Chinese people wave Chinas and Australian national flags in Canberra, Australia in a file photo. Photo: AFP
Chinese people wave Chinese and Australian national flags in Canberra, Australia in a file photo. Photo: AFP

How pervasive is China’s growing influence in Australia and how willing is Canberra to push back? The short answer: highly and not so much.

Australian real estate agents rolled out the red carpet for wealthy Chinese, including with limousine tours and helicopter rides, seeking to purchase multi-million dollar properties over the recent Golden Week travel period.

Foreign property buying has become an increasingly politicized issue, one that regulators have tackled through tax increases and other changes on foreign property ownership including penalties for leaving properties vacant that have tangentially hit the growing number of Chinese national home owners.

Although largely unspoken, Australia is grappling with how to best manage its Chinese influx. China is currently Australia’s largest trade partner, fifth largest investor and top foreign student market.

Chinese tourists spent over US$31.8 billion Down Under in the first half of this year, accounting for a quarter of all tourist spending. Mandarin is now the second most spoken language in Australia, trailing only English, according to a 2016 census.

But while China is increasingly important to the Australian economy, the terms of exchange are under growing scrutiny, including the largely misunderstood notion of China’s exercise of so-called ‘soft power.’

As China’s influence grows, there is little that resembles traditional concepts of soft power, or overtures that entice others to voluntarily adopt a common viewpoint.

That was witnessed in Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s warning earlier this week to Chinese students enrolled at Australian universities to respect others’ freedom of speech after a series of incidents pitting students versus professors on touchy territorial issues related to China.

It has been a decade since former Chinese leader Hu Jintao began to implement Chinese soft power as an outward-looking approach, a policy current leader Xi Jinping has extended with harder edges and a wider vision.

A woman walks through Sydney’s Chinatown on June 21, 2017. Australia, Canada and the US are top destinations for wealthy Chinese homebuyers. Photo: AFP/William West

In Australia, China’s power is exercised through a complex mix of influence-peddling, political donations, infrastructure development, agricultural purchases, media influence (both in Mandarin and English), oversight of Chinese students and plain espionage.

Reports earlier this year revealed that two ethnic Chinese billionaires who had donated millions of dollars across Australia’s political spectrum in recent years may in fact be Chinese state agents.

Unlike the United States and Europe, where direct political donations are banned, Australia still allows foreign donations. And Beijing seems increasingly keen to translate its economic power into political clout, including via big expenditures on pro-China propaganda.

Those efforts have paid off more in some parts of the world than others. Direct efforts in Australia via the bland ‘China Watch’ paid lift-out in Fairfax Media publications may have put a scare into independent-minded journalists, but the product has had negligible effect in advancing China’s state aims.

China’s increasingly assertive foreign policies, poor human rights record and anti-democratic political system still undermine its local image, even as China is generally well-liked.

Australian foreign affairs think thank the Lowy Institute yearly polls have found that most Australians value Chinese food, culture and people, but distrust the country’s political system and general lack of transparency.

People stroll on Dixon Street in Sydney’s de facto Chinatown district. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Merriden Varrall, a China expert and director of the Lowy’s East Asia Program, says the idea of Chinese soft power is used “a little indiscriminately” and attempts to categorize the behavior into pre-existing categories shows a “lack of imagination.”

She said in Australia’s case it’s important “to see clearly which are individual desires and state desires and the interactions between these.”

It’s often a blurred image as concerns rise about Chinese state influence at Australian universities. There are currently 33 Australian Studies centers at higher education institutions in China. Beijing is simultaneously bidding to boost its cultural footprint in Australia through the establishment of at least 16 Confucius Institutes.

However, it seems some of China’s strongest inroads have been made not into Australia’s so-called Anglosphere, but rather its existing Chinese diaspora – from students to migrants to new Chinese homeowners in swish urban neighborhoods.

A strong majority of the 59 Chinese language newspapers serving that community are all notably pro-Beijing, in line with Xi Jinping’s soft power call to “better communicate China’s message to the world.” Some of those who have taken a contrarian view have been directly targeted by Beijing.

Feng Chongyi, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, was held for ten days by Chinese officials after a research trip to China earlier this year. The harassment likely stemmed from his open criticism of China’s rising role in Australia, including state control over civil society organizations and higher learning institutes at Australian universities.

“China’s influence has succeeded in shaping public perceptions and opinions about China, and even government policies toward China,” said Feng. “Even my freedom in Australia is increasingly under threat from China’s ‘soft power,’’’ he recently wrote.

Then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping opens Australia’s first Chinese Medicine Confucius Institute, at RMIT University in Melbourne, on June 20, 2010. Photo: AFP/William West 

Lowy’s Varrall, meanwhile, wrote a recent op-ed for the New York Times that examined Chinese surveillance of Chinese students in Australia, a rising phenomenon she suggested leads to self-censorship to stay in line with Beijing’s orthodox views for fear of possible reprisal upon returning home.

All China worries are not the same. The real fear of Chinese cyber-hacking – government sponsored or not, it has occurred in other nations like the Philippines or Vietnam – differs from the hubbub caused by revelations that Chinese billionaire Li Ruipeng gifted Rolex watches to Australian politicians and their wives.

But political donations made by wealthy Chinese property developers Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo. according to an Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) investigation totaling around US$5 million, have drawn parallels to Russia’s influence in America’s electoral politics.

ASIO issued a warning about the donations as early as 2015, but they nonetheless continued.

Chau Chak Wing also funded the University of Western Sydney’s Frank Gehry building in 2014 and owns The Australia New Express Daily, a Chinese language publication that prides itself on glowing coverage of China and its ruling Communist Party.

That persistently positive coverage has been the subject of a Sydney Morning Herald investigation.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) meets with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (L) at an ASEAN security forum in Manila on August 6, 2017. Photo: AFP/Pool

More direct attempts to influence Australian politics have failed dismally, putting a harsh spotlight on Beijing’s often bald bids at political manipulation. Australian Labor Senator Sam Dastyari was caught up in a cash-for-comment scandal last year after it was revealed Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo paid some of the lawmaker’s legal bills.

Dastyari later told a press conference that Australia should stay out of all territorial disputes in the South China Sea, essentially contradicting his own party’s foreign policy and advocating one of Bejing’s most controversial policies.

The case had serious implications for the New South Wales senator, who lost his shadow cabinet position, but he is not the only and likely not the last politician to benefit from China’s largesse.

Despite the controversy, Australian lawmakers have not moved to pass new laws against foreign political donations. There are wider calls, however, among Australia’s allies – namely the US, New Zealand, United Kingdom and Canada – to develop a collective response to Chinese state intrusion on academic freedoms on their campuses.

China’s influence in Australia will inevitably grow as the two nations become more integrated through trade, investment and other exchanges. But as the spotlight grows on how China exerts its rising influence and power in Australia, that integration process will not be as smooth in future as it was previously.

Varrall says Australia and China are still learning from each other. “They want us to feel less tightly aligned with the US,” says Varrall, “[but] they find it difficult to understand that a lot of the alignment is based on shared values, that we see things in the same way.”

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