Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has angered Beijing by citing reports of Chinese influence in his country's affairs. Beijing terms the claims “groundless and unfounded and warns that Turnbull’s comments “can sabotage China-Australia relations.” Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Veni Markovski

For decades, Western countries have been accused of interfering in China’s internal affairs, but now the reverse seems to be happening.

When he announced tougher foreign interference laws last week, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cited “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” in his country’s affairs.

Beijing expressed shock and strong dissatisfaction with what it called “groundless and unfounded remarks” and “lodged stern representations with the Australian side.” It also warned that Turnbull’s comments “can sabotage China-Australia relations.”

Turnbull responded with a sharper tone, telling the Chinese (in English and Mandarin) that just as they stood up (to assert their sovereignty and pride) in 1949, “the Australian people stand up” (for the same cause now.)

Turnbull’s riposte further infuriated Chinese media and officials. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party of China’s mouthpiece, called on Australia to reject what it regarded as the “political prejudices and paranoia,” while the China Daily accused Turnbull of playing a “new role as China-basher-in-chief.” A spokesman of China’s foreign ministry advised Turnbull and other Australians “to refrain from those remarks that are detrimental to their own images and China-Australia relations.”

Turnbull’s remarks prompt strong reaction

China reacted in such a strong, angry manner because Turnbull’s remarks go against a core principle long cherished and recently reiterated by its leadership.

Since its establishment in 1949 — or at least since 1954 — the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has advocated a foreign policy of non-interventionism, based on the well-known “five principles of peaceful coexistence,” with one these being non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

In his lengthy report to the National Congress of the CPC in October, President Xi Jinping reiterated that “China remains firm in its commitment to [interacting] with other countries on the basis of” those principles. All recent statements by foreign ministry officials reaffirm this position.

The question is, which side is more truthful in the angry exchanges between Beijing and Canberra over China’s alleged meddling in Australia’s domestic politics

The question is, which side is more truthful in the angry exchanges between Beijing and Canberra over China’s alleged meddling in Australia’s domestic politics.

A neutral person is more likely to side with Australia as there must have been some grave Chinese involvement that prompted Turnbull’s government to crack down on foreign interference and for him to make such strong remarks. If it weren’t serious, there would be no good reason for Canberra to anger its biggest trading partner and lead to retaliation.

The resignation of Sam Dastyari, a prominent opposition Labor politician, from the Australian Senate perhaps indicates that there was some truth in the allegations that he had conveyed Beijing’s foreign policy interests after taking money from Chinese-born political donors.

Many other developments also suggest China’s non-interference policy is a thing of the past or for observers to question Beijing’s assertion that it “has consistently upheld” the principle.

As noted by the state-backed Global Times and reported by many international news outlets, among them the Financial Times and the Washington Post, claims of — and growing concerns over — Chinese infiltration have also spread to other countries, including New Zealand, Germany, and the United States.

Alarming trend seen in Chinese meddling

What is particularly and vehemently discussed these days is Beijing’s intrusion into Western universities and publishers. This meddling has alarmed many and some have pushed back.

For instance, as the Financial Times and others reported in October and November, Chinese censorship pressured Springer, the German publishing group and one of the world’s biggest academic publishers, to block access in China to at least 1,000 articles containing topics or keywords deemed politically sensitive by Beijing, such as Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen Square and the Cultural Revolution.

Two months earlier, Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest publishing house, bowed to similar pressures from Chinese authorities. But the publisher later reversed course after an outcry against its surrender of academic freedom.

A main reason why some universities, publishers, companies, and countries can’t resist Beijing’s demands is that China’s financial clout and market are so big.

China hawks want Beijing to punish critics

That reality is also why hawkish voices in China urge their leaders to punish countries, institutions or individuals that criticize or oppose their country. For instance, the Global Times strongly argued that Beijing “needs to figure out tactics that can silently make” those in the West that “have tried to find fault with China … truly feel the pain.”

In fact, with its new-found power, the world’s second-biggest economy, has already retaliated against a number of individuals, companies, and countries that had criticized its policy or refused to toe its line.

In his address to the CPC’s 19th congress, Xi stated that his country opposed not only “acts that impose one’s will on others or interfere in the internal affairs of others” but also “the practice of the strong bullying the weak.”

Judging from what has been said, and other reported events, Xi’s statement is largely rhetorical, as China is apparently doing the opposite of what it is preaching.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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