The Beijing model and Australia’s response. Russian trolls charged. Lesson on wage growth and corporate tax from Japan. By Hamish McDonald.

Feeling the pressure of China’s global embrace

Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, last week.
Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, last week.

It’s hard to imagine now: the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, at a National Press Club lunch in Canberra, taking unscripted questions from the floor; the Australian ambassador in Beijing, economist Ross Garnaut, giving welcome advice on reform to Chinese premier and later party chief Zhao Ziyang.

There at the dawn of China’s opening to the global economy was the Australia of the early Bob Hawke years, helping with the new technicalities, pioneering Chinese investments in foreign resources, and generally being an unthreatening place to dip a toe in the West. The assumption was that eventually China would be “more like us”.

Fast forward to now. The current successor to Hu and Zhao (both now non-persons in the CCP’s pantheon) is Xi Jinping, who is trying to turn the party back from the giant deal-making Rotary Club it had become into a bastion of Marxist–Leninist ideological control, helped by the latest mass surveillance IT. In his speech to the party congress last year, Xi put the Chinese political model as something for the developing world to emulate, and its conception of human rights for the world to accept. Convergence is now seen, in Beijing at least, as towards China. 

Party propaganda talks of “blood”, demanding the loyalty of the 50 million people of Chinese birth or descent living overseas, including a million in Australia. Here a string of nasty incidents involving Beijing loyalists – students seeking exclusion of Falun Gong newspapers from campus shops, funding and perks for politicians, censorship in Chinese-language media, working-holiday visitors from Taiwan sacked from Sydney restaurants for failing the “One China” test, and across in Christchurch, the suspicious theft of computers from critical academic Anne-Marie Brady – have made Australia a case study for the US, Germany and elsewhere about Beijing’s influence peddling and how to deal with it.

No need for panic

At the moment, it’s not a very good example. The Coalition has tried to turn Chinese influence into a wedge against Labor, which it paints as client collaborators. The empire builders of the Defence and Home Affairs portfolios have ramped up the rhetoric about Chinese military assertiveness and subversion. Some academics such as Clive Hamilton and Fairfax–ABC Four Corners investigative teams have thrown the word “espionage” around very loosely.

Some of the Labor side’s response has not been helpful either, with Kevin Rudd’s accusation that Malcolm Turnbull had launched an anti-China “jihad” completely over the top. But both Paul Keating and Bob Carr, neither averse to a good stoush, have made some good points about the bipartisanship of the embrace of China.

When Gough Whitlam opened relations with China it was like the North Korea of today. Malcolm Fraser was quick to further the Nixonian alliance against the Soviet Union. The Hawke-era optimism was dashed by Tiananmen. Collaboration on economic reform returned with Zhu Rongji as premier in the 1990s. Throughout, there was always consciousness of very different political ideology.

It might be added that a large component of China’s overseas “United Front” activity is concerned with domestic political control, trying to ensure that the millions of returned students, the 100 million tourists going abroad each year, and the millions of migrants revisiting family don’t bring back the infection of democracy. It was Sun Yat-sen and his republicans operating from British colonies and Japan who inserted the sparks that brought down imperial rule in 1911.

Likewise the tycoons splashing money on our politicians and institutions are trying to protect the source of that money back in China from Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, by using some to project Xi’s “China dream” of a benign emerging giant.

Yet that still leaves our million Chinese Australians in an awkward position, caught between Chinese pressure and a crude media-political backlash. John Fitzgerald, the Swinburne University academic who has explored the campus bullying, suggests sponsorship of new independent media for the Chinese community.

It would help, too, if politicians and the media unravelled the strands of Chinese involvement. China no doubt does have spies here and engages in cyber attacks: ASIO and the signals directorate can deal with that. The idea that every Chinese is part of a pervasive “vacuum cleaner” intelligence machine is nonsense.

The Chinese embassy has every right to conduct public diplomacy to push its policies. It was just as proper for the University of Technology Sydney to set up an Australia–China Relations Institute as it was for Sydney University with a United States Studies Centre partly funded by US donations. Turnbull’s proposed new foreign interference law would be better if it didn’t so patently set out to nobble pesky journalism and irritating non-government organisations.

There has been some push-back against the China panic from Turnbull and Julie Bishop, and Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Frances Adamson has given a measured caution against interference with academic freedom. Overseas it’s not at all clear Xi Jinping’s China model is taking on. Asians and Africans, like us, are just taking the money from trade and investment. Even the Pakistanis are backing away from the Belt and Road Initiative. As senior scholar-diplomats Stephen FitzGerald and Richard Rigby point out, we should get back to the long view on China and stand up for our own values and interests when we need to.

Matryoshka trolls

For unmistakeable malign interference, see the indictments filed a week ago by the US special investigator Robert Mueller against 13 Russian individuals and three entities over an internet disinformation campaign run over the two years prior to the 2016 presidential election.

Hundreds of Russians worked out of the secretive Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg, funded by an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin, to create false American identities to post and troll social media items designed to inflame prejudice against African Americans and Muslims, and distrust of political institutions. By mid 2016 the campaign swung towards discrediting Hillary Clinton and boosting Donald Trump. As Trump has been quick to proclaim, connection to his election campaign is not proved, nor is it clear the Russian bots swung the election. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and various alt-right platforms out in the open also had a lot to do with it.

But the trolling certainly helped create the grassroots unrest that let a populist fire run away. Last September, the Pew Research Center reported two thirds of Americans get at least some of their news from social media. It’s a new dimension of political messaging.

Wages of Shinzō

With Turnbull and Scott Morrison doing their best to persuade that corporate tax cuts will pave the way towards a new era of jobs and wage rises for all − and squashing firmly arguments from the likes of the ABC’s Emma Alberici that the evidence doesn’t show it – they might turn their eyes to Japan for a different approach.

There, springtime brings on the shunto, the annual “spring offensive” by labour unions for wage adjustments. This year, unusually, the push is supported by the prime minister, Shinzō Abe, and his conservative government. Desperate to keep his reflation of the economy going, he’s asked the Keidanren, the big business confederation, to accept 3 per cent pay rises.

If companies do lift wages by that amount, they’ll get a 5 per cent cut in the corporate tax levied on their profits. It seems a splendid approach that Morrison could take to the Business Council of Australia to set hearts at ease among doubters such as Alberici and former finance department head Michael Keating.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 24, 2018 as "Feeling the pressure of China’s global embrace".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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