Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 14 December 2020



Growing concern over China state infiltration

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Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security chairman Andrew Hastie undoubtedly is right when he says not every member of the Chinese Communist Party should be viewed with concern. In an oppressive one-party state, many of the CCP’s 92 million members, as he points out, join “just to get ahead in life”. What matters, Mr Hastie adds, is when CCP members are found to be working on “projects that have national significance for Australia”. In that context, our report on Monday about the extent to which the CCP has infiltrated foreign consulates in Shanghai, as well as global corporations and banks, should be a timely wake-up call to governments everywhere about the need for stepped-up vigilance and security vetting.

Based on a world-first leak of official membership data exposing the personal details of 1.95 million CCP members, Sharri Markson, Jared Lynch and Remy Varga disclosed that a Chinese government-run recruitment agency, the Shanghai Foreign Agency Service Department, systematically has been placing CCP members in the Australian, British, US and at least seven other consulates in Shanghai for more than a decade. Few democratic nations appear to have been immune to taking on CCP employees through the SFASD. Some, the records show, have been employed for more than a decade in the US consulate and even longer at the Italian and South African consulates. They have been working as senior political and government affairs specialists, clerks, economic advisers and executive assistants.

A senior executive assistant who worked at Australia’s Shanghai consulate and was involved in visits of parliamentary delegations has been listed as a CCP member. In Britain’s Shanghai consulate, a CCP member works near MI6 intelligence officers operating under deep cover. The leaked database also shows a CCP member worked for the New Zealand consulate in Shanghai for four years as a policy adviser on trade and economics. Similarly infiltrated by CCP employees, as disclosed in the database leaked to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China made up of 150 legislators from around the world, have been global companies such as Boeing, which has billions of dollars in international defence contracts, including with Australia; banks, including ANZ and HSBC; the Pfizer and AstraZeneca pharmaceutical companies developing coronavirus vaccines; and Western universities.

At a time of heightened tensions over unrelenting Chinese belligerence towards much of the world, it is obviously important to maintain perspective about the leaked data. It would be wrong if the disclosures prompted an outbreak of McCarthyism in Australia or impinged in any way on the lives of the Chinese community that lives and works peacefully in our country. Liberal MP Dave Sharma, who is experienced in security matters after serving as our ambassador to Israel, said on Monday that the disclosures were worrying and “are an important reminder that in a political system such as China’s, the individual exists to serve the state … of course we’ve got to worry about people who have got Communist Party members working in big offices”. He added, however, that Australian diplomatic missions had measures in place to deal with all security risks, with highly compartmentalised streams of information for locally engaged and Australian staff. This view was echoed by a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson: “There is a clear distinction in the roles, responsibilities and work of Australians who are posted and locally engaged staff at our embassies and high commissions.”

That is reassuring as far as it goes. But it does not diminish the need for intensified vetting and vigilance at our own and other diplomatic missions, as well as the offices of corporations and banks where CCP members are employees. It is no secret that the first loyalty of every CCP member is not to an employer, whoever that may be, but to the party. The oath sworn by new members reads: “It is my will to join the Communist Party of China, uphold the party’s program, observe the provisions of the party constitution, fulfil a party member’s duties, carry out the party’s decisions, strictly observe party discipline, guard party secrets, be loyal to the party, work hard, fight for communism throughout my life, be ready at all times to sacrifice my all for the party and the people, and never betray the party.”

That leaves no doubt about the views of even those such as prominent academic Chen Hong, who has devoted his life to a study of Australia and its literature but had his Australian visa abruptly cancelled by ASIO in August. As an intelligence officer told our reporters, any CCP member allowed to work in a foreign country’s embassy — or any foreign company or bank — should be assumed to be a potential spy. With the SFASD, in the words of Samuel Armstrong of the British Henry Jackson Society think tank, “looking and smelling like a well-organised, state-sponsored spy ring”, that is sound advice.

In recent times, the frenzied bullying of the CCP “wolf warriors” has been on full display, not only in their malevolence towards Australia and democratic countries across the world but also in their brutal suppression of Hong Kong and attacks on India in the Himalayas. The database underlines the need for diplomatic missions, global corporations, banks and others constantly to be mindful of the CCP members working in their midst.

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