AFA Monthly logo

30 May 2018

With Jonathan Pearlman

The China influence debate

A glance at any segment of life in Australia today reveals China’s breathtaking influence: it is the biggest foreign purchaser of Australian property and commodities, and the largest source of tourists and students.

But there are concerns about whether there may also be a hidden price.

As the impact of China’s economic miracle becomes more visible, and as its global power increases, debate is growing about its efforts to influence affairs in Australia, particularly in politics and at universities. Flare-ups are occurring with increasing regularity and ferocity. 

This debate exposes deep – and perhaps inevitable – anxieties about China’s rise. It also demonstrates a problem in Australian politics (and universities), where access and influence have at times been too easily bought.

The latest development was this week’s report that Bob Carr, a pro-China stalwart, put questions to a Labor MP to ask in Senate estimates about John Garnaut, a government-hired speechwriter and a strident critic of Chinese meddling abroad. Chinese security officials have also reportedly been asking about Garnaut, including interrogating an Australian academic, Chongyi Feng, who was detained in China last year.

The questions in the Senate were asked last Tuesday, just three hours after Liberal MP Andrew Hastie dropped a bombshell and claimed in parliament that a Chinese-born Australian property developer, Chau Chak Wing, had bribed a United Nations official. (“This rather changes the conversation,” Garnaut tweeted after Hastie’s speech.)

This latest episode is typical of the frenzied nature of the debate: accusations fly; most are denied. But the debate itself is a measure of the serious challenge that Australia now faces as it navigates relations with China. 

For the first time in Australia’s history, its main trading partner – and the region’s emerging great power – is not its main ally, as was the case with the United States and Britain, or a strategic partner, such as Japan. And the phenomenal growth in trade and Chinese visitors does not appear to be bringing the two countries closer together.

China’s crackdown on civil rights and Xi Jinping’s recent transformation into ruler for life have confirmed that China’s economic expansion and embrace of free trade will not be accompanied by a turn towards democracy or liberalism.

As the arrests of executives from firms such as Rio Tinto and Crown have shown in recent years, China’s legal system remains unpredictable. Concerns about the rule of law and the lack of due process in China prompted Labor and some Coalition MPs to reject ratification of an extradition treaty, even though Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull supported it.

It is perhaps not surprising that these anxieties fuel debate about China’s motives in Australia. Nor is it surprising to discover that China, like any powerful nation, tries to meddle in the affairs of other states.

But the debate should avoid hysteria. Paranoia can quickly descend into xenophobia, or into targeting of the Chinese-Australian community or Chinese students, or can unfairly silence those who express views in support of Beijing. 

One of the problems with the debate in Australia is that for some it has become a sort of proxy war for a broader conflict about the role of the United States in the region. It pits those who believe Canberra should move closer to Washington to offset Beijing’s growing clout against those who mistrust American power and welcome the emerging change to the global order.

But the effects of money on this debate have been much more corrosive than ideology.

Many of the champions of China’s position have been direct beneficiaries of Chinese largesse. Australia’s politicians have long been willing to sell access (and sometimes policies) for donations. It is not surprising that the many interests who have exploited this situation may include Chinese companies and wealthy pro-China donors. The government has passed a bill banning foreign donations, but loopholes remain and will inevitably be exploited.

Some of the loudest advocates of China include Australian business figures, as well as ex-politicians who have been hired by Chinese firms. They are entitled to express their views, and some perhaps have been won over by their exposure to China’s economic miracle. Still, their willingness to shift quickly from public representation to public relations on China, and on other matters, is perhaps as likely to stir anxieties as to calm them.


Summit cancelled: advantage Pyongyang

“Calling off the meeting, just as North Korea held a stage-managed partial demolition of its nuclear test site in the presence of international media, will strengthen Pyongyang’s claim, however spurious, to be acting in good faith.” Euan Graham,The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

French colonialism in the Blue Pacific

“France’s renewed regional diplomacy comes as Australia is seeking western allies against growing Chinese influence in the region. Downplaying historic support for decolonisation, the Turnbull government is working to reinforce France’s standing as a colonial power in the Pacific.” Nic Maclellan,Policy Forum

Twenty years of Indonesian democracy – how many more?

“As the global democracy indices recognise, it already makes no sense to speak of Indonesia as being a full, or liberal, democracy.” Edward Aspinall,New Mandala


Breaking the Australia–China media feedback loop

“The Australian government should be giving diplomats sufficient resources and leeway to be more on the front foot with their digital diplomacy efforts in China on platforms like Weibo and WeChat. Public diplomacy is vital, and doubly so when bilateral relations occasionally sour.” Fergus Ryan,The Strategist

Spitting in Europe’s face won’t help Italy

“Beyond Italy’s own self-inflicted economic stagnation – which helped get the populists elected in the first place – there are fundamental flaws in the architecture of the euro and no other country in the bloc, including France, can fully compete with Germany’s economic power.” Rachel Donadio,The Atlantic


Sources: International Education, ‘Time Series of Overseas Student Numbers by Country, 1994–2000’; Australian Government, ‘End of Year Summary of International Student Enrolment Data’, 2017.

Read past editions of AFA Monthly

Sign up to AFA Monthly to get each new edition in your inbox