China’s bold plan to attack democracy from within
Political leaders in China’s capital Beijing are bold and getting bolder.
Lately, the country has been involved in military border stoushes with India, flooding social media with misinformation, and leveraging “political assets” to advance its agendas abroad.
The increasing pressure has many believing that something has to give.
It hasn’t exactly been plain sailing between China and Australia lately.
Beijing recently unleashed an angry tirade at the Morrison government’s call for an independent international inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, criticism of the mass detention of its Uyghur ethnic minority also drew outrage.
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But beneath all this diplomatic drama has been an evolving national security emergency.
The questioning of NSW Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane, and the associated raids on his house and office, is just the latest act in this unscripted drama.
“Although China’s rising influence is felt all across the globe, perhaps no country has been as roiled politically by China’s growing influence and political ambitions as Australia has over the past several years,” writes Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) senior associate Amy Searight.
First came revelations about large political donations from groups with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Then came concerns over Beijing’s growing sway over Australian universities. Fears about undue influence within Australian Chinese language media and civic groups soon followed.
Combined, it appeared to be a bold plan to attack democracy from within.
Unofficial channels were being exploited. Interactions were secretive and manipulative.
Such “covert, coercive, or corrupting” foreign influence, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared when introducing national security legislation in 2017, was “the line that separates legitimate influence from unacceptable interference”.
Searight argues this is a new form of political warfare: “The revelations have turned Australia into a ‘canary in the coalmine,’ a cautionary tale about the ways in which China seeks to covertly influence and interfere with the political process in advanced democracies.”
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Warfare has changed. China gets it. Russia gets it. The West is struggling to come to grips with it.
It’s no longer just about combat jets, warships and boots on the ground.
It’s about inducing disorder. It’s about undermining authority, trust and the rule of law. It’s about destabilising one’s opponent from within to win a war without firing a shot.
In 2003 Beijing outlined this ‘three warfares’ idea in its Political Work Guidelines of the People’s Liberation Army strategy.
First, there is media and public opinion warfare. Beijing’s “wolf-warrior” diplomats, state-run media and carefully placed “agents of influence” are heavily engaged on this front.
The second front seeks to exert influence over foreign domestic decision making and policies towards China.
The third front attempts to shape international and foreign domestic laws to support Beijing’s agendas.
Together they represent all-out doctrinal warfare.
“Here, the hostile forces are not heavily armed soldiers threatening to attack China’s territory, but liberal democratic ideals and their corollaries – constitutional democracy, universal values, individual rights, economic liberalism, free media – which have been identified by the CCP as deadly ‘perils’,” writes Lowy Institute senior fellow Nadège Rolland.
“In sum: Whoever rules the words rules the world.”
Rolland says China first built a “Great Firewall” against liberal democratic values and ideals by taking complete control of all internal social and traditional media.
But now it has turned its attention outwards.
“As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to defend against, in its view, nefarious foreign attempts to infiltrate its domestic space, it has also begun to shift into counterattack mode, targeting audiences outside of the Chinese diaspora, striking deeper into the adversary’s territory, and hitting hard,” she said.
Its mission has been to paint Beijing as inherently peaceful, an unwilling empire, and a benefit to all.
“In addition to efforts to dispel criticism of the CCP’s model of political and economic governance and of its human rights abuses,” Rolland writes, “the party-state is actively targeting foreign media, academia and business communities through the deployment of front organisations whose main purpose is the co-option of foreigners in support of Beijing’s strategic objectives.”
WEB OF SHADOWS
The AFP and ASIO said they had executed “search warrants in Sydney as part of an ongoing investigation” into Moselmane. No charges or formal allegations have been made.
“Espionage and foreign interference represent a serious threat to Australia’s sovereignty and security and the integrity of our national institutions,” Attorney-General Christian Porter said yesterday about the raids.
But Moselmane’s older brother, Shawki, was emphatic in his defence: “He’s got nothing to do with the Communist Party of China, he’s got nothing to do with China at all.”
He said recent trips to China taken by his brother had been to “help children in need”.
Experts believe Beijing is working to shape decision-making processes across the world. By doing so, it can legitimise its behaviour. It can dictate favourable terms. It can form the international order in its image.
CSIS analyst Searight details in her May report how Beijing seeks to do this: “In Australia, these methods have included monetary inducements to politicians to change their stance on key issues; sinecures to former politicians and financial support for research institutes that carry a pro-Beijing line; threats to mobilise Chinese Australian voters to punish political parties who do not support Beijing’s policy preferences; ‘astroturfing’ local grassroots organisations to give the appearance of broad support for Beijing and its policies within the Chinese Australian community; co-opting Chinese-language media and local civic organisations to promote narratives and individuals who are friendly to Beijing; and a variety of efforts to drown out or silence critics,” she noted.
Businesses with strong ties to Beijing were the biggest donors to the Labor and Liberal parties between 2013 and 2015, contributing more than $5.5 million to their coffers. Such was the ‘access’ this bought to influential political figures that ASIO felt compelled to warn political parties that the money came “with strings attached”.
A slew of scandals soon erupted.
Former Liberal Trade Minister Andrew Robb was given an $880,000-a-year contracting deal by a Chinese business the day he left office.
Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo, who founded the Australian-China Relations Institute (ACRI), threatened to pull a $400,000 donation to the Labor Party if it didn’t change its stance on the South China Sea, Four Corners alleged.
Labor Senator Sam Dastyari stood down after openly contradicting his party’s China policies and accepting Chinese money.
Then, in November 2019, self-professed Chinese intelligence operative Wang Liqiang sought the protection of Australian authorities claiming in-depth knowledge of its interference operations.
“These political scandals began to shed light on the range of ways that CCP-linked donors and proxies were seeking to exert influence, not just over political parties, but also academic campuses, research institutions, influential individuals, and groups within the ethnic Chinese community,” writes Searight.
“These efforts are designed to remain hidden from public view, often arranged indirectly through proxies, in order to create a layer of plausible deniability that makes it more difficult to nail down precisely the degree of interference and the scope of the problem.”
Soon the world saw Australia as the front-line in an emerging Chinese campaign.
“The focus of media attention has been on Australia, but the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) attempts to guide, buy, or coerce political influence abroad are widespread,” says Australian professor Anne Marie Bradie.
“China’s foreign influence activities are part of a global strategy with almost identical, longstanding approaches, adapted to fit current government policies. They are a core task of China’s united front work; one of the CCP’s famed “magic weapons” that helped bring it to power.”
New Zealand-based Professor Bradie became the target of an abusive Beijing campaign after publishing what became a seminal report on the CCP’s international influence methods, Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities Under Xi Jinping.
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (is) working to infiltrate Australian political and foreign affairs circles, as well to acquire influence over Australia’s Chinese population,” she wrote after the investigation into China’s United Front organisation.
Bradie’s house and office were burgled – but only her CCP research notes were stolen. Her car was sabotaged. She was subjected to relentless, late-night hate calls.
But her warnings, based on the experiences of New Zealand, inspired the world’s international security analysts. It threw a spotlight on a once low-profile political office, the United Front Work Department (UFWD).
Chairman Xi Jinping has called the UFWD a “magic weapon” for the “rejuvenation of the Chinese people”. Under his leadership, the department has become a major political force.
As recently as last week, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) warned the United Front network was a “covert or deceptive” means of infiltrating Australia’s political processes.
“The (CCP) is strengthening its influence by co-opting representatives of ethnic minority groups, religious movements, and business, science and political groups. It claims the right to speak on behalf of those groups and uses them to claim legitimacy,” the report reads.
“This undermines social cohesion, exacerbates racial tension, influences politics, harms media integrity, facilitates espionage, and increases unsupervised technology transfer.”
The role of the CCP in influence activities is often covert, ASPI analyst Alex Joske writes. “United front figures typically deny any links to the united front system. Australian-Chinese businessman and political donor Chau Chak Wing, for example, claimed he had never heard of the UFWD, despite mentioning it in a speech and being pictured meeting with its officials.”
The subject of an NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption investigation, Huang vanished only to reappear in China at a United Front function hosted by Chairman Xi.
And that’s the “Achilles heel” of China’s new way of warfare, Searight concludes. “If the United Front Work is a ‘magic weapon’ for Mao and Xi in their bid for internal legitimacy and foreign influence, transparency and rule of law are the magic weapons for democracies.”
HOLDING THE LINE
“While the Australia case illustrates vulnerabilities of democracies in the face of Chinese influence and interference efforts, it also showcases the strength and resilience that democracies can marshal to confront the challenge,” says Searight.
Putting inducements, threats and censorship under a public spotlight is part of the democratic antidote, she says. So are strengthened norms and laws when it comes to bribery, corruption and cooptation.
One of Australia’s ‘magic weapons’ has been its “independent and boisterous” media.
“Ultimately, Australia’s strong democratic culture, political will, and a healthy shot of transparency proved to be an antidote to Chinese intrusion into Australian domestic politics,” Searight argues.
Which is why more recent attempts to direct Australian policy and opinion have grown increasingly shrill.
“Subsequent efforts by Beijing to pressure Australia by putting diplomatic relations into a deep freeze and slowing down imports of Australian coal have also failed to dislodge public and bipartisan support for the government’s tougher stance on countering foreign influence. The swing in public opinion against China suggests that Beijing’s attempts to influence Australian policy may have backfired.”
But the ‘three wars’ are far from over, she warns.
“Australian public and government should not be lulled into complacency. The Chinese Communist party-state has made long-term investments in relationships and networks that will not be eroded overnight, and it is refining its toolbox through trial and error.”