World News

China Scolds Australia Over Its Fears of Foreign Influence

Posted December 6, 2017 2:57 p.m. EST

SYDNEY — The Chinese Embassy in Australia accused Australian officials on Wednesday of “making irresponsible remarks” and damaging “mutual trust,” a day after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unveiled a series of proposed laws to curb foreign influence in Australian politics.

The new legislation, modeled on American laws that ban foreign campaign donations and require registration of foreign agents, had been widely expected after a drumbeat of stories in the Australian news media about the perceived threat of Chinese interference.

It was not the legislation that the Chinese statement directly condemned, but rather the media accounts that prompted it, as well as the public debate around the issue. Both have zeroed in on China as a threat, accusing the country of trying to exert influence through political donations and pressure applied to Chinese students at Australian universities.

“We categorically reject those allegations,” the embassy said in its statement, adding: “China has no intention to interfere in Australia’s internal affairs or exert influence on its political process through political donations. We urge the Australian side to look at China and China-Australia relations in an objective, fair and rational manner.”

The statement pointed to strong discontent from China’s leaders in Beijing, and it amounted to a warning for Australian politicians against continuing to portray China as an enemy. But experts said the statement might only heighten concerns about China’s influence and damage its already tarnished image in Australia.

“Overall there is a sense of overreach by China, and the way this statement is worded will compound that,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University. “This statement will be seen as unhelpful and provocative in some circles in Australia.”

China has long treated Australia as a laboratory for soft power experiments, flexing its economic muscle, sending students to study at its universities and creating organizations with close ties to the Communist Party.

Australia’s loose and opaque campaign finance laws have made the country especially vulnerable to outside influence. Earlier this year, Australia’s intelligence chief identified two prominent businessmen of Chinese descent, who have donated millions of dollars across the political spectrum in recent years, as possible agents for the Chinese government.

Since then, Australia has been engaged in an intensifying discussion about whether to accept or resist China’s dominance in the region. The debate has sharpened recently amid accusations that Sen. Sam Dastyari of the opposition Labor Party hewed to Chinese foreign policy on some issues after accepting money from Chinese-born political donors.

The proposed new foreign influence laws are one clear result of such concerns. But it is unclear to what extent China is concerned about the laws themselves.

One provision would require people working on behalf of another country to register with the Australian government, as is mandated in the United States. Among the other proposals, there are plans to create an offense known as unlawful interference in Australia’s political system, which would include behaviors — as yet unspecified — that harm the national interest.

Some people who are especially concerned about Chinese interference in Australia have welcomed the proposals as much-needed counterweights.

“This is an exciting development indeed, although it should have happened earlier,” said Feng Chongyi, a Chinese-born professor at the University of Technology Sydney who has often criticized China’s suppression of dissent. (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) China may see the laws as inevitable, he said.

If that is the case, some experts argue, the embassy’s statement Wednesday may in fact be an effort to pressure the Australian news media, and to influence how the media is perceived by the Chinese Australian community.

The embassy statement focused intensely on media accounts of “so-called Chinese influence and infiltration,” arguing that they were “made up out of thin air” and reflected “a typical anti-China hysteria.”

It also argued that Australia’s discussion about China’s role has “unscrupulously vilified the Chinese students as well as the Chinese community in Australia with racial prejudice, which in turn has tarnished Australia’s reputation as a multicultural society.”

John Fitzgerald, a professor at Swinburne University who spent five years representing the Ford Foundation in China, said the Chinese government seemed to be trying to portray itself as the defender of Chinese Australians against the Australian news media.

“The embassy itself is stirring up concerns within the Chinese Australian community that have no foundation,” Fitzgerald said, adding: “The media is not attacking the Chinese Australian community. The media is being very specific about Communist Party interference in this country.”

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.) So far, Australian officials have chosen not to escalate the argument. Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister, said in a statement Wednesday evening that the Australian government “enjoys a respectful and constructive relationship with China.”

Medcalf said the statement from the Chinese Embassy had one line that could be helpful: “China has no intention to interfere in Australia’s internal affairs or exert influence on its political process through political donations.”

“That is a statement China will be held to,” he said. “Let’s hope China is serious.”