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The University of Sydney: Australia has welcomed a rapidly growing number of students from China in recent years.   © Reuters
International relations

Australia sounds the alarm over Chinese 'interference'

Critics say Beijing is influencing politics and stifling criticism Down Under

MELBOURNE -- Last November, Clive Hamilton, one of Australia's most prominent public intellectuals, was in the final stages of preparing to publish his latest book when he received an email from his publisher.

The book, an investigation into the Chinese Communist Party's interference in Australian politics and public life, would not be going ahead as planned. Allen & Unwin's chief executive was concerned about the high risk of a "vexatious defamation" suit or other retaliation from Beijing and its sympathizers in Australia.

In the following months, two more publishers would come close to taking the book before retreating in the face of similar fears. Amid concerns about the erosion of freedom of speech in Australia, members of the parliament's intelligence and security committee at one point considered publishing the manuscript in the official record.

Finally, in March, "Silent Invasion: China's influence in Australia" was released by an independent publisher in Melbourne.

"The central thesis is that the influence of the Chinese Communist Party and its sympathizers in Australia on the major institutions of Australian democracy and public life is much greater than previously thought, and in fact Australia has been the target of an extensive campaign of influence by the Chinese state," Hamilton said.

For Hamilton, who has published over a dozen books on contentious subjects ranging from climate change to the Australian government's silencing of dissent, the book's difficult journey to shop shelves was telling.

"The shadow now cast by Beijing over Australia, including the Australian publishing industry, is so dark that publishers are unwilling to publish books critical of the Chinese Communist Party," he said.

Hamilton is not alone in his concerns, which come on the heels of a steady stream of reports of covert Chinese interference in Australian politics, media, universities and even churches. Among other activities, Beijing has been accused of kidnapping Chinese dissidents on Australian soil, financing "Manchurian candidates" for office, spying on university students and strong-arming Chinese-language media into toeing the party line. 

In October, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization said in its annual report that it was overwhelmed by the current levels of foreign interference and espionage targeting the country.

"Foreign interference in Australia's diaspora communities through harassment or other means can erode the freedoms enjoyed by all people living in Australia," said ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis, in a warning that did not mention any country by name but was widely interpreted as referring to China. "These activities -- undertaken covertly to obscure the role of foreign governments -- represent a threat to our sovereignty, the integrity of our national institutions and the exercise of our citizens' rights."

Australia's political leaders have taken notice of the perceived threat.

In December, the government unveiled new laws that would ban foreign political donations, create a registry for people working on behalf of a foreign power and expand the definition of espionage to include possessing sensitive information.

"Foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process, both here and abroad," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said while announcing proposals, which are yet to pass parliament.

Beijing has repeatedly hit back at claims of interference, accusing those who raise the issue of "bias" and of harboring a "Cold War mentality." In December, China's Global Times linked "politicians' anti-China attitude" to a series of attacks on Chinese, including a violent assault on three international students in Canberra that police insisted was not motivated by racism.

"I think people are starting to wake up to the extent of the influence and the number of what can be described as agents of the Chinese Communist Party operating one way or another in Australia," Hamilton said. "We're talking about influence and information gathering far beyond the traditional spying of the Cold War."

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