Publishers Allen & Unwin have withdrawn a book exposing the Chinese Communist Party's activities in Australia from publication at the 11th hour after last-minute "legal advice," the book's author said in media interviews.
Charles Sturt University author and ethicist Professor Clive Hamilton said he had expected the book, which details the low-key and sometimes clandestine efforts of Chinese Communist Party agents within Australia's borders to influence public opinion, to sell well.
"The book is of enormous public interest ... and we as Australians living in a free society should not allow ourselves to be bullied into silence by an autocratic foreign power," Hamilton told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
"This really is a watershed in the debate over China's suppression of free speech," Hamilton said. "What we're seeing … is the first instance where a major Western publisher has decided to censor material of the Chinese Communist Party in its home country.
Hamilton's book, titled "Silent Invasion: How China Is Turning Australia into a Puppet State," is billed as a comprehensive analysis of the Chinese government’s methods of asserting influence in all areas of Australian society.
The author vowed to publish the book through other channels, after finding out that Allen & Unwin had canceled publication after legal advice that they could be sued for defamation by the Chinese government.
"Last week Allen & Unwin did express some legal concerns but despite that I thought they were resolved to publish it, so it was a complete shock," Hamilton told Guardian Australia.
He said his book reveals that Beijing’s overseas PR campaign is far more extensive than has been previously understood, and that it is "factual."
"If you’re going to analyze how Beijing is influencing Australian society and politics you have to analyze that activity of individuals and name names, and that’s what I’ve done," Hamilton said. "It has been meticulously researched."
Hamilton, who said he was surprised several times by the "frightening extent of communist influence" in Australia, said he had refused to go ahead with publication after the publisher suggested extensive edits to avoid the possibility of legal action.
Repeated calls to the Sydney offices of Allen & Unwin, and to the Chinese consulate in Sydney, rang unanswered on Monday.
'Agents in Australia'
Australia-based Chinese dissident Sun Liyong told RFA that Hamilton's book will likely expose a genuine phenomenon, showing Beijing's influence in Australian academic, political, commercial and media circles.
"There are a lot of Chinese Communist Party agents in Australia: people who would be willing to sue in return for a payoff from the Communist Party," Sun said. "They could easily get 10 or even 100 people to sue the publishing company."
"They could bring these lawsuits in a personal capacity, saying that the publishing company had libeled China," he said.
Australian officials have already expressed concern about "sub-espionage" levels of activity at China's instigation.
In September, Australia's Attorney General George Brandis said he plans a comprehensive review of legislation governing who can lawfully influence Australian politicians, amid fears of growing behind-the-scenes influence from Beijing.
Brandis wants Australia to pass a law similar to the United States' Foreign Agents Registration Act, ensuring that the definition covers individuals covertly lobbying, infiltrating or donating to political parties on behalf of foreign governments.
Sun said the current climate has led to a "chilling effect" when it comes to speaking out against China's human rights record.
"In recent years, very few lawmakers have spoken out about human rights in China," he said. "The authorities should take comprehensive measures to stop this infiltration by the Chinese Communist Party."
Hamilton's revelations aren't the first time that a global publishing brand has been seen to cave in to political pressure from China.
In August, the Cambridge University Press (CUP) said it had censored more than 300 articles from the China Quarterly academic journal's China website at the request of media regulators in Beijing, citing similar reasons.
However, it later reversed the decision, and refused a later request from the State Administration of Press and Publications, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) to block around 100 articles published by the Journal of Asian Studies.
Earlier this month, Springer Nature, which publishes Nature and the Scientific American, blocked access to some 1,000 journal articles to Chinese internet users because they contained banned keywords relating to political topics such as Tibet, Taiwan, or the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
The company said it had blocked the articles, all of which appeared in the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics, in keeping with "local rules and regulations."
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by He Ping for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.