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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 Front as well as a number of other agencies, such as the People’s Liberation Army Liaison Department, which is responsible for “political warfare.”
Under President Xi Jinping’s assertive leadership, China has become adept at operating in what a recent report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments called “the gray zones” of democratic societies—the areas between state and nonstate, peace and war, overt and covert, domestic and foreign. The new laws aim to turn some of the gray zones into black ones.
Australia is vulnerable to covert influence from China in part because of its large Chinese diaspora (between four and five percent of the population), whose loyalty the Chinese Communist Party works hard to gain and then to keep. Australia’s economic dependence on China has also created an influential group of Australian business executives, politicians, academics, and commentators who are sympathetic to Chinese interests.
Australia’s economic dependence on China has also created an influential group of business executives, politicians, academics, and commentators who are sympathetic to Chinese interests.
I found myself at the sharp end of Beijing’s influence when my publisher, Allen & Unwin, suddenly decided to drop publication of my book exposing the extent of Chinese influence in Australia. Although it had previously been enthusiastic, Allen & Unwin cited fear of retribution from Beijing, specifically the risk of vexatious defamation actions by Chinese Communist Party sympathizers in Australia. Beijing’s use of “lawfare” against its critics in the West is an example of its exploitation of democratic rights to undermine democracy.
When Allen & Unwin dropped my book, the message went out to the rest of the publishing industry in Australia, which stayed away in droves, except for one, Hardie Grant, willing to take the risk in defense of free speech. The fear now is that Australian scholars, worried they will not find a publisher, may shy away from books too critical of the Chinese Communist Party.
Under the new law, activities in support of China will not be illegal unless they are “covert, coercive or corrupt,” the line the government has drawn between legitimate influence and unacceptable interference. But the government has also enacted a new foreign influence transparency scheme that will require anyone acting on behalf of a foreign principal (a state, state-owned corporation, or company believed to have links to a government) to register publicly.
In addition to broadening the definition of espionage, the new foreign interference legislation bans less direct forms of influence. It prohibits conduct that is directed, funded, or supervised by a foreign principal (or someone acting on its behalf) and is intended to influence a political or governmental process or the exercise of a democratic or political right or to prejudice national security and is covert or involves deception or threats.
The first draft of the bill didn’t do enough to protect the rights of journalists, academics, and whistleblowers, but after a thorough parliamentary review, the bill was extensively amended to satisfy its critics before it was passed into law in June.
Some examples, modeled on actual events, give an idea of the kinds of activities that will likely become criminal offenses under the new legislation and will be subject to heavy jail terms. A wealthy donor with demonstrable links to Chinese Communist Party agencies privately threatens to withdraw a promised large donation to a political party unless it changes its policy on the South China Sea. An organization acting at the behest of a Chinese consulate mobilizes its members to disrupt a legitimate demonstration by supporters of Tibetan autonomy and intimidate those taking part. In the midst of an election campaign, a person aligned to a United Front group, and in consultation with a Chinese consulate, circulates a letter within the ethnic Chinese community denouncing one candidate or party as “anti-China” and urging the community to vote for the other.
The new law gives a broad definition of foreign interference, but it will not capture everything. A range of foreign interference or influence operations hostile to Australia’s national interests will evade it. A wealthy person with close but hidden links to the Chinese Communist Party could still fund the establishment of a think tank at an Australian university and choose its director without falling afoul of the law. That would be the case even if the founding principles, expectations, and structure of the think tank are all sympathetic to Beijing.
In another scenario, imagine a former prime minister is invited onto the board of an important institution in China. He soon begins to see the world through “Chinese” eyes. A leading opinion maker at home, he argues Beijing’s case consistently, often reproducing propaganda points from official state media. Although he would not be caught by the interference law, he might be required to register under the new transparency scheme.
Or take a wealthy businesswoman with close links to the Chinese Communist Party who buys up Chinese-language newspapers and changes their editorial orientation to promote Chinese interests, including where they conflict with Australia’s official position. The newspaper stirs up patriotic Chinese students to report their lecturers and encourages its readers to attend pro-Beijing demonstrations. Here, too, the businesswoman would have done nothing illegal.
Finally, imagine an official from a Chinese consulate complains to a university about a lecturer who referred to Taiwan as an independent country. If the university reminded the lecturer that although she was free to say what she liked in class, she should keep in mind that the university derived hundreds of millions of dollars from Chinese students, it would face no problems under the new law.
Although these kinds of cases do not involve illegality, there are things the Australian government could do. It might issue a stern warning to universities. It might call in the Chinese ambassador to reiterate that interference in Australia’s domestic affairs will not be tolerated. Over the last year, widespread media attention to Chinese interference and influence has made Australians much more aware of China’s covert activities and more ready to call them out.
Some among Australia’s political and business elites, and even some China scholars, remain blind to the dangers despite the mountain of evidence, including public warnings from Duncan Lewis, the head of ASIO, that foreign interference and espionage are “extensive, unrelenting and increasingly sophisticated.” Each major revelation makes those who, in the words of an open letter from several China scholars, “see no evidence” of Chinese interference more estranged from the truth and marginalized from the debate.
The Australian government has done little to explain to the public why the laws are necessary. Nevertheless, Beijing’s interference activities have received intense media coverage, which helps explain why the opposition Labor Party decided not to oppose them even though powerful elements within the party have fallen under Beijing’s sway.
After the 9/11 attacks and the rise of Islamist terrorism, ASIO ran down its counterespionage capabilities in favor of counterterrorism. But that move has allowed new forms of subversion to flourish unchecked. The agency is now shifting its priorities to countering foreign subversion.
The new laws are not retroactive. Yet intelligence and enforcement agencies are reportedly gearing up to seek prosecutions of those they suspect are currently violating the new rules. The first cases will be crucial, both for determining how judges interpret the new legislation and for allowing the public an insight into the inner workings of the contemporary world of foreign interference.
Successful criminal prosecutions will also serve as a powerful deterrent, making it more difficult for any country to influence government processes or the exercise of political rights in Australia.
In addition, the new transparency scheme will, for the first time, ensure the Australian public has greater insight into the activities of those attempting to influence domestic policy and debate on behalf of a foreign power.
Other countries are taking note. Australia is at the forefront of China’s global interference strategy, but Beijing’s target list is a long one. Foreign governments are scrutinizing Australia’s moves with a view to mimicking them if they prove effective. In the United States, a few close observers recognize (at least in private) that, alarming as Russia’s interference in U.S. politics seems, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s gambit may prove a distraction from the more enduring subversion being carried out by the United States’ real rival.