China tightens grip on its citizens abroad
What is it about vacuum cleaners and intelligence agencies? In recent days we’ve seen frequent reference to the household appliance in the context of alleged Chinese spying in Australia. A while back it was used about the global collection and storage of data by the United States National Security Agency.
It will be recalled that in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, his fictional British agent kept his job going and its flow of secret funding by feeding blown-up drawings of vacuum-cleaner mechanisms to his spymasters, reporting them as a mysterious military installation on the island. Now, it seems, giant sucking mechanisms are being applied to us from two directions.
Intelligence services usually have three missions for their overseas stations: countering threats to their political systems at home, influencing policies and attitudes in the host country, and obtaining military, scientific and commercial secrets.
In the latter espionage mission, the vacuum-cleaner approach can indeed assemble a vast amount of information, most of it useless and available anyway from open sources. But the latest uproar in Australia derives mostly from Chinese activities on the other fronts.
The first mission looms large for authoritarian countries such as China. Unlike the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, it doesn’t have a great risk of ethnic or national fragmentation. The Tibetans and Uygurs are pretty powerless. But its Communist Party rulers constantly worry about the loyalties of the Han majority.
It has things locked down at home, with pervasive surveillance and media controls. But some 50 million people of Chinese descent now live in other countries, its people made 120 million trips outside China last year, and about 700,000 young Chinese are studying in foreign universities. Freedom of travel and study is part of the party’s bargain with the rising middle class to stay out of politics unless invited, but the risk of ideological blowback is high. In the historical memory of Beijing is how Sun Yat-sen mounted his revolution against the imperial system from the Chinese diaspora. So when a leader such as Xi Jinping centralises power on himself to an extent not seen for decades, extending control over the diaspora assumes greater importance. Much of what gets lumped under the category of Chinese intelligence activity is an extension of domestic political control, carried out by the party’s United Front and propaganda work departments rather than the Ministry of State Security, the more conventional intelligence service.
It can get pretty ugly for our nearly one million people of Chinese origin. Those who speak out against abuses in China can get reminded about potential problems for their relatives, or obstacles for business. They get enlisted for “patriotic” turnouts at Chinese national celebrations. Community newspapers become captive of pro-Beijing advertising. In the ANU student newspaper Woroni, second-year student Alexander Joske has written up how a group named the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, financed and directed by China’s embassy and consulates, uses bully tactics to shield Chinese students from proscribed groups such as Falun Gong. The same thing is going on in the 1.5 million-strong Chinese-Canadian community, The New York Times reports.
With the second objective, political influence, it seems the running is being left to patriotic capitalists with a foot in both countries, such as Chau Chak Wing and the unfortunate Sam Dastyari’s benefactor Huang Xiangmo.
Huang’s Yuhu Group and Chau’s Kingold Group have been showering millions on the main political parties, the University of Technology Sydney, the Australian War Memorial and sundry other causes.
It can all look very sinister, and has duly been painted as such by commentators, some of them veteran participants in US, Israeli, Taiwanese and other influence-seeking forums. But as we pointed out last week about South-East Asia’s backlash against Xi Jinping’s assertiveness, it can get counterproductive. Witness the opposition in the Chinese-Australian community that caused cancellations of concerts planned at the Sydney and Melbourne town halls this week to pay tribute to Mao Zedong on the 40th anniversary of his death.
For the Chinese moneybags involved, investments and donations have the bonus of creating a bolthole in case things turn adverse in China. Huang’s main Communist Party friend in his home town, Jieyang, was arrested for graft in 2012 as part of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Getting on China’s rich list is often a prelude to getting taken down.
In the middle of this Fu Manchu-type scare about invasive Chinese power, some need reminding that most Chinese people came here to get away from the communist system.
Maybe the results of last Sunday’s Legislative Council election in Hong Kong will finally get through to Xi Jinping that heavy-handed enforcement of patriotism tends to get backs up in open societies.
The 70-seat LegCo, as it’s called, now has 29 pro-democracy members, up from the previous 27, and still able to block major constitutional changes requiring a two-thirds majority. They include six young candidates who support greater freedom for Hong Kong to determine how it’s governed than under the “special autonomy” operating since the handover from British rule in 1997.
One is Nathan Law, a 23-year-old student and a leader in the “Occupy” protests that paralysed the city centre in 2014 in a vain attempt to get China to agree to Hong Kong’s chief executive being elected by universal franchise from 2017. Beijing agreed to a free vote − for candidates it has vetted. Law says he will push for a referendum on how Hong Kong should be governed.
The initial reaction, though, has been same old, same old from Beijing. Its Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office noted candidates had been publicly advocating independence during the election campaign. “We firmly support the Hong Kong SAR [special administrative region] government to mete out penalties according to law,” it declared. The Hong Kong edition of the English-language China Daily warned against “separatist ideas” being floated in the LegCo.
Sam Dastyari as Chinese dupe is one thing. What about Donald Trump as Vladimir Putin’s man? Alarms are going off in Washington about Russia’s intelligence agency leaking material hacked from the Democratic Party, thereby hoping to keep Hillary Clinton out of office and create chaos through the election of Trump.
The US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is reported by The Washington Post to have launched an investigation into the goals and scale of a possible “active measures” operation by the Russians. According to a congressional staff member, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, emerged “deeply shaken” from an intelligence briefing on the subject.
Russian hackers are said to be behind the leaking of a trove of emails from the Democratic National Committee network, as well as electoral databases in two states. Clinton is using this to the max, of course. “We’ve never had a foreign adversarial power be already involved in our electoral process with the DNC hacks,” she said on Monday. “We’ve never had the nominee of one of our major parties urging the Russians to hack more.”
One of Clinton’s old friends in far-off Jakarta has meanwhile come clean about his hidden wealth. This is tycoon James Riady, who got to know the Clintons when Bill was governor of Arkansas and later got so involved in campaign donation and money-laundering scandals he was persona non grata in the US until Hillary became secretary of state.
Earlier this month Riady and fellow entrepreneur Sofjan Wanandi announced they were taking advantage of a tax amnesty offered by President Joko Widodo for Indonesians to bring their undeclared assets out into the open. Riady, who has been a benefactor to his La Trobe University alma mater, said he hoped others would follow his example. He declined to say how much wealth he was declaring.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 10, 2016 as "China tightens grip on its citizens abroad". Subscribe here.