Countering China’s Influence Operations: Lessons from Australia

This commentary is part of a new CSIS project exploring the impact of Russian and Chinese information operations in democratic states. Part I of the project examines Russian disinformation campaigns in the United Kingdom and Germany and Chinese disinformation campaigns in Australia and Japan. Read the piece on Germany here, on the United Kingdom here, and on Japan here.

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. Australia is a mid-sized, open, and multicultural democracy and a long-standing treaty ally of the United States. Australians, who have enjoyed three decades of uninterrupted prosperity, have good reason to welcome China’s economic rise, which has come with a voracious appetite for Australia’s exports of iron ore, coal, and other minerals. China now buys about one-third of everything that Australia sells to the world, and China also sends large numbers of students and tourists to Australia. Chinese students studying at Australian universities account for about 17 percent of total revenue for nine leading universities, while Chinese tourists spend about AU$11 billion in Australia annually. 

The question of whether and how Australia can continue to balance its diverging economic and security partnerships—its growing economic dependence on China and its long-standing alliance relationship with the United States—has been a topic of scholarly debate in Australia for quite some time. However the question of how Australia should manage its relationship with China took on new urgency when stories came to light about Beijing’s attempts to influence Australian politics and interfere with civil society debate. First came revelations about large political donations from ethnic Chinese linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that were being used to try to alter the China policy of major Australian political parties. One popular politician was drummed out of parliament after it was revealed that he pandered to Chinese-language media on South China Sea policy and warned his CCP-linked political patron about government surveillance. Then came questions about China’s growing influence in Australian universities and about CCP-linked efforts to coopt Chinese-language media and civic groups in the Chinese Australian community. 

These scandals and revelations ignited a firestorm in Australian politics. Prominent current and former politicians, leading commentators, business and university leaders, scholars, and voices in the Chinese Australian community lined up on different sides of a national debate over how serious a challenge Chinese influence posed to Australian democracy. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spearheaded legislation to crack down on foreign interference, which passed in the Australian parliament with strong bipartisan support, and the government subsequently announced a ban on Huawei and ZTE from Australia’s 5G network. Beijing responded with a diplomatic freeze and a slowdown on coal imports from Australia.

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. But what exactly are the lessons of the Australia case for other advanced democracies and other countries in the region?

The Nature of Chinese Influence Operations

The Australia case illustrates how China’s efforts to influence and shape public discourse and political outcomes within targeted countries go well beyond the kinds of legitimate public diplomacy that all governments engage in. Public diplomacy typically entails government-led efforts to communicate with foreign publics in order to boost the country’s image and build foreign public support for the government’s strategic objectives. These are transparent, above-board efforts to enhance soft power or persuade foreign publics on a particular issue by bringing forth information and new perspectives.

However, when a foreign power seeks to influence a country’s internal public debate and political system through unofficial channels in ways that are opaque, deceptive, or manipulative, we have left the realm of legitimate public diplomacy. Prime Minister Turnbull defined behavior that is “covert, coercive, or corrupting” as “the line that separates legitimate influence from unacceptable interference.” The “3 C’s” framework is useful for capturing what is distinctive and problematic with methods used by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) party-state system in pursuit of its strategic objectives. 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 mobilize Chinese Australian voters to punish political parties who do not support Beijing’s policy preferences; “astroturfing” local grassroots organizations to give the appearance of broad support for Beijing and its policies within the Chinese Australian community; coopting Chinese-language media and local civic organizations to promote narratives and individuals who are friendly to Beijing; and a variety of efforts to drown out or silence critics. 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.

The wave of influence operations in Australia has also thrown a spotlight on a once little-known department within the CCP, the United Front Work Department (UFWD). Under Xi Jinping, who calls the UFWD a “magic weapon” for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people, United Front work has been dramatically expanded and elevated within the party. As described by Laura Rosenberger and John Garnaut, “the UFWD guides and controls an elaborate network of proxies and front organizations” which are used to reward, intimidate, surveil, and coopt the overseas Chinese community—its civic and business associations, student groups, and Chinese language media—as well as academic institutions, politicians, and others with influence. The goal is to “win hearts and minds” of overseas Chinese and other influential targets and unite them in support of the CCP and its goals while neutralizing critics.

Beijing’s “Agents of Influence” and the Media Firestorm

A major figure in the wave of revelations and scandals that would rock Australia’s media and political world was Huang Xiangmo, a billionaire property developer from China who came to Australia in 2011 and quickly gained permanent residency and political clout. Huang was a major political donor to both the Labor and Liberal parties and also gave generously to Australian universities, including a AU$1.8 million donation to the University of Technology Sydney in 2014 to set up the Australian-China Relations Institute (ACRI). ACRI was described by its director, former Foreign Minister Bob Carr, as taking an “unabashedly positive and optimistic view of the Australia-China relationship,” and Carr became a frequent defender of Beijing. Huang was also chair of the UFWD-linked Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC). Although the ACPPRC claims to be an independent civic organization, its leadership selection and activities are closely guided by the Chinese embassy in Canberra and local Chinese consulates. 

Huang first came under media scrutiny when the ACPRRC organized a press conference for Senator Sam Dastyari, a rising politician in the Labor Party, in the weeks leading up to an early July 2016 federal election. Standing next to Huang, Dastyari told the assembled Chinese-language media that “the South China Sea is China’s own affair,” and that Australia should “respect China’s decision.” He added that the Labor Party, “as a friend of China” would help maintain the relationship by “knowing when it is and isn’t our place to be involved.” This was a much different line than the position taken the day before by Labor Party Shadow Minister Stephen Conroy, who had condemned China’s “absurd” island building and stated unequivocally that a Labor government would authorize freedom of navigation operations.

Dastyari denied making the remarks when asked by Australian reporters several weeks later, although audio released in late 2017 confirmed that he had. But the image of him at the press event flanked by Huang, who had controversially paid his legal bills, along with news reports that another ethnic Chinese donor with CCP ties had covered a travel bill, created a political outcry in Canberra that forced Dastyari to apologize and step down from his fronthbench party position. Dastyari had not broken any laws, since foreign donations were allowed under federal Australian campaign laws, but they had the “whiff of corruption,” in the words of a Liberal party senator. 

The Dastyari affair launched a period of growing media investigations into the linkages between CCP-linked money and politicians, which uncovered that China-linked businesses were the largest donors to both the Labor and Liberal parties, donating more than AU$5.5 million between 2013 and 2015. It was also reported that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had grown increasingly concerned about large Chinese political donors acting as agents on behalf of Beijing and that the head of the ASIO, Duncan Lewis, had personally warned top officials of the major political parties in late 2015 about several donors whose contributions may come “with strings attached” that could pose a risk national security. 

And the bombshell media stories kept coming. It emerged that a wealthy Chinese donor with close ties to the CCP, who would later be revealed to be Huang Xiangmo, threatened to cancel a promised AU$400,000 donation to the Labor party if the party did not soften its stance on the South China Sea. The threat was made in response to Conroy’s statement supporting freedom of navigation operations, a threat which was rebuffed by Conroy and other Labor leaders, but it threw Dastyari’s reported remarks in support of China in an even more troubling light. Dastyari was forced to resign from parliament in December 2017 when it was revealed that he had warned Huang that his cell phone was likely being tapped by Australian and U.S. intelligence services, just hours after the full audio of his remarks at the ACPPRC press event were leaked to the media.  

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. One prominent former politician, former Trade Minister Andrew Robb, had been given a lucrative contracting deal worth AU$880,000 a year by a Chinese billionaire the day he left office. News reports also focused on stories about how overseas Chinese students were being surveilled and organized by local consulates to pump up patriotic, pro-party messages on college campuses while stifling dissent. Growing media scrutiny also

began to reveal the ways that the CCP and the network of United Front-backed organizations had made long-term investments in cultivating and coopting the ethnic Chinese community in Australia.

The barrage of revelations and allegations of Chinese malign influence activities in Australia touched off an intense national debate just as Prime Minister Turnbull announced draft legislation to counter foreign interference and espionage. Many in the business and academic communities argued that fears over Chinese influence were being exaggerated and would unnecessarily harm cooperative relations with Australia’s largest trade partner. Many in the broader ethnic Chinese community felt that they were being unfairly targeted and viewed with suspicion and that their loyalties were being called into question because of the actions of a handful of CCP-linked individuals. But the political ground had shifted decisively, and broad public support emerged for taking a tougher stance on foreign interference, giving the government leeway to enact sweeping reforms. 

Why Did China Target Australia? 

Australia was an attractive target for CCP operations because of its strategic value as a U.S. ally in an increasingly contested Asia-Pacific region. If China could sideline Australia from taking active part in efforts to constrain Chinese maritime behavior, it would sharply undercut American regional leadership and strengthen China’s hand in pursuing its ambitions in the South China Sea and more broadly.  

Australia also offered some tantalizing vulnerabilities for Beijing. Its economic dependence on China as a trade partner provides a natural constituency of support in the business community, which consistently advocated for a cooperative relationship with China. The growing financial dependence of Australian universities on tuition revenue from Chinese students and research funding from generous CCP-linked patrons created a base of support within the upper echelons of academia as well—although certainly not all university leaders have been uncritical of China in the face of the widening aperture of CCP influence activities. 

Two other notable features made Australia particularly vulnerable among advanced democracies, at least in the eyes of Beijing. First, Australia was one of the few advanced democracies in the world that did not prohibit campaign donations from foreigners, creating a wide-open loophole for wealthy Chinese political benefactors with links to the CCP to inject large amounts of money into political campaigns.  

Second, Australia has a large community of ethnic Chinese Australian citizens, who are natural targets for United Front activity. Nearly 5 percent of Australians have Chinese ancestry, and the voting weight of this group is augmented by the fact that a proportionally higher number live in several key battleground electoral districts in Melbourne and Sydney, where Chinese Australians represent up to 15 percent of the voting base. It is in these Chinese Australian communities where the CCP and UFWD have worked for decades to cultivate close ties with Beijing. They have done so by coopting Chinese community organizations and providing supportive networks for people sympathetic to Beijing to rise in local prominence while also filtering out negative media coverage in Chinese-language press and drowning out critics.  

The Strength of Australian Democracy

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. First and foremost among Australia’s strengths is an independent and boisterous free press. Journalists from print and televised media launched aggressive investigations into many facets of Chinese influence and brought to light many troubling incidents that, taken as a whole, painted a disturbing picture of Beijing’s efforts to create channels of influence to distort and manipulate Australia’s internal debate and foreign policy decisions. Once these issues were surfaced by the media, a vibrant public debate ensued, and over time public opinion moved decisively against China. A 2019 Lowy Institute poll found that less than one-third of Australians trust China to act responsibly in the world, down from 54 percent in 2017.

Australia’s swift political response is also notable. Campaign finance, counter-interference, and espionage laws were enacted in 2018 that banned foreign donations, created transparency and disclosure requirements for lobbyists or others acting on behalf of foreign governments, and toughened sanctions and enforcement provisions. Alongside the counter-interference laws,   a new coordinating office was created with the mandate to formulate a comprehensive strategy and follow up on specific cases of foreign interference that emerge through intelligence or other channels. 

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. Australia has not softened its South China Sea policy, and it remains a firm ally of the United States, despite the unpopularity of President Trump in Australia. 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.

However, the 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 tool box through trial and error. The Australian government is only in the beginning stages of formulating a comprehensive and effective counter-strategy, and it is helpfully sharing its lessons and current approach to countering malign influence with other democracies.  

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. Shining light on the shadowy web of inducements, threats, cooptation, and self-censorship that actuates Chinese influence is a first step, and a very important one. Democratic governments may also need to strengthen laws, while democratic societies need to strengthen norms that reduce the scope for bribery, corruption, and cooptation. This may entail tackling uncomfortable issues for democratic systems, such as how to identify subtle forms of influence, how to be evidence-based but not overly naïve, and how to avoid unfairly impugning ethnic Chinese communities. But in contrast to many countries in China’s immediate neighborhood that lack strong institutions and commitment to rule of law, transparency, and democratic norms, advanced democracies such as Australia have some advantages to bring to this challenge and should leverage their strengths to combat malign influence.

This commentary was made possible by the Information Access Fund (IAF) administered by the Democracy Council of California. The opinions, conclusions, or recommendations contained herein are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies or endorsements, either express or implied, of the IAF or the U.S. government.

Amy Searight is a senior associate for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Amy Searight