Inside China’s ‘united front’
In September last year, New Zealand academic Professor Anne-Marie Brady presented a paper to the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Titled “Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping”, it became a kind of touchstone – cited in international newspapers and subsequent academic papers, and welcomed by Western Sinologists as an important contribution to the scholarship of Chinese influence.
The paper’s title borrowed a phrase used by Xi Jinping in 2014 to celebrate “united front work” – effectively, global political influence. Xi had himself borrowed the phrase from Mao Zedong, who once nominated military activity, party building and united front work as China’s three “magic weapons”. Enthusiastically practised by Mao, the theory of a united front was formulated by Lenin.
Brady’s paper focused on New Zealand, and detailed the local effects of “Xi Jinping’s … accelerated expansion of political influence activities worldwide”. She drew attention to New Zealand National MP Jian Yang, who had failed to properly declare that he had taught espionage at a Chinese military spy school. Yang rejected “any allegations that question my loyalty to New Zealand”.
Two months later, Brady’s office at the University of Canterbury was broken into. Last month, following her receipt of a threatening anonymous letter, her home was burgled. Laptops were stolen. Brady believed it was the work of the Chinese government, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern requested her intelligence services investigate. Brady declined to comment to The Saturday Paper as the matter was under investigation.
Gerry Groot, senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Adelaide, first met Brady in 1990. The two academics might have a claim to being our region’s foremost experts on united front work. When I asked Groot if he believed the break-ins were related to Brady’s work, he told me: “UFW can involve work with Triads who are happy to cooperate to prove their patriotism and reduce attention to their criminal activities, as we have seen recently in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s certainly not out of the question.”
Last month, Brady answered questions from the Australian parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security. It was to this committee that Professor Clive Hamilton and Alex Joske made their 48-page submission earlier this year, which drew on the work of both Groot and Brady. The submission attracted more attention than is usually given to parliamentary committee submissions because it preempted this week’s release of Hamilton’s controversial book Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia.
Hamilton’s commissioned manuscript had been rejected by his publisher, Allen & Unwin. A leaked email revealed the publisher’s concern that Silent Invasion would invite “potential threats to the book and the company from possible action by Beijing … The most serious of these threats was the very high chance of a vexatious defamation action against Allen & Unwin, and possibly against you personally as well.”
The publisher’s decision prompted international headlines, hastened by the subsequent rejection of the manuscript by other publishers and Hamilton’s belief that the Chinese government was trying to “silence” him. Fairfax reported in early February that the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security was contemplating using their protection against defamation to publish the manuscript as an addendum to the Hamilton and Joske submission – a privilege that would extend to the authors. Fairfax also reported that the Prime Minister’s Office had no objection to its publication.
It quickly became a moot point. This week, the publisher Hardie Grant released the book and the controversy surrounding its publication was replaced by the controversy of its contents.
The release of Hamilton’s book came the same week the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced it would abolish term limits for its leader – a stark continuation of Xi’s consolidation of power, and one that defies reforms to moderate it since the death of Mao Zedong.
“Trump will be gone in a few years,” Alex Joske tells me. “But Xi will be there until he dies. It’s a wake-up call to those who have hopes about any democratisation of China. We’re seeing similar things with Erdoğan in Turkey and Putin in Russia.”
Groot told me it is important to understand Xi’s motivation, and to view his increasing power in the context of Chinese history. “One of the underappreciated things about Xi Jinping is that he takes communist ideology, the role of the Communist Party and the ideas of Mao, very seriously,” he told me. “Xi seems convinced he can save China and make it great again. He thinks one key lesson from the Soviet Union was that the Soviet Communist Party didn’t take ideology seriously enough. It should be no surprise that he also takes issues like party building, and expanding military power and capability extremely seriously. We are therefore seeing an intensification of ideological work as well as united front work, which Mao famously called a secret weapon.
“From an outsiders point of view, these aren’t necessarily the lessons we think he should have learned from the Soviet Union – or lessons he should have learnt from the Cultural Revolution – but they are the lessons he’s learnt and is acting on. You might not expect someone who was a victim of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s absolutism to think this. After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping began separating party and government. But Xi has been closing that gap since almost as soon as he came to power. There’s an intensification also of information control. Under Mao, they could only try to police behaviour as a proxy for thought. They’re closer to being able to do that now, as we are seeing in the use of AI in Xinjiang [in north-west China] in particular. There, the police are using AI to supposedly predict action and rounding people up in anticipation of actions.”
Some China commentators this week suggested Xi’s move for indefinite leadership was an act of desperation, not ruthless confidence. Regardless, Groot tells me that China is bucking the Western trend towards populism. “The right-wing movements and populism we see today – many people have decided that they’ve been sold a pup by the ideology of the past 30 years and their income and prospects are stagnant. In China, it’s the opposite: more people are getting richer faster, and those who aren’t blame themselves. For many millions of Chinese things have never been better.”
In September 2016, Alex Joske – a student at the Australia National University, and a writer for the campus newspaper – reported that the Chinese Students and Scholars Association was linked to the CCP and was censoring anti-China material at the university. Later, Joske attended a function organised by the association and says he was intimidated and attempts were made to escort him from the building. Joske, a Chinese-Australian who grew up in Beijing, tells me that the association – which has chapters in most Australian universities – is just one part of CCP’s united front work. Joske says that, since his piece was published, a website has appeared containing his personal details and an alarming note encouraging cyber attacks.
Joske is far from alone in his concern about the monitoring or influencing of Chinese students on Australian campuses. Late last year, Australia’s most senior diplomat – the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson – gave an unusually pointed speech to international students at the Confucius Institute at the University of Adelaide. “The silencing of anyone in our society – from students to lecturers to politicians – is an affront to our values,” she said. “No doubt there will be times when you encounter things which to you are unusual, unsettling, or perhaps seem plain wrong … So when you do, let me encourage you not to silently withdraw, or blindly condemn, but to respectfully engage.”
On the matter of compromised universities, Silent Invasion – and the parliamentary submission that preceded it – specifically condemned the Australia–China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, a think tank headed by former foreign affairs minister and one-time premier of New South Wales Bob Carr and created after a $1.8 million donation from one of the most significant figures in the issue of domestic Chinese influence – billionaire and political donor Huang Xiangmo. According to Hamilton, Huang personally nominated Carr to the position, while UTS made the businessman an adjunct professor. Within UTS, academics were aghast – academic appointments should not be made to donors, much less ones with observable ties to foreign countries.
Bob Carr told me simply that he had not read Hamilton’s book, but in previous conversations had warned the current discussion of China risked destabilising an important relationship and, in places, had its roots in racism.
As Joske wrote in his co-written parliamentary submission, an umbrella organisation for united front work is the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China [ACPPRC], “one of the most active and visible arms of the Chinese Communist Party’s interference operations in Australian social and political life … In reality, the group demonstrates the CCP’s efforts at undermining and manipulating China–Australia friendship by expanding its often coercive influence overseas.”
Until November last year, Huang Xiangmo led the ACPPRC. It was Xiangmo who former senator Sam Dastyari warned of potential bugging after he had already been censured – and demoted – for soliciting the refund of Chinese travel. And it was Xiangmo from whom both major parties sought donations, despite ASIO warnings. This week, Fairfax reported that in 2016 Tony Abbott had requested the businessman donate thousands of dollars to a Liberal Party candidate prior to the federal election. The chair of the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, ordered the Western Australian Liberal Party to return $10,000 after discovering the donation’s source.
There are concerns that Hamilton’s book is merely one part of a broader destructive hysteria – a revival of McCarthyist witch-hunts and the “yellow peril” bigotry once found in the White Australia Policy and, later, the terrorism of Jack van Tongeren. A number of close observers I spoke to this week expressed reservations about Silent Invasion’s intemperate language and occasional generalisations.
Reviewing Silent Invasion for the Australian Book Review, David Brophy dismissed the work as a “McCarthyist manifesto” and wrote: “What exactly have we lost, or stand to lose, to justify this sense of impending doom? Which of our freedoms has China’s influence so far threatened? Readers of Silent Invasion will search in vain for evidence that Chinese actors have impaired the normal functioning of our imperfect democracy, let alone succeeded in imposing on us elements of the PRC’s totalitarian system. To be sure, Beijing has its lobbyists, its front groups, its propaganda; but to depict China’s activities as in any way unique in this respect strains credulity. US lobbyists admitted as much, when they complained that Turnbull’s new [foreign interference] laws would endanger their own activities in Australia.”
In an excoriating piece in The Australian last week, Kevin Rudd also invoked McCarthyism in denouncing Turnbull’s inconsistent – and unhelpfully belligerent – positions on China. “What [Australia] requires is a systematic, comprehensive, whole-of-government national China strategy,” Rudd wrote. “[But] Turnbull has lurched from one extreme to the other, from apologist to confrontationist.”
This week, the Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, delivered a speech at Western Sydney University counselling against hysteria. “There has been enormous heat in our public debate about Chinese influence,” he said. “It is time to bring down the temperature. If we are not careful, we will run the risk of setting fire to our multicultural harmony. Let me make one thing clear: I am not in any way downplaying the seriousness of concerns that have been raised, both from inside and outside government, about foreign interference. They must be taken seriously. In our liberal democracy, there should – and there must – be debate about matters affecting the integrity of our democracy and the sovereignty of our nation-state. But there must be responsibility exercised in public debate. It is a dangerous thing to invite hysteria.
“It is concerning to see sensationalism now creeping into mainstream commentary. Consider, for example, the references in Hamilton’s book to ‘panda huggers’, to ‘dyeing Australia red’, to ‘China’s fifth column in Australia’, or to Australia being turned into a ‘tribute state’ by a Chinese ‘silent invasion’.”
It is a “wicked problem”, Groot tells me – a problem comprising untameable contradictions. But he argues that the threat has not been overstated. “Rudd recently called Turnbull McCarthyist,” Groot says. “It’s absurd because the government knows the dangers of overstatement and has not been naming names or persecuting people in unAustralian activities committees, or anything remotely close to that. Though I do agree with him on the [Turnbull government’s] policy incoherence towards China.
“Another criticism of people discussing united front work is that they’re racist because almost all targets and agents of united front work are Chinese. It’s a good smear, isn’t it? It’s effective. Many on the left readily think others racist, while on the right there are undoubtedly racists on the fringe. While it’s good that people are paying attention to the rise of party-state influence, it will become very counterproductive and dangerous to our society and politics if many people begin to think every Chinese person is a spy or some sort of agent. There is a real danger of it becoming a witch-hunt if words and accusations are used loosely.”
Alex Joske is similarly annoyed at the “McCarthyist” dismissal, but says it is important the Chinese community be fully engaged on the issue. “I’m frustrated by those saying it’s all a xenophobic or McCarthyist beat-up,” he tells me. “But I want to help give the Chinese community a voice. We need to think about the pressure on the community, and we need to bring them into the conversation. I will begin writing articles in Chinese because it’s an incredibly important debate.
“A key mistake of David Brophy’s review is that it views Chinese influence as merely ‘soft power’ – it’s not, it’s far more sinister. Another mistake is that he doesn’t understand the difference between CCP influence and the influence of other countries such as the United States. There are good arguments to be had about our reliance on the US. But they share our values.”
One passionate point, made by both Groot and Joske but popularly overlooked, is the current state of China studies in Australia. They argue that there is a terrible divergence – China’s global influence increases, while the interest from domestic students declines.
“There’s a serious problem with declining China expertise in Australia,” Groot says. “We’ve seen a loss of knowledge over time with many important figures retiring and not replaced. And the problem with demand-driven funding often means that courses which concentrate on things like Politics with a capital P and ideology fall away for lack of student interest. General interest in China is increasing, but not necessarily from students.”
As this week’s reports attest, Huang Xiangmo was an equal-opportunity donor. Despite ASIO warnings, both major parties courted him. And both major parties have produced politicians who have profited from China after politics, in ways that are legal but discomforting to some inside their respective parties – perhaps none more so than the Labor Party, where members are still shocked and feel betrayed by the “extraordinary failure of judgement” of Sam Dastyari.
There are members of the Labor Party whose outlook on foreign policy was born during the Cold War, who went to university in the 1960s and remember left-wing students’ credulous support for Mao’s murderous Cultural Revolution. And there are younger members who have inherited this ideological disposition, and see today not only growing Chinese authoritarianism but the left’s naive acquiescence. It was pointed out that until recently, arguments of vast Russian interference were also dismissed by the left as a pathetic and paranoid resurrection of McCarthyism.
Others I’ve spoken to find these “Cold War hawks” absurd – people who possess more passion than insight and have lazily exaggerated the Chinese threat. Rudd himself accused the prime minister of making similarly hyperbolic comparisons between Mao’s China and today’s. One point I heard is that it is preposterous – especially given a globalised economy – to apply an outdated, Manichean view on contemporary foreign policy.
There are plenty of moderates within the party – those who simultaneously acknowledge China’s humanitarian abuses, their rising influence and our significant economic ties. Complicating matters is that our great strategic hedge – the US – is, under Trump, less coherent in its foreign policy as it vacates its position as the chief of an international rules-based order.
Among these, there was still specific exasperation with former leaders – Bob Carr, in particular – working so closely with China. While the hawks, they say, might have exaggerated fears, there was something disingenuous about Carr’s optimistic assurances.
A wicked problem, indeed. And long will it remain that way.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 3, 2018 as "Inside China’s ‘united front’ ". Subscribe here.