Divisions in Australia over plans to curb China influence

Critics have accused some universities in Australia of curtailing their China research because they receive funding from donors said to have ties to Beijing.
Critics have accused some universities in Australia of curtailing their China research because they receive funding from donors said to have ties to Beijing. PHOTO: AFP

Australia’s plan to curb Chinese interference in local affairs has resulted in a split among the country’s academics over whether the proposals and media coverage of the issue could lead to racism towards the Chinese-Australian community.

In a sign of the increasing divisions and anxieties in Australia over the extent of China’s influence abroad, two groups of prominent academics have released letters which present starkly different views.

A letter was published last week by 30 China scholars in Australia, criticising the Federal Government’s proposed laws to address foreign interference.

The laws, currently under review by a parliamentary committee, were introduced late last year and require anyone lobbying or campaigning for foreign countries to register his interests.

The letter’s signatories included Dr David Brophy, a Chinese history expert at Sydney University, Mr Stephen Fitzgerald, Australia’s first ambassador to China, and Professor Geremie Barme, a China expert at the Australian National University. 

It said the laws were fuelling an alarmist debate and Chinese-Australians should be able to speak out without facing “accusations that they speak on behalf of hostile foreign interests”.

“We see no evidence, for example, that China is intent on exporting its political system to Australia, or that its actions aim at compromising our sovereignty,” the letter said.

“We are witnessing the creation of a racialised narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy… The discourse is couched in such a way as to encourage suspicion and stigmatisation of Chinese Australians in general.”

Another group of academics on Wednesday (March 28) wrote an open letter in which they said the debate on Chinese influence was “valuable and necessary”.

The signatories included Professor Rory Medcalf, an international security expert at the Australian National University, Professor Nick Bisley, an international relations expert at La Trobe University, and Dr Feng Chongyi, a China expert at the University of Technology Sydney. 

It said Beijing’s efforts to interfere in Australia and influence the local Chinese community were increasingly bold and that the debate was “essential to intellectual freedom, democratic rights and national security”.

“We firmly believe the current debate is not characterised by racism,” the letter said. 

“Indeed, Chinese Australians are among the main initiators and drivers of this debate…. We are mindful also that racism is precisely the accusation that is encouraged and levelled by the (Chinese Communist Party) itself as it tries to silence the current discussion.”

The letters come as countries grapple with alleged efforts by China to influence politicians, university campus activities and local Chinese international students and community groups. 

Australia has about 1.2 million people of Chinese heritage – about 5 per cent of the population. 

The Federal Government introduced a range of laws last December to curb foreign meddling.

This followed a scandal over the relationship between Labor MP Sam Dastyari and Chinese property developer Huang Xiangmo, who has links to the Chinese Communist Party and has been a big donor to the Labor party. 

Mr Dastyari resigned following revelations that he adopted a pro-China stance on tensions in the South China Sea and reportedly warned Mr Huang that his phone was being tapped by Australian intelligence officials.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull insisted the laws were not aimed at a single country, but added that Australia is willing to “stand up” to Chinese criticism of the proposals. 

The parliamentary committee will report on the laws next month.