Australian Politics

The Awkward China Question – How Much is Enough?

Desiree Michelle looks at the Australia-China relationship, discussing the links between the two countries, whether the 'China threat' is real, and how Australia should deal with Chinese influence in its society.

This article was first published in our 2018 print edition.

When you hear the word ‘China’ come up in the media or in conversation, you cannot help but think of the enormous weight of this global superpower and what it is up to now. With the release of Clive Hamilton’s controversial new book Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, the discussions and debates about how much Chinese influence permeates throughout Australia has been revitalised and is a key talking point in universities, coffee ships and parliament alike.


Before I discuss the debates, it is worth looking at the history surrounding this important relationship that greatly affects Australia and its people. China’s growth since the 1970s has entailed urbanisation, growth in manufacturing, and investment in infrastructure. This created demand for building materials, energy for electricity and transport, and raw materials for manufacturing. Australia was well placed to meet much of this demand, and it was a ready market for Chinese manufactured goods. To date, China is Australia’s largest economic trading partner, with the greatest investments coming from Chinese businesses and investments.6

Things started to dramatically sour in the Australia-China bilateral relationship in mid-2017, when the issue of Chinese influence in Australia exploded into the national consciousness. On the 5th of June, investigative reporting program ‘Four Corners’ aired a special joint documentary by the ABC and Fairfax Media, which promised to uncover “how China’s Communist Party is secretly infiltrating Australia.4 The program traced the stories of various individuals and their ties to China and concluded that all Australians must be more careful of “covert Chinese actions taking place on Australian soil.”

Following this documentary, Australian media, think tanks, and people including politicians, political analysts, experts, and commentators have been intensively investigating the issue of Chinese influence in Australia. Inevitably, this has had a profound negative impact on China-Australia bilateral talks, with both Chinese and Australian ministers and investors accusing each other of trying to infiltrate the other’s political processes to suit their own interests – reducing the relationship to that of bickering children at the playground.

The impact of this is ongoing, and has been recently revived with the release of Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion, in which he argues that Beijing’s reach has extended into Australian politics, business, education and religious groups.3 Interestingly, he also accuses the Chinese government of contriving a systematic Chinese campaign of espionage and influence peddling, leading to “the erosion of Australian sovereignty”, caused by a recent wave of Chinese migration of “billionaires with shady histories and tight links to the [Chinese Communist] party, media owners creating Beijing mouthpieces, ‘patriotic’ students brainwashed from birth, and professionals [into Australia] marshalled into pro-Beijing associations set up by the Chinese embassy” – essentially targeting the Chinese diaspora in Australia.5 While this book is something I would expect from a populist figure to instil fear into the citizens, it is worth making sense of these claims.


The ‘China threat’ was first coined in the early 1990s, and conceptualises China (PRC) as a hegemonic power that represents a source of regional and international instability; one that is able to challenge the current global order which sees the US as the primary strategic power in the East Asian region.9 It would seem true that China could have at the time, recording an average growth rate of 10.2% in 1992 and if China were to maintain this, it would surpass (by GDP) the US to become the world’s largest economy. This brings up the assumption that with rapid economic growth comes increased military power and an alleviated profile on the international stage.

Many Western commentators, including Hamilton, allege that with this power, China will go on to get more ambitious and, eventually, will aggressively pursue world domination the way the US has in the past two decades. They argue that China will start with Australia as a testing ground for its tactics to assert its ascendancy in the West, since it already has established trading links and so much investment. Because of this, they also propose that Chinese investment and engagement undermines Australian sovereignty and security. There is some truth to this proposal, as China has strategically expanded its influence in the region during the 21st century, particularly through territorial claims on the Spratly Islands and rapid development in bilateral agreements, such as free trade, with Australia. However, it is misguided and, frankly, wrong to suggest that promoting continued Chinese engagement and strengthening economic ties undermines Australia’s security and abandons the sovereign right to exercise democratic values.

The Chinese government also faces a dilemma when it comes to its foreign policy. While China wants to increase its military capabilities and ensure it will never be humiliated on the international stage (as was during the ‘century of shame’), it faces an awkward situation; while it wants to be one of the more powerful states in the region, it does not want to be so powerful as to challenge the East Asian regional order where the US is still the strategic deterrent that balances growing Chinese influence. There is no denying that China has made massive progress in opening up its doors to the West and its regional neighbours, but it knows better than to challenge the status quo – including Australia’s relationship with the US, which is much stronger than the Sino-Australian relationship. So long as the US is in the Pacific and Australia is still a bilateral partner of the US, the Chinese influence, though is prevalent, will not threaten Australian society on its principles.


There have already been attempts to curb Chinese influence on Australian society. Most notably, the Australian government has banned foreign political donations as part of a crackdown aimed at preventing external interference in domestic politics, citing ‘disturbing reports’ about the extension of Chinese influence on party politics.

This saw the prominent opposition Senator Sam Dastyari quit some senior Labor Party positions in early December of last year, after a tape surfaced of him appearing to endorse China’s contentious expansion in disputed areas of the South China Sea, against his party’s platform.8 Ultimately, Dastyari quit the Senate in January 2018.

Inevitably, this sparked controversy and debates within the Australian-Chinese community. On the 19th of March 2018, a group of 30 China scholars submitted a petition calling for the espionage and foreign interference legislation to be withdrawn, pending more extensive consultation and rigorous, measured public debate.7 It argued that the bill directly threatened academic freedom, and that the “alarmist tone” of recent public discourse over China was impinging Australia’s ability to calmly and rationally deal with the issues.2

There is some basis to the open letter – it reflects the poor risk management on the government’s part by using sweeping labels that imply that all PRC students are part of a Beijing-orchestrated campaign of subversion. Causing anger in a community as powerful as the Chinese does not help when it comes to developing a methodical, systematic response to dealing with the Chinese which many claim to undermine the domestic affairs of Australian politics. If the government wants to maintain broad engagement with a powerful country that has been controlled by one party since the Cultural Revolution of 1949 while maintaining a liberal economy with vast resources and human capital, it will require careful understanding.

The government seems to be concerned with the influence of Chinese students in Australian universities, with a growing number of discussions about China being met with well-organised and well-publicised protests on Chinese news platforms; this could potentially be picked up by the Australia community as an extension of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s influence.1 With every 1 in 3 students being international, and the bulk coming from the PRC, it is easy to see that universities depend on their student fees to generate revenue. Nothing about student protest is really undesirable but is rather a manifestation of the academic freedom that Australian university students have, which is unavailable in PRC. However, the issue that Australians face is that the opinions held by many Chinese students (not just PRC students) provide avenues for alternative points of view on this issue of China which Australians are unfamiliar with.

I find that many of us are hearing views that are often inaccurate, and frequently phrased in an inflammatory way which paints a negative stereotype of the Chinese. If universities could facilitate better discussions between the local students and the Chinese on contemporary issues and debates about the PRC, it allows students to hear debates about China and reflect on China critically — something they cannot do within Chinese borders. Universities have a responsibility to uphold academic freedom regardless of background, and a Constructive debate would help students to learn and appreciate diverse viewpoints, rather than treat China as a menacing threat that wants to influence Australian society to align more to the Chinese Communist Party’s principles.

To conclude, I am of the view that while Chinese influence can be daunting and seem to infiltrate Australia and undermine the democratic freedoms that our society has, it is vital to understand the importance and the need for continuing Chinese investment. Though China will continue to grow economically and gain more power in the international system, it is important to keep in mind how much investment China has contributed and how much raw material Australia has exported, and the amount of free trade that has been conducted between the two countries. For Australia to grow economically, we cannot ignore or misplace the Chinese influence that will inevitably be here to stay. But, to ensure we maintain a balance, the government needs to keep an eye on the kind of investments the Chinese are pouring in and to ensure we remain close to the US to balance China’s growing power in the East Asian region.

1ABC News 2017, ‘Government needs to be ‘very conscious’ of foreign interference in Australian universities, ASIO says’, 25 October.

2An open letter from concerned scholars of China and the Chinese diaspora, 26 March 2018.

3BBC 2018, ‘China influence’ book proves divisive in Australia debate, 8 March.

4Four Corners 2017, ‘Power and Influence: The hard edge of China’s soft power’, 5 June.

5Hamilton 2018, ‘Silent Invasion: China’s influence in Australia’, p. 49.

6Parliament of Australia 2018a, Australia’s Trade in Figures [7 September].

7Parliament of Australia 2018b, National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill.

8Reuters 2017, ‘Australia, citing concerns over China, cracks down on foreign political influence’, 5 December.

9Yee & Story 2014, The China Threat: Perceptions Myths and Reality, p. 2.


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