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Overstepping Down Under

In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has embraced the idea that China’s national culture and value system need to be spread more widely abroad if the country is to secure its foreign-policy objectives. The CCP pursues this strategy through routine public diplomacy as well as a range of unorthodox influence operations. Australia has been an early target of these activities. It has also been at the forefront among liberal democracies in generating community, media, and government responses to foreign-influence operations. This article explores some of these operations and responses over the period 2013–2017. It finds that many CCP and Chinese-government initiatives fall outside the spectrum of acceptable public diplomacy, and that Australian institutions nonetheless frequently invite and initiate such activities. In light of these findings, it questions whether new legislation can be effective without complementary changes in the behavior of Australian managers.

For close to a decade, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has embraced the idea that achieving its foreign-policy objectives depends on spreading its culture and value system abroad. In 2009, Liu Yunshan, then-director of the Central Propaganda Department (CPD) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), asserted, “In this modern era, those who gain advanced communication skills . . . and whose culture and values are more widely spread, [are] able to effectively influence the world.”1

Australia is on the frontline of PRC overseas influence operations, and a survey of these operations reveals that many fall outside the accepted boundaries of public diplomacy. Instead, they bear the hallmarks of the CCP’s militant “united front” strategy for controlling information and coopting people and institutions.2 Despite this fact, Australian institutions frequently invite and initiate such activities. Yet Australia is also at the forefront among liberal democracies in generating press, community, and government responses in defense of its sovereignty and institutional integrity, as well as the values—including the freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion—that China’s influence operations place at risk.

China’s influence efforts in Australia range from routine cultural diplomacy to purchasing political favors and silencing critics. With their day-to-day sponsorship of cultural festivals, book donations, student scholarships, and dinner invitations for local elites, Chinese officials are merely employing the common currency of cultural diplomacy worldwide. Nor is commercial diplomacy—visits by local-government and business delegations or joint events on trade and investment—generally a matter of public [End Page 59] concern. China is by far Australia’s largest trading partner and a source of significant foreign investment. Chinese purchases of certain agricultural and residential properties have generated resistance from local communities, but few grounds for official alarm.

One particular form of commercial diplomacy, however, has drawn criticism: Chinese state firms and PRC-linked businesses have offered lucrative consultancies and board memberships to former politicians and public servants, including ex–trade minister Andrew Robb, in exchange for representing China’s interests in Australia and abroad. As minister, Robb negotiated Australia’s bilateral free-trade agreement with China. A July 2017 investigative report found that, around the time Robb signed off on the deal, a sum of A$100,000 was donated to support his parliamentary-election campaign by a Chinese national and his business associates. Upon leaving Parliament after the 2016 federal election, Robb moved to a highly paid position with Landbridge, the Chinese firm that secured a 99-year lease over the militarily significant port of Darwin during his term in office.3 Under Australian law, Robb did nothing wrong: Dozens of former top officeholders have accepted similarly generous offers from various quarters. Together with other conspicuous PRC influence operations, however, the Robb case has focused unprecedented attention on the vulnerabilities in Australia’s rules regarding the nexus of political, commercial, and security elites.

Media Operations

China’s propaganda efforts in Australia are extensive and brazen. In May 2016, Liu Qibao, Liu Yunshan’s successor as CPD director, visited Sydney to preside over the signing of six agreements involving Party-state agencies, among them Xinhua News Agency, China Daily, and China Radio International (CRI). The Australian participants included several private media conglomerates and former foreign minister Bob Carr’s Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI). Under the contracts, mainstream Australian media firms agreed to circulate CCP propaganda on network television and in prominent publications, and the CPD was given control of content management for Chinese-Australian community media outlets.4 Reporting on Liu’s trip, the CCP internal newsletter reproduced without irony excerpts from local media coverage under the title “Central Propaganda Department wins major victory in overseas propaganda.”5 In fact, with regard to mainstream outlets, the greatest impact of these agreements may lie in damaging media reputations rather than in shaping public sentiment. Their impact on Australia’s Chinese-language community media is more troubling, however.

Ten years ago, listeners could tune into a Chinese-language radio station in any number of Australian cities and hear the BBC World Service in Chinese or access open commentary on China. Today, virtually [End Page 60] all that can be heard on these stations is local chatter supplemented by the voice of the CPD, which is carried live from CRI broadcasts. CRI is increasingly replicating abroad the propaganda cocoon that envelops PRC media and—much as its parent Propaganda Department does in China—silencing independent and critical voices.

Reuters has found that no fewer than 33 radio stations, managed by Chinese expatriate businessmen and spread across fourteen countries, belong to a global radio network set up so as to conceal CRI majority shareholdings. One such entrepreneur, Melbourne-based Tommy Jiang, heads up CAMG, which runs a network of Australian radio stations, websites, and newspapers with exclusive placement contracts for Beijing programming.6 CRI also has its own office in Melbourne, and it works with the consulate-general in Sydney to vet guests invited to appear on its contracted Chinese-language radio programs for acceptability to Beijing. In Melbourne, one source has informed me, a CRI staff member from Beijing occasionally sits in on radio programs and intervenes if callers start veering in a wayward political direction.

Independent publications have likewise grown sparser on Australian newsstands as Beijing propaganda broadsheets have proliferated. On 4 June 2014, eight of fourteen Chinese-language newspapers available in Melbourne made no mention of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1989 Beijing massacre. Such silences are commonplace for the many Chinese-community papers and radio stations with commercial ties to Beijing. These outlets are often part of larger business concerns, and if their media arm wins the PRC’s blessing—typically by agreeing to host Beijing material exclusively and dumping other sources of news and commentary—the way is open to business opportunities in real estate, education, and professional services, as well as trade with and investment in China.

Local agents acting on behalf of PRC authorities use an array of tactics to ensure compliance. Consulate officials have allegedly directed enterprises that are Chinese-owned or depend on PRC ties to steer their advertising away from recalcitrant outlets and toward those in line with CCP orthodoxy. Staff at one independent newspaper report that early in 2015, pressure from Beijing compelled the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth hotel to stop making their publication available to guests.7 In August 2016, the Australian National University campus pharmacy removed stocks of the Epoch Times, a paper linked to the Falun Gong spiritual movement, after a student believed to be a leader of a campus organization backed by the Chinese Embassy came in and shouted, “Who authorised you to distribute this?”8 But the most severe pressure falls on Chinese-Australians: Since the early 2000s, shopkeepers and religious believers in this community have been on notice that their families and friends in China would suffer if they stocked publications critical of the PRC leadership, especially publications linked to Falun Gong. [End Page 61]

Pressure from Beijing has affected even the taxpayer-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). The ABC had long carried Chinese-language content deemed unacceptable by PRC authorities, including reports on forced late-term abortions, the unexplained riches of CCP leaders, and Beijing’s censorship of the internet. But to land a commercial deal, signed in 2014, with the PRC-owned Shanghai Media Group, ABC management made the extraordinary concession of largely eliminating news and current-affairs content from its Chinese-language programming, both in Australia and overseas. In a departure from this practice during Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s April 2016 visit to China, the ABC—as reported by Media Watch—censored Chinese translations of its own commentaries when these touched on human rights and on the South China Sea dispute.9

Social media allow Beijing to intervene on an even larger scale. Members of the Chinese-Australian community make heavy use of social-media platforms controlled by Beijing, including WeChat and Weibo. In Australia, with a total population of 24.6 million, Wanning Sun has calculated that there are 1.2 million discrete Chinese social-media accounts.10 As Peter Cai notes, Australia’s public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS (Special Broadcasting Service), rely heavily on PRC-based social-media platforms in order to reach Chinese-speaking audiences in Australia. Yet the Chinese government’s power over those platforms means that sensitive posts, including those of the ABC and SBS, are regularly censored or removed.11

Education Operations

Higher education is perhaps particularly receptive to China’s influence operations. More than a quarter of Australian universities host a Chinese-government–sponsored Confucius Institute (CI). These institutions are unique in giving a foreign government a platform on Australian campuses. As a rule, they offer little of value to their hosts in terms of research or teaching. Allowing them on campus is instead a signal to Beijing: Australian universities are willing to overlook China’s lack of academic freedom and poor record of academic integrity for the sake of collaboration. Such “goodwill gestures” are a precondition for major research and teaching contracts with PRC universities and government agencies.

In some cases, Confucius Institute directors sit on boards and can interfere directly in university operations—for example, by hinting that certain guests, programs, or activities would be unwelcome in the eyes of the local consulate. This is sometimes sufficient to scuttle the offending plans. In at least one case, however, the faculty wisely ignored such threats when a CI director warned of dire consequences if university officials were to allow a Taiwan educational and cultural event to proceed on campus. Consular representatives themselves have also intervened: [End Page 62] In 2017, a number of Australian university lecturers were pilloried on Chinese social media for making remarks or producing illustrations in class that PRC students deemed “offensive” to China. For their part, the aggrieved students might be seen as simply following a global trend of campus confrontations around identity politics. In two of the four reported patriotic interventions, however, Chinese government representatives approached Australian university authorities to lend Beijing’s weight to the students’ complaints.12

Alongside Confucius Institutes, local branches of the official Chinese Students and Scholars Association provide community support for Chinese students while also reporting on their activities to consulates. The Federation of Chinese Scholars in Australia (FOCSA) coordinates periodic meetings of Chinese-Australian scientists and technicians to align the work of Australian university laboratories with China’s strategic priorities. Some of these alignments are innocuous, but a number involve high-tech collaborations with PRC weapons-development institutes such as the Beijing Institute of Technology. From my conversations with the Australian university managers and researchers involved, it appears they know little about their PRC partner institutions. Faculty members linked to FOCSA often lead these projects, and are entrusted to make decisions on the Australian university’s behalf.13

Political Operations

Of greatest public concern have been efforts by Beijing’s representatives to buy influence in Australian politics. An investigation by the ABC found that from 2013 to 2015, sources connected to China were the single greatest font of foreign donations to Australian political parties, giving more than $5.5 million in total.14 The wealthy Chinese national Huang Xiangmo, a Sydney resident, and people associated with his firm Yuhu Group were among the most generous donors.

In mid-2013, an elected member of the upper house of the New South Wales Parliament resigned and took up an offer of a senior management position in Huang’s development firm. Under procedural rules relating to upper-house replacements, a pro-PRC community leader allied with the donor was shoehorned into the vacancy without an election.

In August 2016, the Australian Financial Review reported that federal senator Sam Dastyari, a key Labor Party fundraiser, had made remarks to the Chinese media advocating Australian neutrality and “respect” for China’s stance on the South China Sea at a press event with Huang (whose past generosity had extended to covering the legal fees of the senator’s office). These remarks contravened Labor’s considerably sterner official position on this issue—a stance that, as further reporting revealed, had prompted Huang to hold back a planned $400,000 donation to Labor (Dastyari has denied knowledge of this matter). Dastyari [End Page 63] claimed that he had mumbled an incoherent answer at the press event. In November 2017, however, a tape emerged that showed him expressing deference to the PRC’s claims at length while speaking coherently from a prepared text.15 In December, Dastyari announced that he would surrender his Senate seat.

The question arises of whether Huang acted on instruction from China—Beijing denies all involvement—or independently. The CCP’s powerful United Front Work Department (UFWD) is known to target wealthy and influential members of the Chinese diaspora with a view to inducing them to befriend local agents of influence. In return for promoting China’s “core interests” per department instructions, the UFWD offers agreeable diaspora businesspeople protection for their assets and new economic opportunities. All arrangements are classified as secret.16 The UFWD is highly active in Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands.

Australian Responses

Around 2013, investigative journalists began exposing a broad spectrum of PRC influence efforts, and similar investigations soon followed within government. A federal investigation undertaken in 2015 reportedly revealed “the most sophisticated and sustained efforts in our history by the Chinese government and its agencies to penetrate and direct Australian elites.”17 A wider interagency investigation, completed in 2017, led to a series of confidential briefings with political parties, universities, and government agencies thought to be targeted by Beijing’s influence operations.

These media and government investigations have prompted legislative initiatives and encouraged officials to speak out. In October 2017, for example, Frances Adamson, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, delivered a forceful speech in defense of academic freedom at a Confucius Institute function in Adelaide.18 In December 2017, a suite of new legislation covering political donations, foreign-agent registration, and espionage was introduced into the federal Parliament. Once enacted, these laws are likely to discourage such egregious behavior as legislators accepting campaign donations in return for favors to foreign governments, or ministers taking handsome commissions from foreign state-owned companies the moment they leave the cabinet.

But Beijing’s longstanding united front strategy is unlikely to grind to a halt in deference to Australian legislation. Naïve Australian managers of media, academic, business, and community organizations—probably outside the scope of the new laws and used to viewing PRC influence operations as a cost of doing business—are also unlikely to cease reaching out to united front operatives. To date, Beijing’s local agents [End Page 64] need only hint at the prospect of deals or donations, and Australian managers come trotting.

The case of the ABC is an illuminating example. For some years, the board had tried to secure permission for ABC broadcasting to be shown in China in international hotels, foreign residential quarters, airport lounges, and the like. When these efforts failed, ABC officials turned to the Shanghai Media Group to secure a deal. Shanghai Media saw an opportunity to serve the country by silencing China’s critics. The CEO of ABC International explained that the agreement would “enable us to put the full range of Australia Network programming and content from other Australian media into China and for China to connect more closely with our media.”19 For Chinese-language readers, it had the opposite effect: They were redirected from ABC’s Chinese-language web services to a PRC domain whose content was limited to stories and advertisements concerning tourism, culture, education, and business opportunities in Australia. ABC management was caught red-handed by its own journalists, who were outraged by the organization’s compromise of its core editorial values. Adverse media coverage had a powerful impact: Within twelve months the managers responsible were out, and the incoming CEO reinstated the ABC’s Chinese-language news and current-affairs service.

Australia is a small, open, diverse, and inclusive liberal democracy, and its hospitality is open to abuse by foreign powers. Yet Australia’s openness and diversity are also its strengths. A number of Chinese-language media and community organizations have been among the most vocal critics of Beijing’s influence operations. And were it not for journalists and researchers, few of these operations would have come to light. Changes to Australia’s defamation laws can help these critical voices to expose further misconduct that has been shielded from public attention by fears of lawsuits. But any effective response must go beyond legislation. Australian managers and institutions, public and private, will need to learn new ways of dealing with an assertive and expansionist China.

Beijing’s Counter-Response

Beijing presents its efforts to “tell good China stories” as little different from the style of public diplomacy pioneered by the BBC World Service. Yet PRC authorities put more effort into silencing bad stories than into telling good ones. The distinctive feature of China’s communications strategy in Australia is not outstanding content production or information sharing. Rather, it is a monitoring and suppression of critical voices—carried out in cooperation with UFWD and state-security representatives based in Chinese consulates—that falls well outside the spectrum of public diplomacy as commonly understood. [End Page 65]

More is to be expected. The CCP’s experience at home gives it little basis or motivation for learning to exercise influence on the model of a liberal-pluralist polity. In China, there is nothing and no one that the Party does not control or aspire to control. As proclaimed at the Nineteenth Party Congress in October 2017, “the party leads everything.”20 President Xi Jinping’s revival of the Party’s totalitarian impulses, dormant during three decades of reform, bodes ill for countries that get in China’s way as it reaches abroad to sell its culture, values, and policies. Australians have responded with media exposés, legislative reforms, and strongly worded pushback by government authorities. But this is not enough.

The Chinese government shows little sign of recognizing that it has overstepped. It is unlikely to do so as long as central Party agencies such as the CPD and UFWD remain at work. Rather than remake itself or its strategies, China’s Leninist party-state is more likely to resort to new coercive measures, such as state-induced consumer boycotts of tourism and education, holding and spoiling shipments of food and beverages, and excluding Australian businesses from trade and investment opportunities. This would present the most rigorous test yet of Australia’s commitment to the core values challenged by Beijing’s growing reach.

John Fitzgerald

John Fitzgerald is professor emeritus in the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. He served as president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities from 2014 to 2017, and managed the Ford Foundation’s operations in China from 2008 to 2012.


1. Cited in David Shambaugh, China Goes Global: The Partial Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 208–209.

2. Anne-Marie Brady, “Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities Under Xi Jinping,” September 2017, www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/magicweaponsanne-mariebradyseptember162017.pdf; James Jiann Hua To, Qiaowu: Extra-Territorial Policies for the Overseas Chinese (Leiden: Brill, 2014); Gerry Groot, Managing Transitions: The Chinese Communist Party, United Front Work, Corporatism and Hegemony (New York: Routledge, 2004).

3. “Power and Influence,” ABC, Four Corners, 5 June 2017, www.abc.net.au/4corners/power-and-influence-promo/8579844.

4. John Fitzgerald and Wanning Sun, “Australian Media Deals Are a Victory for Chinese Propaganda,” Lowy Institute, Interpreter, 31 May 2016, www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/australian-media-deals-are-victory-chinese-propaganda.

5. “Central Propaganda Bureau Wins Major Victory in Overseas Propaganda,” Cankao xiaoxi [Reference news] (Beijing), 2 June 2016.

6. Koh Gui Qing and John Shiffman, “Beijing’s Covert Radio Network Airs China-Friendly News Across Washington, and the World,” Reuters, 2 November 2015, www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/china-radio.

7. Kelsey Munro and Philip Wen, “Chinese Language Newspapers in Australia: Beijing Controls Messaging, Propaganda in Press,” Sydney Morning Herald, 10 July 2016, www.smh.com.au/national/chinese-language-newspapers-in-australia-beijing-controls-messaging-propaganda-in-press-20160610-gpg0s3.html. [End Page 66]

8. Alex Joske, “Incident at University Pharmacy Highlights a Divided Chinese Community,” Woroni (Australian National University), 26 August 2016, www.woroni.com.au/words/incident-at-university-pharmacy-highlights-a-divided-chinese-community.

9. Mediawatch, episode 15, “ABC and the Great Firewall of China,” 9 May 2016, ABC, www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s4458872.htm; John Fitzgerald, “Was the ABC Shanghaied by Beijing?” Inside Story, 18 April 2016 http://insidestory.org.au/was-the-abc-shanghaied-by-beijing.

10. Wanning Sun, Chinese-Language Media in Australia: Developments, Challenges and Opportunities (Ultimo: Australia-China Relations Institute, 2016).

11. Peter Cai, “Beijing’s Control over Chinese-Language Media More Pressing than Fairfax China Daily Inserts,” Lowy Institute, Interpreter, 1 June 2016, www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/beijings-control-over-chinese-language-media-more-pressing-fairfax-china-daily.

12. Primrose Riordan, “Top Unis Admit China’s Influence, Go8 Fears Backlash,” Australian (Surry Hills), 23 September 2017.

13. Clive Hamilton and Alex Joske, “Australian Universities Are Helping China’s Military Surpass the United States,” Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October 2017, www.smh.com.au/world/australian-universities-are-helping-chinas-military-surpass-the-united-states-20171024-gz780x.html.

14. “Momentum Building for Overseas Political Donations Ban Following China-Linked Payments,” ABC, PM, 22 August 2016, www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/pm/talk-of-overseas-political-donations-ban-following/7775346.

15. Primrose Riordan, “Sam Dastyari Pledges to Support China on South China Sea Beside Labor Donor,” Australian Financial Review (Sydney), 31 August 2016, www.afr.com/news/sam-dastyari-pledges-to-support-china-on-south-china-sea-beside-labor-donor-20160831-gr5mwk; Quentin McDermott, “Sam Dastyari Defended China’s Policy in South China Sea in Defiance of Labor Policy, Secret Recording Reveals,” ABC, 29 November 2017, www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-29/sam-dastyari-secret-south-china-sea-recordings/9198044.

16. Brady, “Magic Weapons”; To, Qiaowu.

17. Greg Sheridan, “Chinese Influence Runs Deep to Favour Official Beijing Policy,” Australian, 10 September 2016.

18. Frances Adamson, “Confucius Institute Annual Lecture: Australia and China in the 21st Century,” (University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, 7 October 2017), http://dfat.gov.au/news/speeches/Pages/confucius-institute-annual-lecture.aspx.

19. “ABC International and Australia Network Expand China Media Cooperation,” 17 April 2014, http://about.abc.net.au/press-releases/abc-international-and-australia-network-expand-china-media-cooperation.

20. Charlotte Gao, “The CCP Vows to ‘Lead Everything’ Once Again,” Diplomat, 28 October 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/10/the-ccp-vows-to-lead-everything-once-again. [End Page 67]