Laws on foreign influence just the beginning in fight against Chinese coercion
6 December 2017
Every country in the democratic world is grappling with the challenges posed by China's wide-ranging influence operations – and Australia is blazing a trail for others to follow. The challenge is to effectively define and counter illegitimate foreign influence without falling victim to the McCarthyist witch hunts that occurred across the West when Soviet infiltration was exposed.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull drew a firm and appropriate line in the sand when he said: "We will not tolerate foreign influence activities that are in any way covert, coercive, or corrupt. That's the line that separates legitimate influence from unacceptable interference."
The new legislation will necessarily leave plenty of grey areas. Democratic values demand the presumption of innocence until proven guilty and the greatest possible individual freedom.The freedoms of speech and association we value in democratic society assume that citizens and residents afforded these protections are speaking on their own behalf.
It is one thing for a citizen to share the opinions of a foreign government and voice them, but something else entirely to speak at the behest of that government.
In a democratic society, we value free speech to ensure a marketplace of ideas; the Chinese Communist Party exploits free speech to dominate and undermine its adversaries.
Australia's proposed Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme – an "improved" version of the Foreign Agents Registration Scheme in the US – will preserve democratic freedoms while exposing potential conflicts of interest to public scrutiny.
The actions of Senator Sam Dastyari provide a degree of moral clarity that is uncommon. Most that goes on in the world of Chinese influence is neither black nor white, but grey.
Separately, new foreign interference provisions will clearly demarcate types of foreign-instigated behaviours that are beyond the tolerable limits of our open democratic system.
Coercion needs to be recognised for what it is: a foreign government committing crimes or acts of violence against Australian citizens on Australian soil.
It is important to note it is not just happening here.
In the case of China, Western countries routinely overlook physical altercations between Falungong demonstrators and Chinese embassy-organised counter-demonstrators.
Increasingly, Chinese police have been entering our countries to intimidate, blackmail, and even attempt to kidnap individuals who they cannot extradite. Despite the visa fraud, and coercion, Western governments have done nothing.
This passive response to brazen illegality is a lingering legacy of our racist past. The old "Chinatown mentality" dictates that we need not concern ourselves with our Chinese citizens and residents so long as the trouble stays inside Chinatown.
But decades of averting our eyes and failing to protect our citizens has allowed new problems to fester. In April, China's then security czar Meng Jianzhu, effectively warned Labor Party leader Bill Shorten that Chinese-Australians could hurt Labor at the polls if he did not support a proposed extradition treaty.
He was thus demeaning Chinese-Australians as his own fifth column.
The best aspects of democracy and the so-called international liberal order are perpetuated through a belief in good faith and good works. Behaviour that is covert, coercive or corrupt undermine both.
Australia and other democracies need to stamp out this behaviour in order to strengthen their resilience. The laws that the Turnbull government will put before parliament, if passed, mark only the beginning.
The assets that brought Australia to this point will remain critical: a robust free press; concern about the country's role in the world; and leaders committed to Australian sovereignty.
A robust free press investigating the many grey areas will be particularly essential. The limited resources of Australia's security agencies mean they must focus on "covert, coercive, or corrupt" activities.
Curious and intrepid journalists are needed to shine a light into the shadowy areas, so Australians can judge for themselves. Over the last decade, Australia's journalists have built up a level of expertise on the problem of Chinese influence that other allied governments and societies can only envy.
Publishers must support these journalists – and the public intellectuals who have joined them – because those who undermine the integrity of the political process are prepared to push back. The threat of Beijing-linked defamation is already having a chilling effect and media organisations, publishers and universities must commit to protecting their own reputations, integrity, and research in court.
As long as Australians continue to ask questions and engage in a vigorous public discussion of the country's role in the world, the more likely Australia will be the master of its own future.
The new legislation, in the Prime Minister's words, "will ensure that Australians make decisions based on the wishes of Australians, underpinning our commitment to each other and the democracy that keeps us free".
Mr Turnbull's pledge will become true only if his government and its successors commit the political capital and resources to monitor foreign influence, prosecute offenders, and facilitate the public debate.