Sino-Australian relations have been deteriorating since 2017, when suspicions of covert attempts to influence from the Government of China in several sectors of Australian society erupted, accusations which China has rejected. However, this dispute between the two countries began by having as a main subject political statements of disagreement by Australian authorities, both in relation to China’s actions in the South China Sea (chiefly its claims over the nine-dash line), and to the role of the US in the region, as well as to the Chinese political system characteristics. In 2020, this tension worsened with the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic, as Australia led a group of countries that requested an investigation of its origin, due to suspicions of negligence and lack of transparency by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
These suspicions are particularly relevant due to the close commercial ties between the two countries. Since the 1990s, Australia intertwined its economy with China’s economy, becoming extremely dependent and weakened in the event of a trade war – in this sense, the risks of its engagement with initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have been discussed as they can accentuate this dangerous dependency. According to a study by the Reserve Bank of Australia, if China’s GDP falls by 5% Australia’s will fall by about half that amount. In addition, Australian companies that work with Chinese counterparts know that they can suffer retaliation from Beijing if they are critical of the CCP’s policies, and the Chinese students community in Australia represents almost 40% of the foreign college students in the country.
The heart of the controversy is the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which is a coalition of groups and individuals working to fulfill the CCP’S political goals, acting through several agencies, social organizations, companies, universities, scientific institutes and individuals in contact with these groups. Their announced aim is to ‘’unite ethnic, religious, social and political groups’’, both in China and in Chinese communities abroad, to ‘’help the CCP to materialize the Chinese dream’’. However, according to a comprehensive study by Alex Joske on UFWD, published in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), this coalition is an instrument for the CCP to strengthen its international influence through co-optation, both of ethnic minority groups and religious movements, as in business, science and politics. According to this study, this co-optation is mainly achieved by infiltrating, among others, foreign political parties, diaspora communities and multinational corporations.
Xi jinping restored the UFWD in 2014, which he characterized as an ‘’important magic weapon to strengthen the party’s government position’’ and “an important magic weapon for realising the China Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, giving special importance to the role of technology. On the other hand, a 2018 foreign policy editorial by People’s Daily clarifies the importance it places on the ‘’super advantages of China’s party system, which ‘’illuminated the whole world’’, concluding: ‘’it is well known in the world that a well-established China governance is of greater importance, given the chaos in Western society’’. This mentality reverberates in UFWD’s staff training material, in which it is warned that ‘’Western hostile forces’’ seek to overthrow the CCP and that their influence on the Chinese abroad must be undone.
This concern with UFWD’s influence in Australia is largely related to its ‘’concealed and deceptive’’ methods to subvert its population ideologically and politically. Here are some examples of how it manifests in Australia:
- Huang Xiangmo, a magnate and property developer who made several major donations to political parties in Australia, had his Australian citizenship application rejected in 2019 and his permanent residence in the country revoked, when Australian security agencies determined he was a threat to national security due to its links with UFWD. Xiangmo was director of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification (CCPPNR), administered by UFWD and chaired by Wang Yang, who, like Xiangmo, became a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CCPPC) and is a member of the Standing Committee Politburo – which supervises the UFWD.
- Former Labor Party senator Sam Dastyiari, who defended Chinas’ claims and actions in the South China Sea, announced his resignation from parliament in late 2017, after Huang Xiangmo warned him that he would be under surveillance of Australian intelligence agencies. Before that, he had already been criticized for having accepted political funding from the magnate. According to an investigation by Fairfax Media, he also tried to pressure his party’s foreign affairs spokesman not to meet with Chinese activist Joseph Cheng YU-shek, who opposes Beijing over its interference in Hong Kong.
- A joint investigation by ABC Four Corners and Fairfax Media in 2017 scrutinized the ties of Chau Chak Wing, a magnate who is one of the major donors to Australian political parties and a member of the CCPPC, with the UFWD. Wing denied knowing the agency, but the investigation provided several photographic examples in which he appears with members of the agency. Moreover, China is responsible for the largest number of foreign political donations in Australia.
- Sheri Yan, a Sino-Australian lobbyist investigated for espionage by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), who was sentenced to 20 months in prison in 2016 for bribing a UN official, and was in 2019 a target of Chinese authorities to run for office in the Australian parliament, according to an ASIO investigation died of undetermined causes.
- Wang Liqiang claims to have defected from his role as a spy for the CCP. In an interview with 60 Minutes Australia, he details the operations in which he claims to have been involved, including the ideological conversion of university students against democratic movements, through the elevation of patriotism.
- At Universities: In 2019, a student in Brisbane participated in a demonstration in support of anti-CCP protests in Hong Kong and a few days later his family was visited by the authorities in China. Drew Pavlou, a student and activist at the University of Queensland, critical of the CCP, was banned from UQ campuses. Moreover, it is estimated that China spends 10 billion dollars a year in about 500 Confucius institutes, for their funding at universities around the world. These centers must comply with CCP regulations, avoiding the discussion of topics critical to the party.
- In the media: several international companies are controlled by China News Service, including Australia’s Pacific Media Group and Chau Chak Wing’s Australian New Express Daily. Online news in Australia, on the other hand, have gained prominence in the younger Chinese-speaking public, mainly through the WeChat application, but its content is monitored and regulated by Chinese authorities. Finally, the Forum on the Global Chinese Language Media is a biannual event that aims to create ties between China and the international media.
Currently, uncertainty and insecurity in Australian politics remains, while facing the dilemma of how to deal with China’s growing authoritarian power, as an essential partner to Australia’s economy. On the other hand, China’s soft power tools, such as UFWD, have become essential to control information about the CCP and prevent the discussion of harmful political issues, in a mission of a markedly ideological nature. Although the Australian response may involve diversifying its trading partners, its biggest challenge is at the macro level: Australia wants an economically integrated Asia, in which the regional military balance remains stable and organized, protected by a security system with the participation of the US. The question is how Australia can achieve this long-term goal, given its limited resources and dependence on both major powers; as well as understanding the viability of China’s soft power strategies in their relationship with other powers.