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The hidden dragon: China's rise in Australian society

Image credit: Brian Yap (Flickr: Creative Commons)

The slippery actions of ALP senator and former shadow cabinet minister Sam Dastyari have exposed the growing influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) across all areas of Australian society. It was revealed that, in 2015, the Yuhu group, a subsidiary of a company linked to the Chinese state, helped to pay off the then NSW Labor Secretary's legal bills. More recently, it was revealed that Mr Dastyari had forwarded a bill for an overspend of $1,670 to company known as Top Education Institute—a Chinese higher-education provider.

It's no secret that both political parties accept donations from foreign individuals and businesses. The ABC recently revealed that both the Liberal and Labor parties have received more than $5.5 million in funding from companies and individuals close to the Chinese state. Indeed, the Yuhu group donated $435,000 to a number of branches of the Liberal Party and close to $100,000 to Federal Labor between 2013 and 2015. What differentiated Mr Dastyari's recent interactions was that the money was given to him personally and that he asked for it. Free money? It sounds too good to be true; and it is.

What is most concerning about these revelations is that Mr Dastyari's close connections with Chinese business appear to have had an effect on his political conduct. Mr Dastyari has been quoted claiming that 'The South China Sea is China's own affairs. On this issue Australia should remain neutral and respect China's decision'. This statement is at complete odds with the bipartisan position of both major political parties that China's actions in the South China Sea should be conducted with respect for international law. Although there is no direct link between the payments and Mr Dastyari's position, his unusual personal viewpoint with regards to this issue appears to confirm what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull captioned 'cash for comment'.

Both ASIO chief Duncan Lewis and outgoing US Ambassador to Australia John Berry have criticised the close connections between Australian political parties and China-based businesses and individuals that came to the surface in the wake of the Dastyari scandal.

Financial support represents one strategy of what the CCP have coined 'patriotic education'. That is, the use of a broad network of overseas community groups, embassies and other organisations that aim to co-opt leading figures in the host country to support Beijing policy and 'regularly warn of major economic consequences if Australia opposes Beijing's interests in everything from territorial disputes to inbound investments'. Generally regarded as a pro-Beijing outlet, the Australia China Relations Institute at UTS, which is led by former foreign minister and NSW Premier Bob Carr, reflects this growing trend. The Institute was bankrolled by Xiangmo Huang who heads the Yuhu group—the same group that paid Mr Dastyari's legal bills in 2015. Recently, however, Mr Huang stepped down from his role in light of the controversy.

Not all commentators view the relationship in such negative terms. Geoff Raby, former Australian Ambassador to China and now a columnist for the Australian Financial Review, has suggested that these interactions have little to do with the Chinese state and can instead be explained by 'narrow business interests and personal ego'. Raby suggests that 'advancing the interests of China is of little or no concern… being associated with politicians, even relatively minor and insignificant figures, is craved as a veneer of respectability for otherwise shadowy and dubious business histories'. In a stinging assessment of Australia's concerns, Raby argues that 'Australia, is to the surprise of many strategic analysts and journalists, hardly on China's radar'.

Despite this the CCP does continue to fastidiously involve itself with overseas Chinese citizens as a means to maintain its hegemony and identity against an increasingly diverse and globalised diaspora. In early September, a pro-Beijing group had planned to hold a number of concerts in Sydney and Melbourne to celebrate the life of Communist dictator Mao Zedong. The concerts were eventually cancelled due to a number of protests held by Chinese-Australians from the Embrace Australian Values Alliance. Unsurprisingly, the concerts were funded by wealthy property developer Peter Zhu—the same Peter Zhu who runs the Top Education Institute that paid Mr Dastyari's bills!

No issue is too great or too small for Chinese involvement. Last year, it was alleged that the Chinese consulate was asked to intervene on behalf of students who had failed a course at the University of Sydney. One Chinese national studying at the Australian National University received an award from the Chinese government for creating a viral propaganda video that criticised the US government. Earlier this year, the ANU student newspaper Woroni revealed how the Chinese Students and Scholars Association was being funded and directed by the Chinese embassy. Furthermore, it was also using bullying tactics to prevent Chinese students from engaging in anti-Chinese government groups such as the Falun-Gong.

As the events above illustrate, Chinese government policy is no longer limited to interacting with Australia through the traditional means of foreign policy and trade. Increasingly, it is reaching outside of the political sphere and permeating civil society. This has already caused rifts within the Chinese-Australian community. Although it is likely that the political and economic elites are motivated by their own self interests, the muddying of the waters caused by such relationships can be just as damaging as the motives themselves. In a world where public trust in our institutions and government is at an all time low, China's growing presence is a cause for concern.

Will Flowers Comino is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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