Extensive reports in the Australian media in early June presented evidence for Chinese interference in local politics, media, and academia. One research center in Sydney focusing on China, that of the University of Technology and Science (UTS), came under particular scrutiny because of gifts from Chinese business, and purportedly over-favorable coverage of China-related matters.
The issue – Chinese state-led attempts to influence outside opinion – is not a new one. Confucius Institutes in particular have been dogged by the claim for almost a decade, as they have opened up across the world. Sometimes, Chinese officials themselves have presented evidence on a plate. Madame Xu Lin, head of the Han Ban, the Beijing-based sponsoring entity in charge of the institutes, infamously attended a conference in Portugal in 2015 where adverts for a Taiwanese funder were unceremoniously ripped out of the official booklet. The result was immense offense, loss of prestige for China, and resentment on the part of attendees – a hideous own goal.
But when located in the specific terrain of Australia, things grow even more contentious. Of all major liberal, multi-party democracies, perhaps Australia is the most exposed to China. This is for two reasons: its immense and increasing economic dependence on the People’s Republic, and its vulnerability in terms of security. With the world’s largest coastline, Australia has only 27,000 active naval personnel. No other state is therefore so linked to the United States for its security needs. Australia’s fear of neighbors to its north and their potential threats to it (from Indonesia to Japan in a former age) has been longstanding. China is the latest; it might, however, be the most problematic.
Do agents of the Chinese state aim to change Australian perceptions of themselves and the Chinese system? Are they, as the Russians are accused of doing, trying to meddle in domestic elections to skew the outcomes in ways which are favorable to China? There is evidence that hospitality and financial sums have been offered to Australian politicians. But the heart of this has almost always been the promotion of Chinese interests. And paradoxically, one of those is to have a stable, well-functioning country where Chinese money, business, and students can come and prosper.
China is no Putin’s Russia, therefore, going from the case of Australia. Chinese agents do not care what Australians think of their own system, any more than they care much what the British or Americans do. There is a certain cultural disdain in this. The outside world can have whatever foolish political set ups they like. The main thing is that they offer the sort of economic and financial support to Chinese interests that brings benefits back home. China is, even in this area, a self-interested actor – and its interests are currently not served by stirring up Putinesque instability elsewhere in the world.
Where the focus really lies is in trying to promote more positive and supportive opinions amongst elites and the general public over things that really matter to China – a better view of its own system, more sympathy for its claims in the South and East China Seas and over Taiwan, Tibet, and Hong Kong. Heading off criticisms over Chinese human rights issues is important too.
There are plenty of paradoxes here too. Putting so much effort into such evidently self-interested things proves easy to expose. Most Australians have limited interest in, for instance, the delicate issues around the South China Sea. So reports like that issued by the UTS, which record high public support for China, it is claimed, just seem odd. As former Prime Minister Tony Abbott complained, the average local — if they think about their vast northern regional neighbor at all — thinks only in terms of greed about getting hold of more Chinese money, or fear because of their clear differences politically. Beyond this, public knowledge is limited. One famous statistic from 2014 stated that more study medieval Latin in Australian high schools than Mandarin Chinese. That neatly shows the priorities.
Money could therefore flow endlessly into Confucius Institutes, or academic institutions or other think tanks in Australia – but it would be unlikely to make a very profound change. The public on the whole are apprehensive and respond to too much propaganda more negatively than if there were none at all. It is questionable whether any of this has changed the minds of a single local. All it may have done is reinforce opinions on either side.
There are plenty of reports that Chinese intelligence have been successful in infiltrating government systems and gaining access to commercial secrets. But the Chinese are in good company. Israel, Russia, and the North Koreans are also busy on the same work. As followers of Australian politics will know, thanks to the brutal “musical chairs” over the country’s leadership in the last few years, with four prime ministers in just a few years, China could have infiltrated every email and inbox in the whole of Canberra and still probably have been as perplexed as the rest of the world at what has happened. Irrationality and chaos are hard to predict in seemingly well-ordered, law-based systems, but that is exactly what the Australians have created – a kind of unbreakable code in its own right.
The only thing we can be certain about is that the perception of Chinese attempts to influence public views of issues that matter to Beijing is there, and seems to be growing. And therein lies the final paradox. For a country often almost insisting on being better trusted and understood by the outside world, and particularly by a partner like Australia, this sort of perception is very much against Chinese interests. It leads to the blocking, on political rather than economic grounds, of the Kidman Estate from 2015, and the State Grid a year later, being bought by Chinese money. If China is indeed trying to buy or plot its way to achieving loyalty and support, it is experiencing the age old Western wisdom that of all the things money can’t buy, love is the most impossible. And at the moment, the Australian public are as far as ever they were from loving the People’s Republic.