In their capital, universities, and media, Australians increasingly feel the impact of political pressure from China
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While Americans worry about Russian meddling in U.S. politics, on the other side of the Pacific, Australians are worrying about Chinese meddling. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced in December that his country would “stand up” against Chinese influence in Australian politics.
Turnbull wasn’t merely grandstanding. The same week, his administration introduced legislation banning foreign donations to political parties, strengthening espionage laws, and criminalizing deceptive influencing practices. The measures would give the government more tools to resist what Australian media reports suggest is a Chinese effort to buy out Australian politicians.
It’s a confluence of new realities in global politics: Under President Xi Jinping, China has grown more aggressive, propagating its brand of socialism outside its borders and punishing those who disagree. Meanwhile, Australia has grown increasingly dependent on China, its top trading partner, and Chinese wealth has flooded into its universities, real estate market, and agricultural sector.
In the past year, Australia’s media have exposed how Beijing is influencing its democratic society by monitoring Chinese international students, donating large sums to Australian politicians, and pressuring publishers and Chinese-language newspapers in Australia to follow the Communist Party line.
MANDARIN is a language commonly heard on Australian university campuses, where 140,000 Chinese students currently study, making up 30 percent of Australia’s international student population and bringing in $17.2 billion in revenue, according to Times Higher Education. To ensure these students aren’t led astray by Western values, China sponsors chapters of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) on campuses in Australia and elsewhere.
In the Australian capital of Canberra, the Chinese Consulate helped the CSSA organize a large student rally welcoming Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during his March visit. Arriving at 5 a.m., students came in shifts to cheer on Li and drown out Tibetan protesters, according to Fairfax Media and Four Corners. Lupin Lu, the student president of the Canberra University Students and Scholars Association, told a reporter that if dissident students organized a human rights protest against the Chinese government, she would “definitely” tell the Chinese Embassy, “just to keep all the students safe, and to do it for China as well.”
This type of student monitoring creates an environment where Chinese students are less willing to speak up in class out of fear their contrarian thoughts could get back to Chinese officials and impact their futures. Associate professor Sally Sargeson of Australian National University in Canberra told Forbes that all the Chinese students she spoke with said they “know they are being monitored, and adjust their speech so they will not get into trouble.”
Some Chinese students have also reported on professors who made statements in the classroom that didn’t align with the Communist Party line. Last year several such instances came to light:In May, a lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne used a test question that suggested Chinese officials only tell the truth when they are drunk. A student shared it online, leading to a strong backlash from Chinese nationals and a call from the Chinese Consulate. The school, which has 4,400 Chinese international students, suspended the lecturer and removed the textbook that included the question. In August, a computer science professor at Australian National University put up a slide that read, in English and Chinese, “I will not tolerate students who cheat.” Chinese students reported it as discrimination to the dean’s office and complained on the school’s Facebook page. The professor apologized. Again in August, as tensions rose between China and India over a border dispute in Doklam, students at the University of Sydney complained that an IT professor of Indian descent had, more than a year earlier, showed a map in class that labeled contested border regions as part of India. The lecturer apologized and said he regretted “any offense this may have caused.” Also in August, a University of Newcastle professor posted a list that referred to Taiwan as a country, which upset the Chinese students in the class. In a video of the exchange that followed, students claimed that referring to Taiwan as a country made them “feel uncomfortable.” The video, posted online, led to a Chinese outcry and complaints from the Chinese Consulate that the university had crossed a red line.
Kevin Carrico, an American professor teaching Chinese studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, said these cases—especially the last two—were disturbing. Regarding the controversy over the map, he noted: “Very troublingly, it was provided as evidence of an insidious Indian conspiracy in Australia to trick students into thinking these territories are the property of India. I think it was not a case of people being offended, but of people wanting to find a way to be outraged.” He believes there is a double standard: It would be unimaginable for the U.S. Consulate in China to intervene in the same way every time Chinese professors said something negative about the United States.
Carrico teaches a contemporary China class that discusses politically sensitive topics such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the status of Taiwan, and the South China Sea. About a third of his students are from mainland China, and he’s never experienced any pressure to curb his discussions on these topics, although students are often more open to discussing sensitive topics one-on-one during office hours. When one Chinese student asked not to participate in a current events project because she felt it was constantly bad-mouthing China, Carrico replied that instead of backing out, she should share her insights and alternative viewpoint.
“The only way to respond is to ensure everybody has a way to share their viewpoint: That includes the person who thinks Taiwan is a part of China, as well as someone like myself who thinks Taiwan is an independent country,” Carrico said.
To ensure that universities stop caving to Chinese pressure, Merriden Varrall of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, believes they need to stop relying so much on Chinese international students as a source of revenue. This money influences decisions at all levels, including the professors schools hire and what they teach in their classes. Varrall recommends finding other ways to fund the universities so they are less dependent on the tuition of foreign students.
“The biggest concern is that we have a particular set of values, worldviews, and national interests, and these other views begin to erode or challenge those perspectives and interests,” she said.
CHINESE INFLUENCE has also left its footprint on Australian politics. Until now, Australia has been one of the few democracies to allow foreigners to donate to political parties. A Fairfax Media–Four Corners investigation uncovered millions of dollars in campaign donations to Australia’s major political parties from wealthy Chinese businessmen with connections to the Communist Party. In return, politicians seem to have provided favors, Beijing-friendly policies, and access to the most powerful people in the country.
The most publicized case is that of the Labor Party’s Sen. Sam Dastyari, who resigned from the Australian Senate in December after Fairfax Media revealed Communist-linked Chinese donors paid for Dastyari’s travel and legal bills, a violation of party rules. Dastyari was also accused of being influenced by donors: In 2016, Dastyari went against the Labor Party’s platform by siding with China in its disputed claims over the South China Sea. “The South China Sea is China’s own affairs,” Dastyari said in a press conference with Chinese-language media. “On this issue, Australia should remain neutral and respect China’s decision.”
Fairfax–Four Corners revealed the man behind Dastyari’s fall: Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo, president of the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, which has close ties to the Chinese government. Huang paid a $3,840 legal bill for Dastyari and was a large donor to both the Liberal and Labor parties. Altogether, Huang and his business associates donated $2 million to the two parties. When Huang was applying for Australian citizenship in 2016, Dastyari called immigration officials on his behalf multiple times to find out the status of his application, according to Fairfax–Four Corners.
Huang had pledged $307,000 to Labor’s 2016 campaign, but angrily called off the donation once the party revealed it opposed China’s claims in the South China Sea. A day later, Dastyari and Huang held the pro-China press conference on the matter.
Australian academics also face threats from China. Last March, Chinese authorities barred University of Technology Sydney associate professor Chongyi Feng from boarding his plane back to Australia. For 10 days, officials interrogated Feng, who was on a trip researching Chinese human rights lawyers. As international coverage of Feng’s case increased, officials finally let him go. The professor believes he was held in order to send a message to other academics not to touch issues China deems sensitive.
Feng often spoke out about the Communist Party’s control of Chinese-language media in Australia. He noted in an op-ed in the website The Conversation that the party’s “Grand External Propaganda Program” spends billions of dollars to create overseas branches of state media and pro-China media outlets. The Chinese government controls the content of overseas media outlets by threatening Chinese businesses that make up the bulk of the media outlets’ advertising. Because these businesses need good relations with the Chinese government to survive, they obediently pull advertising from independent papers and work only with pro-Beijing papers.
As a result, many of the articles in Australia’s Chinese newspapers are similar to those published in Beijing, touting the positive aspects of Communist policies. Feng himself faced pressure when he created an independent newspaper, Sydney Times, in 2006. Consular officials forced his advertisers to pull out of the newspaper and threatened to prevent Feng from doing research in China. Feng soon shut down the paper due to a lack of funds.
“It is unfortunate that the Chinese communist state has taken advantage of these institutional arrangements of liberal democracy to promote its communist ideology … at the expense of liberal democratic values,” Feng wrote in the op-ed.
‘It is unfortunate that the Chinese communist state has taken advantage of these institutional arrangements of liberal democracy.’ —Chongyi Feng
BEIJING’S GRIP has reached academic book publishers: In November, leading Australian publisher Allen & Unwin halted publication of a book on the Chinese Communist Party’s influence on Australia due to fear of retaliation from Beijing. The author, Charles Sturt University professor Clive Hamilton, had published eight previous books with Allen & Unwin, and the publishing house was ready to proceed with Silent Invasion until early November, when Hamilton said Allen & Unwin told him by email it was concerned about “potential threats to the book and the company from possible action by Beijing.”
This came on the heels of two other cases of publishers bowing to Chinese pressure. In October, Financial Times revealed that the scientific publishing company Springer Nature recently blocked Chinese access to at least 1,000 articles from the websites of the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics. The articles all included terms like “Taiwan,” “Tibet,” and “Cultural Revolution.”
In August, Cambridge University Press similarly blocked access in China to articles from the journal China Quarterly that also touched on sensitive issues. After hundreds of academics signed a petition condemning the censorship, the publishing house reversed its decision and reposted the articles.
Academics in the United States have their own stories of monitoring by China: At Purdue University, sources alerted professor Fenggang Yang, the director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society, that the Chinese government knew all about his center. While Yang wasn’t surprised, he says, “knowing that we are closely monitored by the Chinese authorities, either through cyber technologies or through human agents on the ground, or both, is not a good feeling. We have to learn to live with it.”
The United States does not allow foreign donations for politicians, but Chinese student associations in America are also active in decrying university actions. When the University of California, San Diego, invited the Dalai Lama to speak at its commencement, the school’s CSSA chapter threatened “tough measures to resolutely resist the school’s unreasonable behavior.” (The Chinese government opposes the Dalai Lama because he promotes Tibetan independence from China.)
Back in Sydney, Carrico believes that China’s micromanagement is backfiring, hurting Western countries’ view of China. “Beijing is unintentionally making people far more determined to push back than they otherwise would have been,” Carrico said. “It’s a miscalculation, but … this is the only tool Beijing has in its toolbox, trying to put pressure on people and make them quiet down. But it doesn’t work in this context.”
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