November 14, 2017
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By Charles Edel, Published in The American Interest on 13 November 2017

China’s sophisticated infiltration of Australian politics is a troubling example of how authoritarian states can subvert open societies. The United States should heed the lesson.

Tragedy hovered over the birth of the American Republic. But that tragedy was not defined mainly by the carnage of the American Revolution, which resulted in the death of more than one percent of the population. Rather, for the American statesmen who came together to draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and met a dozen years later to design the Constitution, the life and death of the republics of antiquity preoccupied their thoughts. Steeped in the history of Greece and Rome, the Founders realized that the odds of creating and maintaining a self-governing republic in the face of hostile autocratic states were stacked against them. Nowhere was this danger greater than in the threat foreign interference posed to political independence.

America’s founding generation obsessed over this danger. During the debates at the Constitutional Convention, John Jay made the case in The Federalist (No. 2) that the “dangers from foreign force and influence” could exacerbate the country’s internal divisions and leave it distracted, weakened, and vulnerable. These fears materialized in the 1793 Genêt Affair, when France’s Ambassador to the United States sought to interfere in American politics on behalf of France. Thomas Jefferson, Washington’s Secretary of State, charged that such blatant interference in America’s democracy was “hazardous to us” and its implications were “humiliating and pernicious.” He demanded that the French immediately recall their ambassador. John Quincy Adams warned his fellow citizens that “of all the dangers which encompass the liberties of a republican State, the intrusion of a foreign influence into the administration of their affairs, is the most alarming, and requires the opposition of the severest caution.”

In the aftermath of U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments of several Trump campaign officials on charges of conspiracy, the problem of foreign interference in our democracy now hangs over the White House.

Russia is not the only country seeking to shape the choices of democratic societies. A different, subtler, more sophisticated, and potentially long-ranging effort is being waged by Xi Jinping’s China.

Because Washington is riveted by the unfolding Russian drama, because most of Beijing’s efforts fly under the radar, and because Beijing has repeatedly claimed that its state-directed activities are solely the exercise of soft power, many Americans have missed China’s attempts to influence, shape, and suborn democratic decision-making. But a look at the debates currently roiling the Australian political, educational, and business communities offers some notable insights into Beijing’s influence efforts. It also previews likely challenges ahead for American policymakers.

Over the past several months, the Australian media and government have sought to analyze Chinese influence across Australian society. The resulting reports, which began appearing in print and on television in early June, revealed that Beijing was monitoring and directing Chinese student groups in Australia, had threatened Australian-based Chinese dissidents and their families, was attempting to silence academic discourse in Australia deemed offensive to China, and was seeking control of all Chinese-language media in Australia. This came on the heels of revelations that individuals in Australia with links to the Chinese Communist Party had made major political donations to Australian politicians. The sum of these actions has prompted an intensifying debate among Australia’s national security community and politicians.

The Australian intelligence services have long known about the risks posed by Chinese influence, but the matter is now attracting significant public scrutiny. In late May, Duncan Lewis, the head of ASIO (the Australian equivalent of the FBI), warned Parliament that foreign influence efforts in Australia were occurring at an “unprecedented scale.” The implications to Australian democracy, he noted, were potentially extreme, as such interference “has the potential to cause serious harm to the nation’s sovereignty, the integrity of our political system, our national security capabilities, our economy and other interests.” And while Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did not cite China by name in early June, he amplified this concern by noting that Australian “interests are also directly threatened by attempts by foreign states to compromise the integrity of our democratic institutions and processes.” Discussing Russian influence operations and cyber disinformation campaigns in the American election, and noting that similar threats could compromise the integrity of Australia’s “democratic institutions and processes,” Turnbull called for a revamping of the legal framework governing political donations and disclosures.

Unlike America, which requires individuals acting on behalf of foreign governments to register their activities, and which theoretically bans political campaign contributions from foreign sources, Australian law has no such provisions. As revealed in an Australian television investigative special this summer, this loophole allowed for several prominent Australian-Chinese businessmen with ties to the Chinese government to make substantial contributions to Australian politicians. In some instances, these appeared tied to a quid pro quo of support for Chinese government positions. Prompted by growing concerns of Chinese influence in its electoral system, the Australian government is now drafting legislation in an effort to address these gaps. Expected in early 2018, the new laws are likely to tighten campaign finance rules, require the registration of foreign agents, further define espionage, and provide a more effective legal framework to combat foreign interference.

On Australian campuses, too, a vigorous debate has been occurring over the nature of Chinese influence. Journalists have reported instances of Chinese agents monitoring Chinese students in Australia and threatening their families in China when they voice opinions contrary to Beijing’s. In Sydney and elsewhere, an uptick in protesters disrupting lecturers deemed offensive to Chinese sensibilities is a sign of the times; and concern is growing that universities, eager for donations, investments, and fees generated from foreign students paying significantly higher tuition, might not defend their institutional values as forcefully as they otherwise might. Australian politicians now acknowledge that this type of activity poses a threat to free and open societies, since free speech serves as the basis of liberal education, and is more broadly the cornerstone of democratic debate.

In early October, the Secretary of Australia’s Foreign Ministry spoke bluntly of “untoward influence and interference” at Australian universities. Speaking at the University of Adelaide’s Confucius Institute, a Chinese-government-funded academic institution, Frances Adamson, who formerly served as Australia’s Ambassador to China, warned, “The silencing of anyone in our society — from students to lecturers to politicians — is an affront to our values.” Julie Bishop, Australia’s Foreign Minister, echoed this point recently, stating that Australia will not tolerate “freedom of speech curbed in any way involving foreign students or foreign academics.” Penny Wong, the Labor shadow Foreign Minister, made a similar point declaring that “we would not want any group to seek to silence another in the contest of … ideas.”

Along similar lines, Australia’s Chinese-language media now largely speaks with one voice. A major report in 2016 documented that the Chinese Communist Party exerts significant influence over Chinese-language media in Australia. The report cautioned that “the notion that the Chinese-language media in Australia has been ‘taken over’,” was too simplistic. However, leading Australian Sinologist John Fitzgerald has noted that the “extensive reach of the Chinese party-state silences and intimidates alternative voices and commentaries” in Australia.

Charles Edel is a Senior Fellow & Visiting Scholar at the University of Sydney’s U.S. Studies Centre, and author of a forthcoming USSC report on the American presidency. Previously, he served as Associate Professor of Strategy & Policy at the U.S. Naval War College.
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