Australia’s democratic institutions have proven to be an “antidote” to Beijing’s extensive infiltration operations and a case study for countries on how to expose and repel the communist regime’s United Front Work Department.
In 2014, Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s declared the influence activities of the United Front one of the regime’s “magic weapons.”
A new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found Australia’s free press, intelligence services, political will, along with lively public debate, worked in concert to expose and negate Xi’s “magic weapons.”
Amy Searight, author of the report, says Australia is targeted as part of a grander scheme to undermine the United States’ regional dominance in the Pacific.
As one of the United States’ closest allies, driving a wedge in the U.S.-Australia alliance would “sharply undercut American regional leadership.”
As a result, Australia soon became a “canary in the coalmine” for Beijing’s influence activities.
Over the last decade, Australia has been exposed to the full spectrum of Beijing’s United Front activities aimed at influencing politicians, business elites, the Chinese-speaking diaspora, and universities.
In recent times, Australia has been entrenched in a Beijing-instigated trade dispute, which has seen the regime slap tariffs on barley imports and ban beef imports from four major abattoirs.
The combined effect of these actions has instead “hardened” Australia’s resistance to political interference and cultivated a government willing to take active steps to counteract Beijing.
Watchful Intelligence Agencies Raise the Alarm
The report pointed to the early efforts by Australia’s intelligence services who sounded the “alarm bells” around foreign interference.
In 2015, the director of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Duncan Lewis, personally warned the heads of three major political parties about accepting donations from Chinese businessmen with links to Beijing.
Media were made privy to updates on their investigations with intelligence officers “leaking information” at opportune moments. This helped trigger a national debate that gradually intensified.
By 2016, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commissioned a year-long investigation into Chinese influence activities which revealed a decade long campaign by Beijing to compromise major political parties.
Lewis continued to be vocal on the issue, warning the public in 2018 that the level of foreign interference in the country was “unprecedented.” In 2019, Lewis again warned that Australia faced “an existential threat.”
After his retirement, the former spy boss revealed Beijing was the issue that “overwhelmingly” kept the nation’s intelligence agencies preoccupied.
Journalists Join the Fray Exposing Dark Underbelly of Interference
“Perhaps the most critical role in shaping the Australian response was played by Australia’s independent and boisterous free press,” wrote Searight.
The CSIS report said “aggressive investigations” by key journalists into the “murky networks of Chinese influence” helped paint a picture of Beijing’s efforts to “distort and manipulate Australia’s internal debate and foreign policy decisions.”
The downfall of up-and-coming Labor Party Senator Sam Dastyari can be attributed to a 2017 joint investigation by Fairfax Media and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation into his relationship with controversial businessman and United Front figure Huang Xiangmo.
The story was arguably the “scandal that broke the issue” of CCP influence and placed it front and centre of national debate. The program revealed a litany of interactions between Dastyari and Huang, eventually leading to the senator’s resignation.
Huang arrived in Australia in 2011 “in near-total obscurity” until “big spending and relentless networking behind closed doors” saw him build a network of political friends and allies.
The investigation revealed Huang donated more than $1 million (US$724,000) to the two major political parties apiece, and donated $1.8 million (US$1.3 million) to the University of Technology Sydney which established an Australia-China research centre. Huang also paid several of Dastyari’s legal and travel expenses to the tune of $5,000.
In 2016, Huang withdrew a $400,000 (US$288,000) donation to the Labor Party in response to then-Opposition Defence Minister Stephen Conroy’s comments that Beijing’s island-building activities in the South China Sea were “absurd.”
Just a day later, Dastyari addressed a press conference comprised of Chinese-language media outlets saying Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea was “China’s own affair.” His comments directly contradicted his party’s stance on the issue.
Dastyari also made four approaches to the immigration department inquiring about Huang’s citizenship application. The final nail in the coffin came when it was revealed the senator had warned Huang that his phone was being tapped by Australian intelligence services.
Under a firestorm of criticism, Dastyari resigned from Parliament. Huang’s Australian citizenship application was subsequently denied, and his permanent residency stripped.
Despite the damning revelations surrounding the Dastyari affair and other Beijing-connected interference activities, the report found:
“What perhaps is more unusual in the case of Australia is the strikingly large number of former political leaders, and [business leaders] who have become exceedingly friendly to Beijing and have become fixtures in the public debate …”
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating criticised security agencies in 2019 calling them “nutters” for their attitude towards the CCP. Keating was an international advisor to China Development Bank when he made those comments.
More recently, West Australian business leaders Andrew Forrest and Kerry Stokes criticised the federal government’s calls for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. Forrest and Stokes have extensive business relationships in China.
Political Willingness Emerges from Public Debate
Although pro-Beijing viewpoints were aired by prominent individuals, it was not able to stem the growing mistrust in the communist regime by the Australian public.
The CSIS report commended the Liberal government for introducing a series of new laws to counter foreign interference, many of which were passed with bipartisan support.
In 2018, the Turnbull government passed legislation banning political donations from foreign entities and requiring individuals to disclose if they are acting on behalf of a foreign country.
The succeeding Morrison government established a new taskforce in 2019 to ensure compliance. While another taskforce was set up to oversee and protect the university sector.
On June 26, the foreign interference laws were deployed by the Australian Federal Police in a dramatic morning raid on the home of state-level Member of Parliament Shaoquett Moselmane in Sydney. No charges have been laid yet.
Australia took the lead and became the first nation in the world to ban Huawei from participating in its 5G network. In 2020, it was the first to call for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak—enraging Beijing.
“Ultimately, Australia’s strong democratic culture, political will, and a healthy shot of transparency proved to be an antidote to Chinese meddling in Australian domestic politics,” the report stated.
Other noteworthy factors contributing to Australia’s stance on Beijing stem from its geographic isolation (far from major allies) and the values bestowed by the “ANZAC spirit” which honours the contributions of fallen soldiers in past wars.
“Subsequent efforts by Beijing to pressure Australia … failed to dislodge strong public and bipartisan support for the government’s tougher stance on countering foreign influence and demanding transparency.”