Chinese interference overblown

Floating the idea of a Foreign Interference Commissioner in the face of a diplomatic storm front is not going to steer us into calmer waters

Last week China Matters researcher Dirk van der Clay published a paper entitled, “What should Australia do about… the influence of United Front work?”

Depending on who you believe the United Front Work Department (UFWD) is either a sinister and shadowy arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hell bent on infiltrating the Chinese global diaspora and democratic foreign governments; or it is a cheerleading squad for the CCP that largely preaches to the converted.

A recommendation of van der Clay is that a commissioner be appointed to monitor interference in the diaspora. This point was leapt upon by mainstream media outlets who enthusiastically trumpeted the call.

In the United States—which remains Australia’s key security policy influencer— the term “The Commission” is associated with the group formed by gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano in 1931. That Commission was the governing body of the American Mafia.

In our “Yes Minister” system of government even recent arrivals are aware that commissions can be set up to guarantee openness and transparency or become equally effective instruments to shut people up.

 Beijing “agents” in from the cold

Typical of mainstream media hypocrisy, a China Matters report on curtailing the influence of the CCP was lauded by the major mastheads, including Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian.

In June, Murdoch journalist Ellen Whinnett ran a smear piece on China Matters, spectacular in its defamatory imputations, without evidence accusing an eminent group of China experts of being under “China’s grip” and actively “lobbying against Australia’s national interests.”

Whinnett’s piece was so lacking in research that an accompanying image—hit piece mugshots of China Matters associates—included Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. She is one of the leading cheerleaders in the LNP’s right wing anti-China faction.

What a difference a critical report makes. It seems the way to get any oxygen with mainstream media is to spout views that fuel the anti-China narrative.

In the SMH and The Age, Eryk Bagshaw upgraded van der Clay’s Foreign Influence Commissioner idea from a recommendation to expert “urges” the government acts. Canberra-based Bagshaw, who is Nine Newspapers’ China correspondent, has never been posted to China and appears to lack even a rudimentary understanding of China and its people.

His piece was co-authored by, equally China-ignorant reporter, Anthony Galloway, the mastheads’ Foreign Affairs and National Security Correspondent. Geographically his closest post to Asia, outside of Canberra, was as a junior reporter with the Townsville Bulletin, just six short years ago.

To advance the story, Baghshaw and Galloway warmed up the old Sinophobe chestnut of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) whose Alex Joske faithfully ramped up the heat of “CCP influence” in Australian politics.

These three “leading voices” on China-Australia relations were two decades away from being born when Gough Whitlam established diplomatic relations with the PRC. Experience counts for little in their narrative.

Joske, whose research position is principally funded by the Defence Department, foreign governments and foreign weapons manufacturers, thought a Foreign Influence Commissioner was a workable idea. His caveat, however, was that an organisation like the Human Rights Commission could not oversee the role.

His tone suggested ASPI’s benefactors in the security establishment are far better placed to engage constructively with Chinese-Australians.

How much Chinese political influence is there?

Van der Clay answers the question on Chinese political influence quite simply by asking how much influence does China really have over the Australian government?

He quite rightly points out that numerous government decisions, particularly since COVID-19, have been punitive measures against China and anybody seen to be influenced by Chinese interests.

When ASIO and AFP leak to the media that a legitimate pretext for raids on the homes of Chinese people is belonging to a group on Chinese social media app WeChat, it seems there is little influence over Australian government policy.

Van der Clay writes, “Australia need not substantially alter its approach towards political influence. In terms of Australia’s federal policy decisions, United Front work has been a dismal failure in the past few years.”

Is there a Chinese front against Australia?

As an independent journalist in the China space, sometimes even I find it hard to gauge the narrative across Chinese groups in Australia. Whilst they are not friends or close contacts, I know all four Chinese journalists whose Sydney homes were raided by ASIO in June.

I did not learn of the raids until their names were published in The Australian and they’d long since returned to China.

It didn’t take long before journalists from Nine Newspapers, Murdoch and the ABC worked out I had connections to the four. I fielded several calls and, after having to explain myself, they accepted that just because I know someone does not mean I agree with them, let alone actively promote their views.

Quite possibly because I have always made it clear that I do not support the policies of the Chinese government, local Chinese community members have never tried to influence my political views.

Since establishing China-focused business news website APAC News in 2019, I’ve had one conversation with a Chinese community leader who has been identified as a United Front “operative”.

His (unsolicited) advice to me was, “Don’t become a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party and don’t let anybody in the Chinese community tell you what to write.”

A personal view on Chinese influence

Assessments on the influence of local Chinese groups are inherently subjective. From my reading they operate in small groups which, much like radio shock-jocks and News Corp columnists, largely preach to the converted.

Media reports on the China Matters research pointed to the finding that thirty Chinese-Australians were identified as having been intimidated by the Chinese Communist Party—a small number in a community of more than 1.2 million.

This is not to say that small groups within Australia are not seeking to steer a China narrative which is in line with Beijing’s thinking. China Matters has for some time identified this as a key issue and stated clear opposition to Chinese meddling in Australian affairs.

The problem is the loudest voices in this space are not Chinese, they belong to the anti-China academics, think tanks and the national security community. With the support of their agents in the mainstream media they have polarized debate to the point where you are either with them in howling down China or against Australia—there is no middle ground.

A concerning issue that van der Clay highlighted is Chinese government intimidation of its citizens living in Australia. A number of Chinese-Australians may have good reason not to trust Beijing, however, Chinese community members are abundantly aware that ministerial offices, ASIO and the AFP are continually leaking China-related reports to their media lackeys.

Some Chinese-Australians may have sufficient concerns to consider reporting intimidation to Australian authorities. However, in the current environment, they would surely pause to consider whether such a report would make them the personal target of surveillance by Australian security forces deeply suspicious of the Chinese.

Worse still, after trusting Australian officials with their confidential information, could they wake up one morning to find their story splashed across the front page of a major newspaper?

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Marcus Reubenstein is an independent journalist with more than twenty years of media experience. He spent five years at Seven News in Sydney and seven years at SBS World News where he was a senior correspondent. As a print journalist he has contributed business stories to most of Australia’s major news outlets. Internationally he has worked on assignments for CNN, Eurosport and the Olympic Games Broadcasting Service. He is the founder and editor of China-focussed business website, APAC News. You can follow Marcus on Twitter @ReubensteinApac.

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