With his controversial op-ed, Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie set off a debate that has riven Canberra along unexpected lines. By Mike Seccombe.

How the China question split Australian politics

Parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security chair Andrew Hastie.
Parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security chair Andrew Hastie.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

At first Clive Hamilton did not understand the significance of what was said to him at the end of an interview he conducted for his controversial 2018 book, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia.

The interviewee was John Garnaut, a former China correspondent for the Fairfax newspapers, who would later work for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and compile, with ASIO, a classified report on the extent of Chinese influence in Australia. Hamilton recalls that Garnaut “was one of the first people I spoke with. At the end of our meeting, he said, ‘You know, it’s important that you are writing this book, Clive.’

“I asked why, and he said, ‘Because you are from the left.’ I only understood what he meant after the book was published.”

By virtue of his background, Hamilton thought he had been inoculated to some extent against such criticism. He was, and says he still is, “proudly of the left”. His previous books championed environmentalism, debunked the climate deniers, challenged consumer capitalism and assailed the Howard government for its “systematic” dismantling of democratic institutions and its efforts to stifle dissent.

He was the founding executive director of the progressive think tank The Australia Institute and ran for federal parliament for the Greens in 2009 in the Higgins byelection, where he scored 32.4 per cent of the vote. He could not be accused of being in league with the Americans or the right-wing establishment. He had never before in his career been accused of xenophobia or racism.

By his description though, he found himself “leapt upon” by people he once thought of as being broadly on his side of the ideological divide. “The multicultural warriors, headkickers from the right of the Labor Party, old comrades from the University of Sydney, that section of the left motivated by anti-Americanism and what I call xenophobia phobia – the fear of being accused of being racist,” he says.

Of particular concern to Hamilton, still a member of the Greens, was that a section of his own party – the hard left “aligned with [former senator] Lee Rhiannon” – was and still is hostile to the ideas expressed in his book. He says, “They fall into the trap of accepting that any attack on the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] is an attack on the Chinese people.”

As disconcerting as his sudden opponents, says Hamilton, were his sudden champions, many of them people with extreme right-wing views.

“Talk about strange bedfellows,” he says. “I never thought, for example, that I would appear on Andrew Bolt’s show, but I did – a couple of times.”

It was all very strange, and it has lately become stranger. Now we find Hamilton defending Andrew Hastie – former SAS soldier, committed Christian, former Tony Abbott acolyte within the Liberal Party’s hard right, an opponent of same-sex marriage and climate action – over his opinion piece in the Nine newspapers, likening China under Xi Jinping to Germany under Hitler.

“I thought Hastie’s remarks were necessary, and important coming from him … carrying the authority of his chairmanship of the PJCIS [parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security],” Hamilton tells The Saturday Paper.

This is remarkable of itself, but even more remarkable is the fact that all across the political landscape, people are suddenly crossing the lines of ideology and party solidarity on the question of China. Namely, how Australia should approach its relationship with the rising superpower under the leadership of President Xi.

Look at what has happened during the past couple of weeks, starting with Hastie’s August 8 op-ed, in which he warned against our longstanding and comfortable assumption “that economic liberalisation would naturally lead to democratisation in China”.

“That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak,” he wrote. “If we don’t understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities – our little platoons – then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished.

“… This was our Maginot Line. It would keep us safe, just as the French believed their series of steel and concrete forts would guard them against the German advance in 1940.”

Hastie suggested that Xi’s agenda was no less than the destruction of Western capitalism and democracy.

It was alarming – some would say alarmist – stuff, particularly because it came from the chair of the PJCIS, who was therefore privy to the thinking of Australia’s security establishment.

Hastie was quickly slapped down by people on his own side. The Christian soldier’s fellow Western Australian and political mentor, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, called the comments “clumsy and inappropriate”. Another senior Western Australian, Attorney-General Christian Porter, also demurred, saying Hastie was guilty of “oversimplifying” a complex relationship.

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham was less blunt but equally clear on ABC TV last Sunday, imploring any of his colleagues contemplating the airing of their views on sensitive foreign policy issues to ask themselves if such airing was “necessary” or “helpful”.

“There are a range of ways in which any of us can contribute, and we can do that with direct discussion with ministers and with leadership in backbench committees and other ways,” Birmingham said.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne offered soothing prattle: “There are many opportunities for both Australia and China in our bilateral relationship. It’s an important relationship underpinned by a comprehensive strategic partnership and a free trade agreement, and it benefits both countries.”

Though she acknowledged there were “differences from time to time”, Australia could “continue to manage the relationship in Australia’s best interests while protecting our sovereignty and adhering to our values”.

Despite these efforts to put a lid on it, though, Hastie found significant internal support. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton suggested that as PJCIS chair, Hastie knew what he was talking about.

Dutton emphasised the need for Australia to guard its “sovereign right as a nation”, against external threats.

“We need to recognise the fact there is a lot happening in the cyber space at the moment, foreign interference is at an all-time high in our country.”

Dave Sharma, a backbencher who is also a former diplomat and foreign-policy wonk, and seen as a rising star in the Liberal Party, also backed Hastie, saying he was “right to ring the bell” and to “warn that our greatest vulnerability lies in our thinking”.

“Our strategy and thinking needs to reflect this shift, which is basically Hastie’s point – that we need to remove the blinkers from our eyes, recognise reality for what it is, and act accordingly,” Sharma said.

In response to this split in his party, Scott Morrison, the son of a policeman, offered variations on the old copper’s cliché: “There’s nothing to see here, folks. Move on.”

Hastie was saying “nothing new”, insisted the prime minister, noting pointedly that Hastie is “of course, not a minister”. Morrison was sure there would be no blowback from Beijing.

Well, not yet at least, in a material sense. But the language from the Chinese embassy was ominous.

“We strongly deplore the Australian federal MP Andrew Hastie’s rhetoric on ‘China threat’ which lays bare his Cold War mentality and ideological bias,” the embassy said in a statement.

“History has proven and will continue to prove that China’s peaceful development is an opportunity, not a threat to the world.”

Australian politicians need to view China’s development in “an objective and rational way” and promote trust “instead of doing the opposite”.

As might be expected, the Labor opposition sought to highlight the government’s discomfiture. The shadow minister for foreign affairs, Penny Wong, called for Morrison to control his troops, and ensure a “disciplined and consistent approach to the management of Australia’s relationship with China”, rather than “pandering” to his backbench.

“This government has a history of its members making ill-advised and unnecessarily inflammatory statements. This is far too important to our national interest,” Wong said.

The Labor premiers of Western Australia and Queensland – the two big resource states – also weighed in with criticisms of Hastie.

But Labor’s attack was blunted by the reality that some in its own ranks, most notably the deputy chair of the PJCIS, Anthony Byrne, backed Hastie. Byrne said the concerns expressed were shared on both sides of the parliament and agreed “that we’re facing – and I think our intelligence agencies are saying – that we’re facing an unprecedented level of attempts to subvert our democracy through foreign interference and espionage”.

And another prominent Labor figure, Senator Kimberley Kitching, joined Hastie in inviting all federal politicians to join a new group, anodynely and somewhat comically called the Parliamentary Friends of Democracy. You would hope all our democratically elected representatives are friends of democracy.

In their email, Kitching and Hastie darkly warned of the rise of “authoritarian regimes that use coercive means to pursue their strategic objectives” and encouraged their colleagues to “rise above party to defend the rule of law, democracy and the constituent freedoms that make Australia a special place to live”.

It is clear that despite Morrison’s declaration there’s “nothing new” here, there is a great deal that is new, and the cross-party, cross-ideological outbreaks of the past couple of weeks are but a symptom of it.

Of course, it is true that Australia has long had concerns about Chinese government interference within our borders and in our region. As Richard McGregor, a China expert and fellow at the Lowy Institute, notes.

“Going back to 2012, we saw the banning of Huawei from involvement in the NBN, and more recently from the 5G communications network we passed foreign interference laws,” he says. “We’re doing the Pacific step-up, an internet cable to the Solomons, we’re planning a military base on Manus Island, we’re shoring up ties with Japan. We’ve increased the number of marines in Darwin.”

But things have become much pointier during the past couple of years.

Under President Xi, says McGregor, the “nature of the Chinese government has become much more authoritarian.

“Xi Jinping’s China is richer than it has been for 150 years, much more powerful diplomatically, with greater military capability than ever. They can now do a lot of things they didn’t previously dare to do because they lacked the capability to do it.”

At the same time, the Trump administration in the United States has proved to be bellicose and erratic. Australia now finds itself in a precarious position – facing a trade war between our most powerful ally and our most important trading partner.

Things have changed very quickly, even if Morrison wants to say otherwise. His actions show it.

This week at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, the prime minister promised $500 million in extra funding to island states, as part of an increased effort to counter the Chinese influence. The money was earmarked for investment in renewable energy and “climate and disaster resilience”.

Tuvalu’s prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, dismissed Morrison’s announcement, labelling it “immoral” to give “money in a sense to people to shut up [and] not to talk about their rights to survive”.

McGregor says the Australian government is certainly not “sitting on its hands”. Yet until Hastie’s op-ed, there was a reluctance to specifically identify China as its overriding concern.

“Politicians haven’t, at least publicly, been prepared to talk about China publicly or very often,” says Alex Joske, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Instead, he says, they tended to talk about “abstract problems like foreign interference or authoritarian states, but not have detailed, specific statements about how China fits into that.

“It’s pretty clear that China is the main source of foreign interference and probably the main source of cyber espionage and technology they have in Australia.”

And while Joske is pleased that the government has recently taken action – he says the passage of foreign interference laws, for example, has made political parties more careful about whom they associate with and whose money they take – “serious issues” of domestic influence remain.

“One of the really important aspects of this is how we have overlooked Chinese–Australian media. There’s a disturbing number of groups seeking to represent the Chinese community that have come under the influence or have even been established by the CCP … and the main platform by which people receive information, WeChat.”

Joske’s concern about the influence of Communist Party propaganda among the Australian Chinese community has also come sharply into focus in the wake of the rising tensions in Hong Kong.

The conflict between pro-democracy demonstrators, police and pro-CCP forces in the former British colony has been all over the news for weeks. And it has flared on Australian university campuses, confrontations that have attracted the kind of media coverage not normally accorded to competing groups of student activists.

On Wednesday, The New York Times gave prominence to a piece by Louisa Lim, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, under the headline “The Battle for Hong Kong Is Being Fought in Sydney and Vancouver”.

It detailed how Beijing was “weaponising” social media in its efforts to crush the protests in Hong Kong.

“The battle over Hong Kong is, in effect, being exported, pitting overseas Chinese communities against each other,” wrote Lim, enumerating how, during recent weeks, Lennon walls covered in messages of support for the pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong had been torn down by pro-Beijing students on campuses “from Auckland, New Zealand, to Vancouver, British Columbia, and from Hobart, Australia, to Harvard Square”.

The piece mentioned, in particular, the confrontation between students at the University of Queensland, which became violent, and after which the Chinese consul-general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, issued a statement praising the “spontaneous patriotic behaviour of Chinese students”.

There has been a lot of coverage, too, of other alleged avenues of Chinese Communist Party influence in Australia: the role of Confucius Institutes at Australian universities, among other groups.

This week a newly elected Liberal MP, Gladys Liu, was outed by the ABC for her former role as chair of an organisation – the World Trade United Foundation – “affiliated with China’s efforts to exert influence on foreign governments and expatriate Chinese”.

In Clive Hamilton’s view, these are serious matters. “Events like these give pause to the public that is not formerly focused on the issue of CCP influence to say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” says Hamilton. “If you have a bunch of angry students who appear to be representing a dictatorial regime on one of our campuses, that fires people up, in a way that events in the South China Sea might not.”

Others see it very differently. David Brophy, senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at Sydney University, thinks the debate risks sliding into McCarthyism and racism.

He stresses that he is no apologist for the Chinese Communist Party.

“I’m very critical of the situation in China,” Brophy says. “I am particularly concerned about what’s happening in Hong Kong and in Xinjiang [where the Chinese government is engaged in a process of cultural genocide against the Muslim Uygur population].

“But it all needs to be put into perspective. There is a tendency to link all these issues – of which there are many – into a common story. If there’s a sense that the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students are part of some conspiracy to deprive us of our liberties and/or democracy, I can see that easily turning into something quite nasty.”

Brophy suggests such thinking is the obverse of Chinese propaganda that promotes the notion of conspiracy against it. He points to the “citizen panellist” on Monday’s episode of the ABC’s Q&A program, Li Shee Su, who suggested the Hong Kong demonstrators might be termed terrorists, and that foreign intelligence agencies were behind the protests. Many, including Hamilton, were concerned by Li’s rhetoric, which appeared to echo the propaganda in official Chinese media.

“I saw Li on Q&A,” says Brophy. “There’s no doubt he was expressing views that exist in the Chinese community, but equally there’s no doubt in my mind that a lot of this simply reflects a Chinese patriotism, a sense among the Chinese–Australian population that China doesn’t get a fair run in the Australian media.”

He has a point. As does Hamilton. It’s a difficult balancing act.

At least, though, such debate can be had. Unlike in Xi’s China.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 17, 2019 as "How the China question split Australian politics".

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