by Clive Hamilton
Hardie Grant, 2018, 376 pp., $26.99
Clive Hamilton, the Australian public intellectual known for his leftist leanings and professorial demeanor, may at first seem an unlikely candidate to engage in a showdown with the Communist Party of China. With his latest book, however, he has done precisely that. In Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, Hamilton positions himself as a lonely David against Beijing’s Goliath, creating a well-documented analysis of the Chinese Communist Party’s influence operations in Australia—one that will hopefully resonate with other democracies enough to ignite meaningful pushback.
The book’s message is reinforced by its own publication history. Shortly before its scheduled release in Australia, Hamilton’s usual publisher, Allen & Unwin, suddenly backed out, citing fear of reprisals from Beijing. In the end, Hardie Grant, a publisher with more spine, stepped up to release the book. The incident only bolstered Hamilton’s argument that Australia’s academic freedom is under serious threat, eroded by CCP influence. The evidence, he suggests, is everywhere: China scholars increasingly stay away from subjects seen as sensitive from Beijing’s perspective, for fear of being put on Beijing’s no-fly list and having their visa access revoked. Chinese student associations at universities are loyal to Beijing and often directed by the Chinese embassy. And Confucius Institutes—14 of them in total in Australia—serve as vectors of influence by using Chinese-language education to indoctrinate students, “letting foreigners understand China on terms acceptable to official China.”
Hamilton’s book carefully tracks the Chinese Communist Party and its United Front Work Department in Australia. “United Front” may sound like something out of a quaint Cold War history lesson, a relic of old Comintern ambitions and the Soviet infiltration of U.S. and European peace organizations. But as Hamilton shows, the concept lived on in China. The difference today is that modern China does not appeal to communist ideology, but instead fosters fierce nationalism among Chinese communities abroad and creates financial incentives for foreigners to become corporate spies and political stooges. In other words, as Anne-Marie Brady, the China scholar who exposed the United Front’s activities in New Zealand, has argued, the goal of China’s United Front strategy is to “make the foreign serve China.”
The People’s Republic of China under General Secretary Xi has enhanced its United Front strategy, targeting both overseas Chinese communities and elites in democratic countries. The strategy is to prey on the vulnerabilities of democratic systems. In Australia, for instance, lax regulations on political donations have made it possible for Chinese benefactors to become the financial sugar daddies of the main political parties. It was not until the disgraceful downfall last year of Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, who took cues from Beijing on the South China Sea issue, that these connections were brought into the open. Huang Xiangmo, Dastyari’s donor, rightly observed in a Global Times piece that money was the “mother’s milk” of politics in Australia.
In the wake of the revelations, Prime Minister Turnbull spearheaded a political offensive on espionage, foreign agents, and foreign campaign donations, which is expected to lead to a major legislative overhaul. Meanwhile, though, China has continued to insert itself into the heart of Australian democracy. Hamilton describes how the United Front Work Department was at play in a crucial by-election in December 2017, threatening the continued majority of Turnbull’s government and the current legislation. Flipping an election and a democratic government would have been a major coup, so to speak, for the United Front in Australia.
In Hamilton’s analysis, the CCP is attempting to infiltrate Australian politics for two main reasons: first, to secure Australia as a reliable reservoir of resources to fuel China’s economy; and second, to drive a wedge between the United States and Australia. The second ambition should certainly raise eyebrows in Washington.
I would add that the larger goal is to make the world safe for continued CCP rule by muffling dissent at home and taming the debate about China in democratic societies, including in the United States. To stand up to China’s influence operations will require not only stronger legislation, but a greater understanding of the United Front on the part of policymakers and law enforcement.
Hamilton’s book—which draws on excellent, diligent Chinese-language research by Alex Joske—has already sparked a vital debate about the CCP’s influence in Australian politics, media, business, and academia. It shines a necessary spotlight on organizations with links to China’s United Front. Hamilton also highlights why Australia—which is economically reliant on China, has around 1 million citizens of varying Chinese origins, and every year receives a huge influx of Chinese students into Australian universities—is ripe for influence operations.
Hamilton knows that he will be accused of racism, particularly by pro-Beijing mouthpieces. To counter that claim, he invents his own term, “xenophobia phobia,” to describe the fear in multicultural societies of being called racist, which the CCP deftly exploits to its advantage. True to form, the Chinese embassy in Australia has already described Silent Invasion as “disinformation and racist bigotry” that showcases a “malicious anti-China mentality” and is “doomed to fall flat on its face.” This is consistent with CCP attempts to equate China with Communist one-party rule, squashing alternative accounts at home and, increasingly, abroad.
China, for example, prides itself on non-interference, yet forces democratic leaders to forego meetings with the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Similarly, China put a deep freeze on relations with Norway and imposed punitive sanctions for the Nobel Committee’s award to Liu Xiaobo. Such forceful assertions of Chinese prerogatives have gradually become acceptable in the West, showing how the CCP can shape and tame our democratic choices.
The Chinese communities abroad are at the front lines of Beijing’s United Front work. The CCP has increasingly claimed them all as “sons and daughters” of the motherland. The CCP thus casts citizens of Chinese origin under a cloud of suspicion by claiming them—wrongly—as theirs. To combat this dangerous generalization, we must recognize the diversity in Chinese communities and protect dissidents and alternative voices within them, who are increasingly silenced even inside democratic societies.
One of the essential voices in this debate is Australian writer Qi Jiazhen, whom Hamilton interviewed for the book. After many years in Australia, Qi started writing about her harrowing stay in a Chinese prison as a young counter-revolutionary. Beijing has since tried to silence her through its influence over the local Chinese Writers Association in Australia, conducting a campaign of subtle intimidation to exclude her from public readings and discredit her work. Exasperated, Qi asks, “how can the Chinese Communist Party be so powerful in Australia?”
Hamilton goes beyond the Chinese community and spares no one. One chapter is cheekily titled “Beijing Bob,” a reference to Australia’s former Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who now runs a Beijing-funded think tank. Another chapter, “Friends of China,” is essentially a shooting spree directed at Australian elites across the whole political spectrum, from former Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating, portrayed as co-opted Chinese stooges, to Ross Garnaut, the former Ambassador to China who spearheaded the economic turn toward Beijing. (Garnaut’s son John, incidentally, has been instrumental in sparking the public debate on Chinese influence operations, through his investigative reporting on the matter and a short stint in government service.)
Two primary objections can be raised to Hamilton’s analysis in Silent Invasion. First, he arguably fails to distinguish between various “shades of red,” painting the Chinese threat in broad brushstrokes and failing to account for appropriate nuance. Second, and relatedly, his policy recommendations are often blunt and inflexible.
On the first count, even though Hamilton is careful about wording, he sometimes falls into the trap of equating Chineseness and the “Middle Kingdom” with the current CCP regime, thereby reinforcing the Party’s false claims to speak for all Chinese. Similarly, Hamilton’s criticism of the policy of allowing Chinese students stay in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 seems to miss another shade of red, implying that they transformed Australian universities into a hub of spy recruitment. And his casual estimates of how many Chinese-Australians serve Beijing—between 20 and 30 percent, he claims, while roughly 50 percent may be on the fence or have divided loyalties—is broad, arguably veering into dangerous “fifth column” fear-mongering. Hamilton runs up against the same difficulties faced by Western countries in the fight against terrorism: how to target a small group of fanatics while avoiding the wrongful castigation of a much larger group of democratic citizens.
As for policy recommendations, Hamilton talks about a ten-year effort to wean Australia off China. It is part of a larger debate which has also captured Washington’s attention: Does engagement with China still make sense? Nixon’s opening to China launched a decades-long bipartisan consensus in Washington in favor of engagement, but this is increasingly being questioned, including in the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy. Hamilton does not engage in that debate directly, although his answer clearly leans toward the negative. The tricky question for policymakers is how to keep some positive aspects of engagement with China without succumbing to the fatalistic, preemptive obedience which Hamilton rightly mocks, and without perceiving China as the inevitable enemy either.
Hamilton also primarily emphasizes punitive responses to counter the United Front Work Department. In my view, a civil rights type protection is also needed to shield democratic citizens—particularly those of Chinese origin who may be particularly susceptible to pressure from Beijing—from foreign authoritarian influence. This demands much less of the hands-off attitude toward Chinese-majority communities that often prevails among Australian law enforcement. But it also demands that we not place all citizens of Chinese origin under automatic suspicion. Such an approach would be counterproductive and would play neatly into Beijing’s hands.
The foreign interference laws currently being debated in Australia’s parliament are a case in point. International human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, who might otherwise share the goal of curbing Chinese party-state influence aimed at intimidating dissidents abroad, find the current proposal too broad and sweeping, even potentially affecting their own ability to function in Australia.
This shows the need for finely tuned policy recommendations, where the nefarious elements of Chinese party-state influence are singled out and carefully targeted.1 The United States, too, needs a check-up: The last public debate and report on this issue was in the late 1990s, during the Clinton Administration’s “Chinagate” controversy. China has only grown in determination, resources, and capabilities since then, as the revelations of CCP influence in Australia prove.
Let’s hope that the sunlight shed on Chinese party-state influence operations in Australia can bolster a democratic revival locally and globally. In the years to come, we will all need to become much more color-perceptive about Beijing’s efforts to paint the world in 50 shades of red.
1 My colleague Belinda Li and I attempt to do just that in an upcoming report for the Hudson Institute on how to deal with Chinese Party-state influence in American democracy.