Before the pandemic shut down international travel, Australia had been receiving a steady stream of visitors from Western civil services, intelligence agencies, think tanks, universities and parliaments, all interested in one thing: what measures had Australia taken to protect its institutions from interference and infiltration by the Chinese state?
Experts have been explaining over and over what Australia has done and the circumstances that turned this country into the global leader pushing back against the Chinese Communist Party’s interference.
Two important factors persuaded the Turnbull government to introduce these and other policies. First, public alarm was rising following a series of media reports about donations by CCP-linked people to political parties, centring on the Dastyari affair. Second, the evidence in a series of secret intelligence briefings describing the extent of Beijing’s campaign to win friends among Australia’s elites became overwhelming.
The responses have included outlawing foreign interference, banning Huawei from the 5G network, excluding Chinese investors from buying up critical infrastructure and working behind the scenes to shake institutions such as universities out of their cash-induced complacency.
Today, Australia has become a model for other nations concerned about China’s influence. Some have introduced foreign interference legislation mirroring Australia’s.
During the past nine months, Beijing has subjected Australia to an escalating program of punishment, mainly by the use of economic coercion but also by a diplomatic freeze backed by a barrage of insults and threats emanating from the highest levels of the party in Beijing.
The Canberra embassy issued 14 demands we must satisfy if we wanted China to back off, including abolishing our foreign interference law, allowing Huawei into our 5G network, permitting unrestricted Chinese investment and limiting media criticism of the regime.
The trigger event for Beijing was Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s call in April for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.
But the retribution follows growing annoyance in the CCP, reaching up to general secretary Xi Jinping, that China’s attempts to break our resistance to its domination are failing. For Beijing, and for democracy, the geopolitical stakes could hardly be higher.
If Australia refuses to be intimidated, sticks to its position and takes the pain then Beijing must realise sooner or later that its campaign can’t succeed and grudgingly will resume normal relations with Australia.
That outcome would send a powerful message to the rest of the world: it’s possible for medium-sized nations to maintain their independence in the face of severe pressure from Beijing. A decisive blow would be dealt to Beijing’s goal of gaining global supremacy, if not by its United Front strategy of co-opting elites, then by economic blackmail.
On the other hand, if Australia’s resolve weakens under pressure and we give way to Beijing’s demands then it would represent a stunning victory for the CCP’s tactic of bullying and economic retribution.
The message to the rest of the world would be shattering. In the corridors of power, those urging resistance to the CCP would be told: “Australia tried but was forced to back down. China is too powerful. Only the US can resist and who knows for how long.”
This would pave the way for China to rapidly become the dominant power in the world from where the CCP would spread its malign influence.
Party documents are unequivocal: the CCP is hostile to free speech, a free media, religious freedom, independent courts and civil society.
So the stance being taken by the government in Canberra has world historical significance.
The vital question is: who in this unequal contest will win?
The Morrison government has made it very clear that Australia’s principles are not negotiable. But Beijing believes that if it imposes enough economic pain on Australians then we will be forced to trade our principles for higher growth.
The crucial factor in this fight is Australian public opinion. Communist Party bosses tend to believe that winning over powerful elites is enough. In pursuing that tactic they have been very successful. There are powerful voices in Australia urging the government to capitulate to Beijing’s pressure.
Certain former prime ministers, premiers, mining magnates, vice-chancellors, strategic analysts and Sinologists are all telling the government to appease Beijing. And some of the leaders of the industries being squeezed by China’s trade bans have become, in effect, mouthpieces for Beijing, calling on the government to “fix the relationship”, as if it’s all our fault. This is exactly what Beijing planned.
But in democracies political parties want to win elections above all else. Most Australians have been woken from their slumber and now see China as a serious threat to the democratic practices that for too long they had taken for granted.
With an election due at the end of this year or early next, the public must therefore watch both sides of politics closely for any signs of wavering. If our leaders go weak at the knees then the rest of the world is imperilled.
Clive Hamilton is a professor at Charles Sturt University in Canberra and co-author with Mareike Ohlberg of Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World (Hardie Grant).