects are overwhelmingly Chinese even when they are Australian born. To have a Chinese name or even an East Asian appearance makes one a potential suspect. How can it be otherwise? Mike Burgess has said recently there are more spies operating in Australia than during the first Cold War. He has declared publicly that they and their ‘proxies’ act ‘deceptively’, and endeavour to develop personal relationships seeking friendship all the while attempting ‘to secretly co-opt current and future Australian politicians’.
Even acquaintances who set out to be helpful might be acting at the direction ‘of a foreign power’. One has to wonder if Burgess has any idea how difficult his alarmist rhetoric makes life for the local Chinese community. Or perhaps the truth is he just doesn’t care about collateral damage.
And then there is the inescapable fact that the current political climate rekindles the surviving remnants of Australia’s historic racism and attendant anxiety about the ‘yellow peril’. Letters to local newspapers and comments on talkback radio indicate that people feel enabled once more to vent their anti-Chinese antipathies. Does this concern our political leaders? Or do they find it a useful tool in their campaign to ‘push back’ or ‘stand up’ to China?
Of even greater concern is the thought that what we are seeing is a deep, ancestral reaction to the sudden rise of China to a pre-eminence not matched since the 18th century. What seemed to be the natural order of things is being upended. The era when white men bestrode the world is no more. The way we increasingly cling to our five-eyes Anglo-Saxon allies suggests we are seeking our security in the Imperial past and are increasingly unable to adapt to a future already emerging in front of our troubled eyes.