A US expert in China’s opaque intelligence services has backed the Turnbull government’s foreign interference laws.
The resignation of Labor senator Sam Dastyari over his links with Chinese property developer and political donor Huang Xiangmo has cast a spotlight on political donations as a tool of foreign state influence in Australia.
But there is significantly more to the Chinese Communist Party’s little understood influence operations overseas, according to a US expert in Chinese intelligence operations, and it is Australia’s diverse ethnic Chinese community that is most likely to be targeted or have their freedoms effectively restricted by such efforts here.
Peter Mattis, a former US government China analyst and expert in Chinese intelligence and espionage from the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC, called the connections over which Dastyari lost his job one of the “few icebergs floating above the water line."
One of the pieces that’s really important to understand about China's united front work is that this is in the Communist Party’s DNA. It’s not about ... good or bad relations, it’s about activity that is being undertaken on a day to day basis simply because this is what the Chinese Communist Party does.
- Peter Mattis
Chinese Communist Party influence operations abroad are orchestrated by several party and state agencies including the United Front Work Department, the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council, the Propaganda Department and the Liaison Bureau of the PLA’s Political Work Department, he said.
“There's a few key areas. The first is surveillance of the Chinese diaspora, keeping track of who’s saying what, what their influence is, what their business is,” Mr Mattis told SBS News, “whether or not they have connections back in the PRC that are potentially problematic or provide a way to transmit dangerous ideas back into the system. Part of it is intimidation and coercion to keep people in line (away) from other political activities, demonstrating support for human rights or Tibetan issues, Uighur issues.”
In contrast to other state intelligence services, it is not uncommon for such operations to co-opt individuals not directly employed by the intelligence services, he said.
“In some cases it might be fairly direct, it might be having security officials visit the homes of relatives back in China. Or more indirect, (like) by offering access to academics, journalists, businessmen; helping them succeed and using that as a way to propagate party lines."
A second feature of the operations is an effort to change the terms of the discussion of China among policymakers and influential voices in the media and academia, to shift the range of acceptable policy options in dealing with the China challenge, Mr Mattis said.
Mr Dastyari’s job-ending endorsement of China’s claim on disputed areas of the South China Sea, in contrast to bipartisan policy in Australia, is an obvious example of this influence work acting to produce an outcome in line with CCP preferences.
SBS News sought comment from the Chinese Embassy in Canberra on Mr Mattis’s remarks but received no response.
'Corrupt, coercive, covert influence is not acceptable'
Senior figures from Australia’s national security agency ASIO have repeatedly warned that the level of political influence operations being conducted by foreign intelligence services in Australia is the highest it has ever been.
The Turnbull government’s new anti-foreign interference laws are a sensible response, Mr Mattis said.
“Because they will draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not... It’s the laws within a democracy that prescribe the boundaries of what behaviour is allowable.”
"At the very least this will say that the corrupt, the coercive and the covert are not acceptable forms of exercising influence in Australia and over Australian citizens."
'This is not about good or bad relations'
However the draft laws have received an angry response from former trade minister Andrew Robb who is now working for a Chinese-owned firm; and drew sharp criticism from China’s official People’s Daily and other mainland media, while in a formal expression of displeasure, the Australian ambassador was summoned to explain the laws to the Chinese government.
This has prompted some voices to suggest the Australian government’s pushback against foreign influence - especially the Prime Minister singling out China for criticism - could hurt Australia economically, given its dependence on China as the country’s largest trade partner.
But Mr Mattis dismissed this, saying the Chinese government's foreign influence work - like that of the Russian state which has dominated the news in the US - was irrelevant to the warmth of any bilateral relationship.
“One of the pieces that’s really important to understand about China's united front work is that this is in the Communist Party’s DNA. It’s not about ... good or bad relations, it’s about activity that is being undertaken on a day to day basis simply because this is what the Chinese Communist Party does. It’s a bit of fallacy to say that ‘oh if we have good relations with Beijing this will go away or won’t be an issue’.”
He cited what he said had been increasing united front activity in Taiwan under the eight years of the previous president, the China-friendly Ma Ying-Jeou. “Taiwan is now dealing with a much bigger problem in terms of the magnitude of China's penetration of society and efforts to manipulate it.”
“The second piece is that if defending our sovereignty in Australia, Canada, the United States or elsewhere, is a cause for a bad relationship with China, then we have to ask ourselves what kind of relationship do we want?
“There are important questions about where we draw the line and what values are we willing to compromise or loosen a bit, and and what do we need to protect.”
Chinese embassy says interference a 'media fabrication'
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in last week rejected stories of Chinese government interference in Australia as media fabrications.
“China has been committed to developing its friendly relations with other countries on the basis of mutual respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in each other's internal affairs, which is one of the main principles of Chinese foreign policy. China has no intention to interfere in Australia's internal affairs or exert influence on its political process through political donations,” the spokesperson said.