In January 2018, Australian Senator Sam Dastyari of the Labor Party resigned. It was the culmination of a year-long scandal involving foreign donations and influence peddling. In his support for China’s claims in the South China Sea, Dastyari disagreed with the China policy of both the government and the Australian Labor Party. It was revealed that Dastyari had accepted money from Huang Xiangmo, a Chinese businessman with links to the Chinese Communist Party.
In response to the scandal, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull proposed a new law that would limit foreign influence in Australian politics. Beijing has responded by claiming that the legislation is motivated by “typical anti-China hysteria”. The issue has sparked a much larger discussion about Chinese Communist influence in Australia: whether it exists, and how it is manifested. While the debate in Australia has been particularly animated, similar questions have arisen in other Western countries, such as Canada and the United States.
Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University, steps into this debate with his book Silent Invasion, which attempts to show that the People’s Republic of China aims to infiltrate and undermine Australian democracy to create a country more in line with Chinese interests.
It is worth asking why foreign money is even allowed in Australian politics in the first place.
Silent Invasion is not a work of investigative journalism: many of the events he discusses, such as the Dastyari scandal, were reported in Australian media. Instead, Hamilton tries to illustrate China’s strategy towards Australia: funding pro-China groups, disseminating propaganda for Chinese-Australians, donating to pro-China politicians, and investing in strategically-important sectors of the Australian economy.
Hamilton gestures at a few important questions. It is worth asking why so many of Australia’s politicians have been willing to seek money from less-than-reputable foreign businessmen (if not foreign governments), or why foreign money is even allowed in Australian politics in the first place. The United States, for example, expressly bars foreign donations to political campaigns.
Even accepting Australia’s situation, the issue of money in politics is not unique to the country. All Western democracies feature politicians and ex-politicians with ties to both foreign and domestic interests, with similarly pernicious effects on politics. But Hamilton’s worries extend beyond this general comment to specifically target Chinese influence.
Hamilton also raises concerns about the Chinese-Australian population, and how they are a target for Chinese propaganda. Beijing, and individuals linked to the Chinese state, use some Chinese-language media outlets to serve pro-China, or at least China-friendly, propaganda to Chinese-Australians. Whether this has a substantive effect remains to be seen. But it would be concerning if Chinese-Australians were closing themselves off from wider Australian discourse by relying on Chinese-language media.
The Chinese (but not Chinese-Australians) living in Australia who harass those who present anti-Communist views are another concern. Given the large number of Chinese students in Australian universities, it seems that both the government and academic institutions have mixed feelings on whether, and how, to confront students that engage in harassment.
Finally, there are wider questions about what Australia should do about a large (and growing) economic power on its doorstep. As China grows, its citizens abroad will become far more confident in their views; while perhaps usually benign, some of the above concerns around Chinese-language media and Chinese student behavior of extreme forms of this phenomenon. Smaller economies will see more of their livelihood tied to Chinese consumption and investment.
This raises important questions for Australia, which may be faced by other nations as well: how does one deal with a country that is simultaneously an economic and a geopolitical power? How does a country balance the need to “protect” strategic sectors, yet still use Chinese capital and consumption to fuel the economy? Whether or not one accepts Hamilton’s answers, the questions remain and not just for Australians.
Silent Invasion is nevertheless a frustrating book, coming with so much inflammatory rhetoric, dubious statements, mischaracterizations, and exaggerations that it can be hard to engage with its arguments seriously.
For example, Hamilton at one point claims that Cheung Kong Infrastructure and China Light and Power are “Beijing-linked”. But both companies are wholly private Hong Kong companies; Hamilton does not provide citations for his claim that their corporate leadership takes orders from Beijing.
At another point, Hamilton ominously reveals a leaked presentation by a vice-minister in China’s foreign ministry, who reportedly said that China’s “longer-term goal was to drive a wedge into the America-Australia alliance.” Hamilton tries to imply that this goal reveals that China is uniquely insidious, but it is pretty standard geopolitical strategy for democracies and non-democracies alike. There are likely similar memos that described the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, as a way to “contain China”, despite official American declarations to the contrary. Silent Invasion is weakened by its treatment of every event as a major conspiracy.
But the thorniest issue is Hamilton’s treatment of Chinese-Australians who, as Australian citizens, have as much right to engage with Australian politics as their non-Chinese counterparts. Chinese-Australians who support closer relations between Canberra and Beijing should have their arguments debated on the merits, rather than dismissed due to their ethnic background. But Hamilton argues that these “dual loyalties” warrant suppression. Replace “pro-Beijing” with “pro-Israel” and “Chinese-Australians” with “Israeli/Jewish-Americans”, and the argument does not seem so compelling.
Hamilton first tries to square this circle by arguing that many Chinese-Australians students were granted extended residency (and, one assumes, later gained citizenship) under the false assumption that they were democracy activists and not just ordinary students. He then argues that the Chinese education system “brainwashes” students, implying that those that hold pro-China views may not hold them legitimately. Be that as it may, they are still citizens, and limiting their participation in politics would mean turning them into literal second-class citizens. And dismissing views one disapproves of as the result of “brainwashing” does not seem to be particularly conducive to political discussion.
In Silent Invasion, a good Chinese-Australian is one who understands the threat posed by China. If he or she supports closer Chinese-Australian relations, then their views are disqualified. It is not exaggeration to characterize Hamilton in this way. In his conclusion, he writes:
Remembering that there are over one million people of Chinese heritage in Australia, we could expect some, citizens and non-citizens alike, to take to the streets to express their loyalty to Beijing—in other words, to Australia’s enemy.
He worries that civil unrest would become a Chinese pressure tactic, meaning that those who disagree with him are not expressing their disagreements, but are the result of foreign agitation (to borrow the authoritarian’s term for it).
If Hamilton’s advice were followed, he might end up fueling the pernicious views he is concerned about.
There is a strategic risk in defining Chinese-Australians into groups in the way Hamilton describes.
Treating Chinese-Australians as a group with a substantive number of potentially suspect members opens the door for Beijing to present itself as the one entity committed to protecting the entire Chinese community. The contemporary radicalization of Muslims in Europe offers a cautionary tale: when communities are distrusted by wider society and targeted by law enforcement, they become susceptible to outside (and potentially extreme) influences which offer reassuring messages of belonging and understanding.
If Hamilton’s advice were followed, and Australia really did take a much harsher stance toward Chinese Australians, he might end up fueling the pernicious views he is concerned about. When a group is treated as less than entirely legitimate members of society, one should not be too surprised if they start acting as such.