Guilty until proven innocent? (The China Story 15.7.20)

Media reporting and public commentary on China’s foreign interference efforts in Australia have focused heavily on alleged associations and links between Australian organisations or individuals and the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front system.

The focus on these, rather than actual improper or illegal actions, is concerning — especially as the implications of these alleged associations and links are often misrepresented or not properly contextualised. In the absence of direct evidence of wrongdoing, allegations of guilt based only on associations and links should be treated with a high degree of caution.

Media reports about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) foreign interference have become increasingly common in recent years. A high-profile example is the ASIO raid of NSW parliamentarian Shaoquett Moselmane as part of an investigation into possible foreign interference by Beijing. Moselmane’s staffer John Zhang reportedly attended a training course run by the United Front Work Department (UFWD). A related story noted that Moselmane met with a United Front official while in China. Another recent story focused on Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews staffer Nancy Yang who attended the same training course as Zhang and is allegedly a board member of a United Front organisation.

Other stories related to CCP foreign interference include student politics, where Chinese students’ participation in campus politics have been framed by some as a part of CCP’s interference effort in Australia, and Chinese companies that shipped medical equipment to Wuhan at the start of the pandemic.

Guilt by association

Most Australians have no idea about what activities actually constitute foreign interference. The National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018 was passed two years ago. However, the Australian Government still has not released any examples of what activities constitute foreign interference, beyond its general definition: activities carried out by, or on behalf of a foreign actor; coercive, corrupting, deceptive or clandestine; and contrary to Australia’s sovereignty, values and national interests.

Since what constitutes foreign interference is unclear, activities described in media reports are often taken as evidence or proof of foreign interference, even if these reports do not make any explicit accusations of illegal conduct. Thus, to many, meeting UFWD officials or speaking at an event organised by entities with “connections” to the United Front system is taken as evidence of foreign interference. Similarly, participating in student politics while being a member of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) is also linked to foreign interference.

Most of these reports include a reference to the United Front. Apart from very few researchers and analysts, most Australians do not know what the United Front is, nor how it operates. Instead, the United Front has become an all-encompassing word for China’s interference activities in Australia.

Most people reading or watching news are unsure what these connections to United Front mean or whether all connections are problematic. For example, if John Zhang and Nancy Yang did participate in a training course run by UFWD, are they then part of the United Front? Are all members of the many hometown associations and the CSSA automatically part of the United Front? Does that mean anyone who is associating with them is also associating with the United Front?

Ultimately, the search for evidence for any “links” or “connections” to the United Front obscures crucial details about the various activities and incentives of different individuals. We are no longer asking “what did they do?” or “why are they doing it?”. Rather, we tend to deliver our verdict based simply on their links to the United Front.

While it may be useful to know if an individual, especially a politician, is associated with certain groups, that should not be the focus of reporting on foreign interference. Investigating and revealing associations can be important for understanding context, but the focus should remain on acts that are coercive, corrupting, deceptive or clandestine. Links or associations should be presented as supporting evidence only, as they can be highly circumstantial.

Political participation

These types of media reports can have real-world consequences. Even though some media organisations have become more careful in labelling reports as “CCP influence” rather than “Chinese influence”, the focus on links and associations rather than improper or illegal conduct can exacerbate the problem of prejudice towards the Chinese diaspora in Australia.

Some members of the Chinese diaspora may have joined an organisation “linked” to the United Front, such as one of the numerous hometown associations, business associations or even dance troupes, without giving it much thought. But they are now potentially seen as part of the United Front’s effort to interfere in Australia.

The general suspicion towards people with Chinese heritage about foreign interference, even those without any links to a United Front organisation, means that any political activities by Chinese-Australians are viewed with extra scrutiny. Whenever a Chinese-Australian is engaging in politics or advocating policies, questions will be raised about their association with the United Front.

As even appearing in the same photo as a “United Front figure” can be detrimental to someone’s career, organisations have incentives to be more risk-averse and cautious about hiring anyone with possible “links” to the Chinese Communist Party or the United Front, however tenuous they may be. Given that the United Front is usually associated with the Chinese diaspora, risk mitigation can mean preferring someone who is not of Chinese background. This will worsen the under-representation of Chinese-Australians in politics, as they need to overcome a higher standard of proof of innocence — by proving their “non-association” with something that is not clearly defined and little understood.

What can be done

Foreign interference is a national security issue that should be taken seriously. But first, Australians need to have a clearer understanding of what “foreign interference” actually is. The Australian Government should release and publicise clear guidelines and examples as to what actions constitute foreign interference. This will help the Australian community build resilience and watch out for incidences that fall into that category.

The Australian media should also focus less on associations and “links” as evidence for foreign interference. Instead, the focus should be on actions or behaviours that are “coercive, corrupting, deceptive or clandestine”. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that meeting with foreign officials or attending events organised by community groups (even those that have links to foreign governments) necessarily have these characteristics.

Finally, Chinese-Australians should be treated the same way as all other Australians. Commentators like to say that the CCP deliberately conflates Chinese people with the Party. While that may be true, it is not just the CCP that is doing the conflating. We should not presume guilt just because someone is associated or linked to a concept that is not clearly defined or to organisations that are not illegal in Australia. Instead, we should judge individuals based on their actions.

This article was first published in The China Story  at the ANU on the 15th of July 2020. It has been republished with the permission of the author.

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Yun Jiang is an editor of the China Story blog and a director of China Policy Centre.

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