Australia's Fight Against Chinese Political Interference

What Its New Laws Will Do

Turnbull and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Sixth Australia-China CEO Roundtable Meeting in Sydney, March 2017. REUTERS

Last December, while introducing legislation to outlaw foreign interference in Australian politics, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told the Australian Parliament that the scale of the threat to Australian democracy and sovereignty from foreign influence campaigns was “unprecedented.” Turnbull did not name any country in particular, but the proposed laws were clearly aimed primarily at Chinese covert interference. This June, the Australian Parliament passed the legislation.

Over the past few years, Australia’s intelligence and security agencies have become increasingly frustrated at the inadequacy of the country’s espionage laws and have felt impotent in the face of the new threat from foreign interference, which has blossomed since the end of the Cold War. When it proposed the new legislation, the Turnbull government noted that existing laws did not target behavior by foreign governments that “falls short of espionage but is intended to harm Australia’s national security or influence Australia’s political or governmental processes.” That impunity, it said, had created “a permissive operating environment for malicious foreign actors.” 

Although all major countries still recruit spooks to steal secrets, old-school spying has been overtaken by new kinds of intelligence and influence operations. China has played this game particularly aggressively. As one senior Australian national security official put it, China’s operations against Australia amount to a “full-court press.”

The new legislation follows extensive news reporting exposing the activities of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, whose brief is “to make the foreign serve China” and which is actively recruiting agents of influence among Australia’s elites and using them to promote favorable views of China. The Australian government also had its eyes opened by classified briefings from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, on the extent of Chinese interference. 

The new forms of subversion are being carried out by a wide range of foreign government agencies, not just intelligence services. In the case of China, this means the activities of the United

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