Australia is the canary in the coal mine of Chinese Communist Party interference. Over the past 18 months, the country has been shaken by allegations of the Chinese party-state working to covertly manipulate the Australian political system and curate the wider political landscape. There are claims of Beijing-linked political donors buying access and influence, universities being co-opted as “propaganda vehicles,” and Australian-funded scientific research being diverted to aid the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Most notoriously, an ambitious young senator, Sam Dastyari, was exposed for parroting Communist Party talking points and giving countersurveillance advice to a Chinese political donor before being hounded into premature retirement.
The scandals might seem odd. Few countries on the planet have benefited as clearly from China as Australia has. Its society has been enriched by waves of Chinese migrants and sojourners for 160 years. Its national income grew as much as 13 percent in a single decade as a result of China’s resource-intensive construction boom, according to the Australian Reserve Bank. And an easing of the resources boom has been offset by the spending power of 180,000 Chinese students and a million tourists each year, along with hundreds of thousands of migrants who have mostly thrived in their new country.
Yet these are the very ingredients that make Australia’s debate over Chinese influence so interesting. Nobody knows what happens when a mid-sized, open, multicultural nation stands its ground against a rising authoritarian superpower that accounts for one in every three of its export dollars. Even the firebrand editorial writers of China’s tabloid press seem unsure. “Australia calls itself a civilized country, but its behavior is confusing,” The Global Times wrote. “While it is economically dependent on China, it shows little gratitude.”
The Australian conversation has evolved from amorphous anxieties about Chinese influence and soft power into more precise concerns about covert interference by the Chinese Communist Party. Media reports are shedding light upon a hidden world of inducements, threats, and plausible deniability. They reveal a dimension of risk that sits between the poles of economic attraction and military force, which Western Sinologists, diplomats, and national security officials had not previously focused on. The more we learn, the more it seems that there is little that is soft about the way the party wields power beyond its borders.
The distinctive part of the Australian experience is not what China is doing there but how Canberra is pushing back in the face of threats from Beijing.
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