- From Inquirer
- 13 minute read
Just four years ago, the Chinese went close to pulling off what would have been a masterclass in propaganda.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong — the man responsible for the deaths of millions of people during the Cultural Revolution — plans were in place for a Chinese troupe to perform a series of concerts at two of Australia’s most prestigious venues, Sydney Town Hall and Melbourne Town Hall.
Organised by the International Cultural Exchange Association of Australia, a group with close links to the Chinese Communist Party, the optics of such an event would have been irresistible to Beijing powerbrokers: an overt celebration of Mao at revered locations in Australia’s two biggest cities, at a time when President Xi Jinping was publicly breathing new life and status into the decades-old United Front, describing it as the country’s “important magic weapon”.
The diplomatic and social coup was cleverly orchestrated right under the nose of the Australian government. But the event never went ahead, scuttled at the last minute by the emergence of the Australian Values Alliance — a small group of Chinese-Australians critical of the Chinese Communist Party — horrified by the insensitive attempt by the CCP to rehabilitate the reputation on the foreign stage of a man who was responsible for so much human misery.
And, while those concerts in 2016 were kiboshed, the blueprint under Xi was set.
In the years since, dozens of Chinese cultural performance troupes have visited Australia each year to sing, dance and invariably complete their performance with a proud rendition of the Chinese national anthem. Free tickets are given to the Chinese diaspora in Australia, local politicians are encouraged to attend and, as was the case with the cancelled Mao anniversary concerts, the use of prominent government buildings is especially prized for propaganda purposes in Beijing.
For China, it’s the pursuit of so-called “all-around influence” in Australia — economic, cultural, diplomatic and personal — where every advantage is taken to tell a good China story, sway local opinion and take control.
It all fits with China’s United Front framework, which links back to the very creation of the Chinese Communist Party, founded in 1921.
“United Front means every possible force towards the target,” says former Chinese diplomat and political refugee Chen Yonglin, who was consul for political affairs in Sydney’s Chinese embassy from 2001 to 2005.
China might well be run by communists but it has always been a tough-guy hierarchy with a keen understanding of blunt power, political leverage and financial persuasion.
“Chinese people will look around and ask, ‘Who is my friend? Who is my relative?’. If there is no relative or no friend they will create one by [showering someone] with money,” says Chen.
This is the context in which Australia’s 1.2 million-strong Chinese diaspora has been targeted as a key part of the CCP strategy to break the dominance of the US and realise Xi’s dream of Chinese global leadership by the middle of the century.
The diaspora, however, is a complex beast.
The Weekend Australian has met with scores of membersof Australia’s Chinese diaspora as part of a series sponsored by the Sydney-based Judith Neilson Institute, a philanthropic backer of journalism. The newspaper found a diverse and vibrant community with a mainly positive attitude towards their adopted country and mixed views about the communist regime in their cultural homeland.
The diaspora is not homogenous; it has evolved over waves of migration that have brought labourers, gold-fever miners, refugees and a new breed of Chinese global citizen who has benefited most from the Asian giant’s recent decades of prosperity.
But the shadow of the homeland looms large, now more than ever.
About 40 per cent of the diaspora have come to Australia directly from the mainland. Of these, more than half have arrived in Australia in the past eight years.
Most people within the diaspora rely on social media app WeChat and have access to Chinese-language news and television. This means many Chinese-Australians are being monitored by CCP censors and fed a steady diet of communist party propaganda.
As global tensions rise over trade and security, and Xi steps up efforts to expand China’s power, influence and reach, United Front activities require fresh scrutiny.
Its operations have long been present in Australia, but the presence of the all-encompassing strategy has become increasingly overt in recent years.
The system was originally adopted from Russia and is at the core of China’s communist control apparatus. Under Xi, it has been given heightened status to include authority over religious, ethnic and Chinese diaspora affairs.
Chinese officials routinely dismiss claims of United Front activity. But in 2015, Xi described United Front as “an important magic weapon” for strengthening his party’s rule, and central to the aim of realising the dream of the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation”.
The inside view of Xi’s bold plans is that the CCP was surprised at the short time it took to break international sanctions placed on China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Within three years Western sanctions had been removed.
At that time, Chen Yonglin was working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within the Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs based in Beijing.
Internal discussions with China’s top leaders at that time focused on the need to exploit the once-in-a-generation opportunity that had opened for the country, both at home and overseas.
“The massacre was supposed to be the most difficult time since 1979, when Deng Xiaoping returned to power, but the sanctions were so easily broken,” Chen says.
“It was considered there was an opportunity window that would last about 20 years.”
Where Deng developed a strategy of “hiding our capacity and biding our time”, Xi broke cover to declare that China did not need to hide anymore but must make some achievements. In a three-hour speech in 2017, Xi declared China had entered a “new era” and should “take centre stage in the world”.
The global Chinese diaspora everywhere has been encouraged to further the party aims, via the United Front.
It must first overcome the big differences in opinion and relationship with the mainland that exist within the diaspora.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Alex Joske says the CCP’s ultimate aim is to collapse the “diverse” diaspora into a single “homogeneous and patriotic” group, united under the party leadership. To achieve this, Joske says, the CCP seeks to co-opt, control and install “leaders” in community groups, business associations and media across foreign countries — with Australia high on the list of targets.
Joske says the CCP’s strategy is to wedge the party between ethnic Chinese communities and the societies they live in, expanding its control of those communities’ channels for representation and mobilisation.
“The fact that United Front is a political model means that its overseas expansion is an exportation of the CCP’s political system,” he says. “As governments begin to confront the CCP’s overseas interference and espionage, understanding the United Front system will be crucially important.”
According to Joske, in countries like Australia where United Front work has been long established, it has proven difficult for politicians to avoid associating with affiliated groups and implicitly legitimising them as representatives of the broader Chinese community.
He cites the fact that both major party candidates for the seat of Chisholm during the 2019 federal election had reportedly either been members of United Front groups or had travelled on United Front-sponsored trips to China. The seat was won by the Liberals’ Gladys Liu.
Both contenders for leadership of the NSW Labor Party in 2019 — the winner, Jodi McKay, as well as Chris Minns — had also attended events run by United Front-linked groups in the lead-up to last year’s state election.
It is a reflection of China’s “all-around influence” agenda, says Joske. Figures associated with the political strategy typically deny any links to it, but ethnic Chinese communities are fertile ground for the work of United Front.
Suppressing dissident movements within those communities, building support for a takeover of Taiwan, intelligence-gathering, encouraging investment in China and facilitating technology transfer — it’s big-picture stuff, at a grassroots level.
Over the past 20 years, the CCP has established more than 100 sister-city and state relationships with Australia. It has forged close relationships with former top government officials, many of whom are not averse to the lavish hospitality afforded to visitors with something to offer China.
For seasoned China watchers, this is one context in which the Andrews government in Victoria allowed itself to be seduced into its Belt and Road Initiative heads of agreement with the CCP.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the Chinese government’s attitude towards Australia has changed markedly, with diplomatic niceties giving way to a more aggressive stance.
A few months ago, a strongly worded editorial in Chinese state-run media was published under the byline Zhong Sheng or “Voice of the Centre” — which is known to reflect the views of Xi — blasting Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper for publishing an image of the coronavirus with the Chinese flag.
“By politicising the pandemic and labelling the virus the newspaper has discarded justice, broken through the bottom line of morality, and gravely hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” the editorial said.
For the Chinese diaspora in Australia, the message was clear: Australia is a racist country that is not welcoming.
China was further enraged by the Morrison government’s decision to scrap its extradition arrangement with Hong Kong and offer sanctuary visas to residents wanting to escape mainland China’s security clampdown there.
This week’s Australia-US ministerial meeting in Washington will have cemented China's view that Australia stands with the US to protect its global hegemony. The talks between Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and their US counterparts, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper, focused almost entirely on the growing regional threat posed by China.
The two countries agreed to combat Chinese state-sponsored disinformation campaigns through a new joint working group. China’s Global Times newspaper said in an editorial following the talks that Australia was a “barking dog”. “Tied to the US, Australia is barking at China,” it said.
John Fitzgerald, Swinburne University Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Social Impact, says Australia’s loyalty to the US puts the relationship between Australia and China on shaky ground.
Following Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic, Fitzgerald says China had given up on Australia. A campaign to brand Australia as an “irredeemably racist country, in thrall to US hegemony, was being implemented methodically across many arms of China’s government”, he tells The Weekend Australian.
“The Zhong Sheng editorial signalled a high-level central party decision concerning Australia to every government ministry and to officials running China’s state-owned enterprises at home and abroad, along with tourism and education agents in China, that people around Xi have adopted a hostile approach towards Australia.”
But, while the pronouncement in the editorial might have resonated with some Chinese-Australians, it is also viewed by many others as a further reflection of instability within the Xi regime.
“The China society now is not normal, the Communist Party is acting like a mafia,” one dissident, who says he has been the subject of “strict surveillance” in Australia by the communist regime, told The Weekend Australian. Further anecdotes suggest the business community is shifting large amounts of money out of China, including Hong Kong, and seeking a safe haven for family members overseas. The fear is that having built the economy with capitalist incentives, the Xi regime is preparing to return to the CCP’s Maoist roots and seize control of private wealth.
This would fit with the grand narrative in which Xi has conceived a series of centenary milestones for China and the CCP — next year marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the CCP as both a political party and revolutionary movement.
It seems the mainland government in China has increasingly been looking to a new generation of Chinese migrants to build its influence in Australia.
This includes the wave of “post-Tiananmen migrants” and the more recent influx of wealthy Chinese who have profited from the mainland’s economic transformation. Chen says the mainland government has focused a lot of attention on the Tiananmen refugees. Many speak English but are not particularly wealthy, and therefore could be more vulnerable to threats and exploitation.
As China’s prosperity has increased over the past three decades, many of the migrants saw the opportunity of a business connection with the mainland, Chen says.
Junxi Su arrived in Australia 27 years ago, from mainland China. She is the president of the Federation of Chinese Associations and runs a dumpling and coffee shop near the Melbourne Cricket Ground. She claims to represent 156 Chinese organisations, under the umbrella of the FCA.
“Our aim is unity of the Chinese community … to promote Australian multiculturalism and at the same time promote Chinese heritage and culture,” she tells The Weekend Australian.
“Our objective is to improve the relationship between Australia and China.”
Su, a former deputy mayoral candidate in Melbourne, supports local Chinese cultural performance groups and has been outspoken in support of China’s security law intervention in Hong Kong. In September 2017 she attended the 6th General Assembly of China Overseas Exchange Association held in Beijing but says she is not particularly familiar with United Front activity.
“In Melbourne I don’t think they (United Front) are very active. We don't have much contact with them, probably one or two people,” Su says. “I think their focus is about Taiwan, we want to have a unified country.”
As for the Beijing conference, Su says it was “just some kind of community leaders gathering to exchange experience about how they develop the local community in the country where they live”.
“We do have a photo session with the top leaders who say they care about the Chinese overseas,” she says.
One of Su’s groups is Chinese Performing Arts Development.
Dancer Ting Ting Wang came to Australia as a student 17 years ago and is settled with two children. “When I joined the Chinese performing arts I got confidence and when I am on stage I can show the Chinese cultural dance to my friends to my family and to Australia,” she says.
Li Zhang is president of the Chinese Community Council of Australia, which has been embroiled in controversy over the Victorian government’s agreement with China for Belt and Road projects.
Li says her group’s key goal is “to ensure local Chinese-Australian community interests are protected during the policymaking by different governments”.
“My main focus in politics is multiculturalism and anti-discrimination, and I simply hope my son and other ethnic kids will be treated fairly and have same opportunities with others,” she says. “Most Chinese diaspora have a more peaceful and happier feeling if our country has a good relationship with our motherland, which is just human nature.”
Fitzgerald says United Front is an increasingly well-resourced and powerful CCP network of influence but warns care must be taken in not tarring all Chinese community groups with the communist brush. “Showing how it actually works on the ground involves a lot more than harming reputations by association,” he says.
John Hugh is the spokesman for the Australian Values Alliance, the group spawned in response to the planned Mao concerts in 2016.
He says use of the Sydney and Melbourne Town Halls for the Mao concert would have represented a huge propaganda win for the CCP.
Hugh says the AVA is not anti-China; rather, it seeks to build a bridge between the Chinese-Australian communities and the mainstream. “We want to educate the mainstream that not all Chinese are the same,” Hugh says.
His battle is not just with petty prejudice and discrimination, but the orchestrated efforts of mainland China and the CCP.
In Xi’s dream for China, the new year will mark the time in history at which China will finally boast living standards on par with those in the West.
He says that by 2025, Chinese will have made the transition from low-end manufacturing to hi-tech, with Chinese standards applying worldwide for computer technology, telecommunications and artificial intelligence.
In 2049 it will be the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Under Xi’s vision, by this date, China will be the world’s premier superpower. And if that comes to pass, the “China Dream” will be realised, and the United Front will have done its job.