Monday night’s episode of Four Corners lined up an array of academics, bureaucrats and politicians expressing alarm about China’s attempts to influence Australia through clandestine activities.
Australia’s former ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, was a notable exception, observing that China’s efforts were much like those of other nations, particularly Israel.
Some similarities between the external activities of Israel and China are striking.
Both are driven by contested identities, based on post-colonial politics dating back to the 1940s and beyond.
On this front, China is faring better than Israel: Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation is almost complete, while more than 70 per cent of UN members now recognise the state of Palestine.
Both are well resourced, and because of language barriers, much of their work is outside the view of most Australians.
Both continue to have a take-no-prisoners approach to the espionage side of the influence game, with Israel known for its assassination operations, and China rolling up a network of CIA informants with ruthlessness worthy of an early John Le Carre novel.
Both attempt to enlist politicians to their cause, and on this front, Israel is more effective.
Few would question Michael Danby’s longstanding commitment to Israel, while his Labor Party colleagues, from Sam Dastyari to Joel Fitzgibbon, have found pro-China activities do little to benefit their political careers.
Yet this is where the similarities end, and why no-one in ASIO is losing sleep over Israel’s activities in Australia.
Israel is not our major trading partner. There are not one million people of Israeli descent living in Australia. Israel does not influence sea lanes to our immediate north. Israel is a democracy.
Beyond this, the purpose and nature of China’s “influence operations” are quite different.
China working to ‘persuade, manage, discipline and control’
As John Fitzgerald noted in an episode of the Little Red Podcast, “the Propaganda Bureau and others have given up on trying to persuade non-Chinese Australians … it couldn’t care what they think. Rather it’s messaging to them the consequences of what they think. Whereas within the Chinese community there’s an effort to persuade, manage, discipline and control.”
The first incident to alarm Australia’s intelligence service — the sudden mobilisation and arrival of thousands of Chinese students to Canberra to protect the Olympic torch (“sacred flame” in Chinese media reports) from anti-China protesters — provided a perfect illustration of this difference.
For mainstream Australian TV viewers, the sight of Chinese students being arrested after shouting down and assaulting pro-Tibet protesters looked like a colossal soft power fail.
But the elaborately choreographed and expensively assembled protest wasn’t staged for non-Chinese consumption. It sent an effective message that the party line extended well beyond China’s borders.
The comparison also does little justice to the sophistication of Israel’s public diplomacy, embodied by Australian-born Mark Regev, former chief spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, now ambassador to Great Britain.
Will we ever see an Australian-born Chinese citizen arguing — in a reassuring drawl — for Australia to give China “a fair go” in Tibet or Xinjiang? It seems unlikely.
It also misses the point that Israeli citizens can choose from a range of political parties with different foreign policies.
Chinese citizens cannot remove their ruling party, or even mildly rebuke it abroad for failing to deal with air pollution.
Under President Xi Jinping’s more assertive approach, Ministry of Foreign Affairs representatives even feel comfortable organising the disruption of international forums in Australia, and inciting other countries to join in.
Politicians can no longer claim ignorance
Against this background of renewed assertiveness brought by Mr Xi’s leadership, it is the zeal for controlling the message about China to Chinese Australians that is perhaps most difficult to fathom.
All 24-hour Chinese language radio stations in Australia now broadcast content identical to that delivered by China’s Ministry of Propaganda. Yet Chinese consular officials visit the stations in person to vet talkback callers and instruct the stations on which guests are off limits.
The majority of print media outlets follow a similar line, and arms of the Chinese state actively pressure the holdouts.
All Chinese language media are instructed on what they should and should not run at “sensitive” times, such as the recent visit of Premier Li Keqiang.
As the child of Scottish migrants, it would be as if Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalist Party decided it had the right to act as the arbiter of what I heard, read and said about Scotland — and had the means to stop me criticising the weather or my countrymen’s love of offal.
It is an absurd situation.
It is tragic that Chinese citizens live in what political theorist Stein Ringen has described as a “controlocracy”, but we should not tolerate Chinese Australians being subject to the perfect dictatorship.
Our politicians can no longer claim that they don’t know.
It is time to ask China to stop interfering in our internal affairs.
By Graeme Smith