Australia acts to curb foreign political meddling

It plans to enact law amid concerns over China's attempts to influence domestic affairs

Australia plans to introduce laws to prevent foreign political interference amid growing concerns about China's efforts to meddle in its domestic affairs.

The legislation, due to be introduced in November, will include measures to combat attempts by foreign states and entities to covertly influence Australian political parties and MPs. It is likely to target lobbying and donations, as well as efforts by governments and the private sector to steal trade secrets.

Reports say the new laws could include the introduction of a United States-style register of foreign agents, which would require those lobbying on behalf of foreign powers to declare their activities.

Attorney-General George Brandis, who has expressed concern about the adequacy of existing laws to deal with foreign interference and espionage, has said he would introduce revised legislation to Parliament in November.

"(The legislation) will be dealing with the broad area of espionage and foreign interference," he was quoted as saying earlier this week.

"In particular, ensuring that our laws are sufficiently expressed to deal with problems that might not at the moment be captured within the existing very narrow definition of espionage."

There has been increasing concern and continued revelations about efforts by China to influence Australian politicians and public debate, including attempts to affect activities on university campuses.

At least four times this year, Chinese social media campaigns and Chinese diplomats in Australia have targeted academic staff at Australian universities over teaching materials deemed "offensive".

The efforts have reportedly involved attempts to influence politicians at the local, state and federal government levels. In recent local government elections in the state of New South Wales on September 9, three of the successful candidates reportedly belonged to pro-Chinese Communist Party lobby groups set up by property developer Huang Xiangmo, a billionaire who has made extensive donations to Australian political parties.

It was widely reported earlier this year that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the domestic spy agency, had warned the country's major political parties in 2015 about accepting donations from Mr Huang and a second wealthy Chinese-Australian property developer, Dr Chau Chak Wing. The two tycoons had reportedly donated about A$8 million (S$8.5 million) to Australian political parties over a decade.

There has also been concern about China's alleged attempts to interfere with activities at universities, including using student organisations to monitor both Chinese international students and local teaching staff. At least four times this year, Chinese social media campaigns and Chinese diplomats in Australia have targeted academic staff at Australian universities over teaching materials deemed "offensive".

In one instance, an IT lecturer at Sydney University used a world map which showed China-claimed territory as belonging to India. The lecturer, Dr Khimji Vaghjiani, apologised last month and said he downloaded the map from the Internet and was unaware it was "inaccurate and out of date".

Some China experts have urged Australian universities to adopt tougher measures to prevent interference from Beijing over courses and classroom discussions. But the federal government has insisted that existing measures at universities are adequate and has focused on addressing political interference.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2017, with the headline 'Australia acts to curb foreign political meddling'. Print Edition | Subscribe