ISSN 2330-717X

Can Australian Democracy Dull Chinese Sharp Power? – Analysis


By Rachael Strogoff*

Australian professor Clive Hamilton’s book, Silent Invasion: China’s influence in Australia recently arrived in bookstores, following the withdrawal of three previous publishers. The challenges preceding its publication corroborate the book’s premise: how foreign influence operations have targeted Australian political, academic, and media sectors to create an environment favourable to the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Ever since China opened under Deng’s reforms, Australia has benefited from the inward flow of Chinese university students, workers, and investments, and China became its largest export market in 2009. But the CCP’s 21st century strategic pursuit of soft power – the ‘peaceful rise’ Hu Jintao promised through mutually beneficial economic and cultural exchange – does not resemble Joseph Nye’s formulation. Instead, Australian institutions are feeling the impact of what Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig describe as ‘sharp power’.

Soft power comes from persuasive appeal of a nation’s culture and politics, and CCP’s ideology and closed society hold no attraction for a democracy. In contrast, sharp power exploits the asymmetry of openness, penetrating democratic institutions abroad to monopolise messaging, cutting away at dissent and distracting from criticism to shape states’ policies in its favour. Cross-sectoral spending in Australia allowed Beijing to pursue its interests using the familiar tools of censorship and propaganda. With debates over proposed legislative reforms targeting foreign interference and espionage, Australia faces the challenge of defending its interests and sovereignty against the authoritarian reach of its most important trading partner.

Buying into Australian Politics

Loose regulations regarding foreign political funding enabled easy access to Australian politics. Donations flowed through CCP-linked individuals friendly with Australia’s power brokers in Canberra and beyond. One such individual, Chinese real estate mogul Huang Xiangmo, caught the attention of Australian intelligence for his spending, and in December, revelations of his ties to Labor’s Sam Dastyari forced the senator’s resignation. While Huang covered the legal bills and trips to China, Dastyari repeatedly confronted defence officials in parliament with questions that reflected a pro-Beijing stance and personally sought approval of Huang’s citizenship application. When Huang threatened to withdraw his AUD 400,000 donation due to a Labor official’s criticism of China’s South China Sea activities, Dastyari appeared by his side at a press conference to reassure Chinese media that it was not Australia’s place to get involved in the dispute.

Across the political aisle, former Liberal Party Trade Minister Andrew Robb received a campaign donation from Huang the day he signed the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Months later, Robb retired from politics to take a high-paying position as economic advisor to Landbridge Group, a CCP-linked firm granted a 99-year lease to operate Australia’s Darwin Port. Darwin had been chosen to host a joint training facility for Australian and US troops in 2011. But ex-Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who remains influential in policymaking as director of the Australia China Research Institute (ACRI) established with a $1.8 million donation by Huang, dismissed criticism and pointed to the US response to the deal as true foreign interference. Huang and the politicians benefiting from his largesse did not violate Australian law. However, the lack of disclosure breaches voluntarism fundamental to Nye’s formulation of soft power, as voters were not allowed to judge for themselves whether Chinese funds had influenced domestic politics.

Producing Propaganda

ACRI opened in 2014, replacing the defunded independent China Research Centre. Its work illustrates how the CCP exercises sharp power through co-opting or exploiting academic and policy institutions. A vocal critic of Australia’s military alliance with the US, Carr rejects security concerns about Chinese acquisitions of Australian infrastructure – seen in the Darwin deal and the Turnbull administration’s veto over the sale of Australia’s largest electrical grid – as paranoid Sinophobia and nationalism. Unlike its academic predecessor, ACRI operates as a think-tank promoting a “positive and optimistic view of Australia-China relations,” with the mission and funding sources of a corporate, not university, entity. Sinologists and Chinese dissidents question the neutrality and rigour of its research.

Media Monopoly

The CCP retains influence or control over virtually all Chinese Australian media outlets. A Chinese consular advertising budget is directed to newspapers willing to publish editorial layouts produced in China. The regime has deals to provide Australian mainstream media outlets with Chinese language content, even delivering its official China Daily insert in newspapers. Media outlets that cover issues sensitive to Beijing – Tiananmen Square, allegations of organ harvesting in prisons, Tibet – face the loss of advertisers and subscribers susceptible to commercial and political pressures from the party. Even Western institutions are not immune to self-censorship, as shown by the three publishers who rejected Clive Hamilton’s book.

Hamilton’s response to Chinese authoritarian interference perhaps provides a blueprint for confronting sharp power within a democratic framework. The ethics professor exercised his civil rights and academic freedom to raise public awareness, conducting media interviews, publishing articles, appearing at a literature festival as an author without a book, and submitting research to parliament that informs ongoing debates. His approach carries personal and professional risks, and Hamilton already stands accused of stoking dangerous nativist elements on shaky evidentiary grounds. Still, Beijing’s attempts to monopolise its narrative abroad instead provoked a domestic uproar and drew international attention to Chinese interference, demonstrating that sharp power can appear dull in the daylight of democracy.

* Rachael Strogoff
Research Intern, IPCS

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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