The defence and intelligence community believes that attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to exert its influence in Australia pose a direct threat to our nation’s liberties and its sovereignty.
- A joint Four Corners-Fairfax investigation reveals Beijing is active in Australia across an array of fronts
- The former Defence secretary and ASIO’s chief have both voiced concerns about foreign interference in Australia
- The interference campaign is especially active on university campuses and in the Chinese-language media in Australia
That fear has been confirmed by a five-month-long Four Corners-Fairfax investigation which shows Beijing is active across a vast array of fronts — from directing Chinese student associations, threatening Australian-based Chinese dissidents, seeking to influence academic inquiry, co-opting community groups and controlling most Chinese-language media.
And Monday night’s Four Corners program will track the millions in opaque Chinese-linked donations to show how it buys access and influence in Australian politics.
The depth of the concern at the highest levels of the defence and intelligence establishment can be measured in recent public statements by the departing Defence secretary and the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
Australia’s domestic spy chief Duncan Lewis warned Parliament that espionage and foreign interference in Australia were occurring on “an unprecedented scale”.
“This has the potential to cause serious harm to the nation’s sovereignty, the integrity of our political system, our national security capabilities, our economy and other interests,” Mr Lewis said.
The outgoing Defence Department secretary, Dennis Richardson, named China as being “very active” in espionage and pointed to an equally troubling campaign of monitoring and coercion here.
“The Chinese government keeps a watchful eye inside Australian Chinese communities and effectively controls some Chinese language media in Australia,” Mr Richardson said.
Student’s parents threatened and an academic detained
The Four Corners-Fairfax team has interviewed Queensland university student, Tony Chang, whose anti-Communist activities in Australia saw his China-based parents threatened by Ministry of State Security (MSS) agents.
Academic Dr Feng Chongyi made headlines in March when he was detained in China and questioned for 10 days by MSS agents.
When he was finally allowed to leave, the agents demanded Dr Feng sign a document that forbade him from publicly discussing his ordeal.
He has broken his silence to say his treatment in China was designed to send a message to anti-Communist elements in the Chinese-Australian community: “Stay away from sensitive issues or sensitive topics”.
The Communist Party keeps watch over the 150,000-strong Chinese students studying in Australian universities by controlling the Chinese Students’ and Scholars’ Associations.
The Four Corners-Fairfax investigation will show how the Chinese Embassy in Canberra orchestrated a mass student rally to welcome Premier Li Keqiang in March and stressed the importance of blocking out anti-Communist protesters.
And it will detail how a “spontaneous” demonstration pushing China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea in Melbourne last year was coordinated by one of the many Australian-based Chinese-language media companies that acts as a propaganda arm for Beijing.
Those few media companies that don’t toe the party line face the threat of being driven out of business.
Don Ma, who owns the independent Vision China Times, told the Four Corner-Fairfax team that 10 of his advertisers pulled their cash after being threatened by Chinese officials.
The Beijing office of one migration and travel company was visited by the Ministry of State Security every day for two weeks until it cut ties with his paper.
Mr Ma has not only endured economic sabotage from the Communist Party but a campaign of vilification from pro-Beijing members of the local Chinese community.
Yet he keeps publishing, not only because he embraces freedom of the press, but because many members of the disparate Chinese community urge him to keep doing so.
“I felt that the media here, all the Chinese media, was being controlled by overseas forces,” Mr Ma said.
“This is harmful to the Australian society. It is also harmful to the next generation of Chinese. Therefore, I felt I wanted to invest in a truly independent media that fits in with Australian values.”
Watch ‘Power And Influence: How China’s Communist Party Is Infiltrating Australia’ on Four Corners, ABC TV, Monday 8:30pm.
By Nick McKenzie, Chris Uhlmann, Richard Baker and Sashka Koloff