Interview: ‘Australia is a Very Valuable Prize For The CCP’

An Australian author describes China’s efforts to build political influence in his home country.

Author Clive Hamilton in an undated photo.

Australian author and professor of public ethics Clive Hamilton’s new book, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, was initially turned down by three publishers citing fears of reprisals from Beijing. Finally published in February 2018, Silent Invasion investigates the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) influence and interference operations in Australia, the structure of the party’s overseas influence network, and the techniques it uses. In the book, Hamilton asserts that Australia’s elites, and parts of the country’s large Chinese-Australian diaspora, have been mobilized by Beijing to gain access to politicians, limit academic freedom, intimidate critics, gather information for Chinese intelligence agencies, and organize protests against Australian government policy. He recently spoke with RFA’s Uyghur Service about what he believes are China’s soft power goals in Australia.

RFA: Why did you choose the word “invasion” for your title?

Clive Hamilton: I'm really talking about an invasion of the influence of the CCP into Australia and throughout Australia's political and social institutions. And it's a silent invasion because it has been done secretly, covertly, underneath the radar. And that's why it's so insidious ... the influence of the Chinese Communist Party has been secretive and subtle.

RFA: China’s emergence as a new economic power comes amid the expansion of its influence as a “soft power.” How does soft power help China to silence overseas dissidents and criticism of the CCP?

Clive Hamilton: Beijing's objective is to ... pacify criticism of Beijing's actions and Beijing's policies. If it succeeds in doing that through this campaign of influence in Australia, it will essentially make Australia not so much a client state, but a country which is unwilling to resist whatever Beijing does—for example, in the South China Sea—and essentially succumbs to Beijing's demands. And we've already seen some of that happening in the business community and in the political arena. Beijing already exerts a great deal of influence in our major political parties, especially the Labor Party. So that is what I was drawing attention to in the book.

I think for many years the first objective of the Chinese Communist Party in Australia was to silence dissenting and critical voices in the Chinese-Australian community and from groups like those calling for Tibetan and Uyghur autonomy, and of course Falun Gong, and they have been extremely successful over the last 15 or 20 years in silencing those groups and marginalizing them from the mainstream of political discussion in Australia. But then I realized that was only part of the story or the first phase, that the CCP ... wanted to not only silence those critical voices—whether it be Uyghurs or Tibetans or pro-democracy activists in Australia—it wanted to build on that, especially making use of the Chinese-Australian community to build its political influence in the mainstream of Australian society, and that is why it targeted the main political parties and intellectuals and the media in Australia and has made some considerable inroads. Although in recent months, many people in Australia are starting to wake up to what is happening and there are significant moves to push back against Beijing's intrusions into this country.

RFA: In 2009, a documentary telling the life story of Uyghur exile leader Rebiya Kadeer was screened at the Melbourne Film Festival, despite strong objections from the Chinese government. People are worried about these kinds of objections leading to self-censorship in Australia. How do you link this kind of behavior with the ongoing Chinese “invasion” of Australia?

Clive Hamilton: I think sometimes successful attempts by the Chinese government to restrict what Australians see at the movies, or read in books or newspapers is outrageous. It fundamentally goes against the democratic principles which Australia is built on. And it distresses me enormously that sometimes Beijing succeeds in its attempts in Australia and it distresses me even more when governments in Australia go along with that. I think that there is a growing awareness among the population in Australia that this is really intolerable. And I think that it will become increasingly difficult for governments to turn a blind eye to Beijing's attempts to influence what we in Australia see at the movies or read in newspapers or in books.

RFA: Some scholars argue that you mischaracterize a culture clash as an “invasion” in Australia. How do you respond to this assertion?

Clive Hamilton: My book has been welcomed very strongly and enthusiastically by many Chinese-Australians in this country, because they ... are the biggest victims of Beijing's influence and intrusion in this country. So I think that any Chinese scholars who say that Beijing's influence is really a spread of Chinese culture, that's something we can welcome ... But not if it's Chinese Communist Party culture and not if it's the political power of the Communist Party that's being veiled behind so-called "Chinese culture" as a way of manipulating this country and the way that Beijing tries to manipulate other countries. Many China scholars in Australia have come out an endorsed, in an open letter, exactly the kinds of claims that I am making in my book.

RFA: What might be China’s final goal or motivation in Australia?

Clive Hamilton: I think the Communist Party and especially now under President Xi Jinping sees China as a hegemonic power that wants to dominate Asia and that includes Australia. Australia is a very valuable prize for the CCP because we are an advanced Western nation allied to the United States at the end of the Southeast Asian region. So if Beijing can control Australia, they've won an enormous strategic advantage against the United States. That's why they've put so much effort into trying to influence Australia.

RFA: China’s government is increasing its investments in Australia. What role do you see trade and the economy playing in an expansion of China’s “invasion” of the country?

Clive Hamilton: The Chinese Communist Party is a master at using economic blackmail to gain political and security goals in other countries. And, of course, we've seen that kind of blackmail exerted particularly strongly on South Korea and Taiwan and Japan. In Australia, it's been the threat of it, rather than actual attempts at blackmail, so far, but Australian politicians and businesspeople are very, very afraid of what Beijing might do if we take any measure that displeases it. Because people know that Beijing is capable of causing a great deal of economic pain to other countries when they are acting ways it doesn't like, Australian decision-makers are very wary and constrain their own actions in ways that satisfy Beijing because they see what Beijing might do. It's a very effective way of exerting influence.

Reporting by Kurban Niyaz for RFA's Uyghur Service.