China’s creeping influence a threat to Australian openness


Merriden Varrall, the director of the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute, has penned an article in the New York Times warning about China’s growing influence over Australia, which is threatening the nation’s democratic institutions and openness:

Chinese money is being funneled to politicians. Beijing-run media outlets buy ads in Australian newspapers to promote the Communist Party view on local and regional issues. Chinese companies are buying Australian farms and natural resources.

The push extends to Australia’s universities. Chinese agents are said to monitor Chinese students and report on those who fail to toe the Communist Party line. And in another troubling trend, many of the 150,000 visiting Chinese students are importing a pro-Beijing approach to the classroom that is stifling debate and openness…

Sally Sargeson, an associate professor at the Australian National University, said to Forbes magazine that every Chinese student she asked about this problem “said they know they are being monitored and adjust their speech so they will not get into trouble”…

Universities have not adequately addressed this threat to debate and openness. Officials may be reluctant to take action because overseas students bring a lot of money to underfunded Australian universities.

Because many Chinese students have internalized the need to align with official views, maintaining Australia’s standards for free and open debate will remain a daunting challenge. Australian universities could start by facing up to the problem.

In the article, Merriden Varrall goes on to explain her experience teaching international relations to undergraduates at a Chinese university in Beijing, whereby she “was offered hints that my approach to teaching was inappropriate” and was ultimately stood down because her teaching challenged students to think critically, rather than toeing the official Communist Party view.

Of course, there is one important area that Ms Varrall ommitted to mention in her article, and that is China’s growing influence over Australia’s real estate market. We know that the global regulator for money laundering – the Paris-based Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) – explicitly noted in its 2015 evaluation of Australia that Australian homes are a haven for laundered funds, particularly from China. And yet, the federal government has failed to implement anti-money laundering rules covering real estate gatekeepers, despite promising to do so in 2006.

Sadly, in the areas of real estate, farm purchases, universities, and political donations, Australia’s politicians have so far showed minimal appetite to clamp down on China’s creeping influence despite the myriad of warnings.

By Leith van Onselen


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