The illiberal moment: ASPI’s ‘The Influence Environment’

Apr 6, 2021
Credit - Unsplash

Last year’s report from ASPI (the Australian Strategy Policy Institute) on Chinese-language media in Australia is a doubly unfortunate manifestation of the profoundly illiberal moment that has now become a worldwide phenomenon and which now clearly infects Australia’s relations with China.

The illiberal moment is characterised by extremely polarised confrontational politics, where hectoring replaces reasoned debate; by avoidance of responsibility and accountability for public actions; and where science and evidence are replaced by opinion, lack of balance, and sometimes deliberately incorrect or just misplaced information.

It is neither exclusively of the left or the right; think both Donald Trump and Lenin’s comments along the lines of ‘either you are with us or against us,’ and illiberalism is of course far from new. What is new and what makes the current illiberal moment ever more dangerous is not simply populism but the new communications networks that not only disseminate information and ideas but valorise everyone’s views as of equal worth, oftentimes regardless of rules of evidence and reasoned argument.

Unfortunately, but necessarily, one of liberalism’s obvious paradoxes is that by insisting on openness it bears the seeds of its own destruction, not least because under all circumstances liberalism is challenged if it is protected by illiberalism.

In that context, commentary, as well as both social and government action on media and influence, are crucial to a healthy liberal democracy. While the ASPI Report may have the intention of protecting ‘liberal Australia’ from its enemies, the report itself, its approach to the topic, and the kinds of responses to Chinese influence in Australia it suggests run the risk of greater illiberality, not least because the focus is the influence of one country and set of ideas.

In that context of course they run the risk, whatever the intent of the authors, of if not being racist themselves being taken up by those who are. The ‘China Threat’ was an inherent part of early Australian political culture, essentially a cornerstone of the Federation. From this report, it would seem that little has changed, even though its focus is ostensibly problems this country needs to address about its domestic values and its position in the world.

The report blends inuendo and somewhat poor reporting together in an unbalanced mixture that while it may play well to a particular constituency in the short term does not bode well for this country’s future intellectual and political culture, quite apart from relations with China.

Ironically, the report’s approach to information, and for that matter even more certainly disinformation, seems very similar to that employed by the PRC (People’s Republic of China). In the week of 22 March 2021, the PRC Government-issued sanctions against individuals and institutions in Europe and the UK for what it described as ‘spread(ing) lies and rumours’ and playing ‘infamous roles’ to those ends (Global Times 25 March 2021) with respect to actions taken against the PRC Government over the issues involved in XInjiang.

On a different topic, page 5 of the ASPI Report relates “Networks and information sharing within the app (WeChat) are opaque, contributing to the spread of disinformation.” Rumours and disinformation there may certainly be but these are polemics, not reasoned arguments.

One issue is that influence is not defined or conceptualised in any meaningful way, as one could reasonably expect in the product of a reputable think tank. How influence is identified, observed and measured are significant questions in a report of this kind. The ASPI Report suggests that agents of the PRC government and the CCP are active in Australia in a number of ways. One detailed example appears on p.10:

“With dual roles as journalists and united front officials, CNS personnel in Australia seek to build relationships with local media outlets and united front networks. Their reporting offers consistent coverage and promotion of united front groups.  In February 2017, CNS organised a roundtable between Australian Chinese‐language media and a deputy head of the OCAO. CNS officials frequently work with the agency’s foreign correspondents to build partnerships with overseas media outlets.”

Without challenging the veracity of these events the reader might well ask, in terms of understanding how this amounts to influence (the focus of the report) let alone to inappropriate influence. There is a United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney established explicitly to improve the image and profile of the USA in Australia; USA-associated journalists and media organisations are active in Australia; government-to-people and people-to-people activities are not infrequent between the USA and Australia. These activities are not commonly regarded as an influence (inappropriate or otherwise) or even undesirable.

That is but one example of the ASPI Report’s lack of balance and sometimes perspective. Another is the report’s fairly full-frontal attack on WeChat. WeChat is clearly not PRC Government-owned but certainly subject to government censorship of its content within China. In this, it is no different to any other media content, regardless of where it is published or nominally located.

A more sophisticated analysis would understand that WeChat creates a mechanism and space for many (though by no means all) non-approved ideas to be disseminated. The most obvious examples of this are that media reports, outlets, and organisations banned, removed from the public sphere, or not able to be obtained within China, are made available through WeChat groups. The PRC state’s control mechanisms are sometimes quite blunt and short of closing WeChat down the non-state has both the present and the future on its side.

Then there is poor reporting that also characterises this report, again seemingly dominated by the presentation of polemic rather than evidence. On p.22 the ASPI Report describes the operation of the Global Chinese Language Media Forum as a channel of influence for the CCP:

“In  2019, Australia was the third largest source of attendees after the US and Canada … Roughly 10% of attendees at the forum between 2003 and 2019 came from Australian outlets—a high number compared to the size of Australia’s Chinese community. The relatively high proportion of Australian attendees and the forum’s history of nearly two decades point to sustained and large‐scale efforts by the united front system to build ties with Australian media.”

A rather opaque analysis, to say the least. The “high number” that is mentioned is not quantified. The percentage of attendees at the Forum is provided with no reference to other source countries, their populations, and the size of their ethnic Chinese populations. Moreover, the report seems to suggest (even if unwittingly) that a number is the same thing as a percentage. As it happens, in Sydney ethnic Chinese were about 11% of the population in 2016. There is no answer provided to indicate whether the size of the delegation to the Forum is a “high number compared to the size of Australia’s Chinese community.”

Another example of poor reporting is the treatment of the fate of the Sydney Times in 2006 (p.21):

“In 2006, University of Technology Sydney scholar Feng Chongyi established Sydney Times, a Chinese-language newspaper. However, Feng told the Sydney Morning Herald that businesses pulled advertisements from the newspaper amid pressure from Chinese officials, leading to the outlet’s closure.”

The implication is that the newspaper closed because of the intervention of the agents of the PRC Government. Other explanations were current and indeed more dominant at the time, including unsustainable relations between the journalists who gave of their time to start the venture and Feng Chongyi.

Media organisations and their influence are matters of concern in all social and political systems, though the management of the public good in this regard is necessarily contested. Censorship of operations and particular views is one strategy adopted sometimes by governments, and for that matter too, media outlets in the latter case.

In a liberal democracy this challenges the intelligence of the population by suggesting that they cannot decide for themselves what they listen to, watch, read and believe in. Having multiple sources of information and competing views is a necessary part of the democratic process. The key to stability is respect, not censorship.

At the same time, it would be naïve to think that a media outlet was not politically engaged. In Australia, we tend to emphasise the importance of media ownership in that context. Ownership though is probably less important to their operation than management and their affiliations, associations, and views. This applies to all media outlets and not just those that may be associated with the PRC institutionally or by association.

Kevin Rudd may have complained about the influence of the Murdoch media empire because he considers that Murdoch had it in for him, but the same should hold true for Murdoch as for the CCP.

Transparency would seem to be the key here, as it seems likely the authors of the ASPI Report would also agree. Elsewhere in Australia beyond the ASPI Report, there is currently a profoundly illiberal view often touted of ‘USA good, China bad.’ This is not a proposition offered in the ASPI Report, indeed the USA is barely mentioned. At the same time, for a range of reasons, not all of which are within the scope of the authors of the ASPI Report to influence, their report, findings and recommendations will almost certainly be used to make such a case.

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