It was a revealing line. Yang Hengjun, the Australian citizen arrested on suspicion of espionage, says an investigation officer from the Chinese Ministry of State Security told him that “Australia was dependent on China for its trade and economy, and Canberra wouldn’t help me, let alone rescue me”.
It was, one supposes, part of an attempt to break the prisoner. And of course it was untrue – the Australian government is trying very hard and very visibly to secure Yang’s release.
But in a broader sense the official’s reference to the economic importance of China to Australia goes straight to the dilemma and the potential cost involved in what the Australian government is currently doing – and must do – in dealing with China.
Australia at the moment seems very explicit in its responses to concerns about China.
The willingness by the government to act is not new – the Turnbull government’s 2018 foreign interference legislation may come to be seen as a turning point. But now Australia appears increasingly prepared to put aside when necessary the imperatives of diplomacy. Nor is it as reluctant as before to admit particular measures relate to China.
It has been especially strong in its language on behalf of Yang. The choice in such a situation can be complicated – between being forthright publicly or deciding a low-key approach could be more effective, to say nothing of better for keeping relations smooth. In this instance the government has loudly called out the Chinese authorities’ actions.
On another front, the government this week announced a major move in its efforts to deal with Chinese influence in Australian universities. A University Foreign Interference Taskforce will have representatives from the university sector, security agencies and the education department. The group will target Chinese cyber security penetration, and seek to protect research and intellectual property.
This prompts the question: how serious is the problem of Chinese interference in the university sector?
There is a spectrum of issues, from the open and arguable, through to the clandestine and illegal, such as the cyber attacks on the Australian National University.
With Chinese students 38 per cent (153,000) of foreign students in higher education, Australian universities potentially have a high revenue vulnerability, if China reduced the flow.
Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University and an expert on Chinese influence in Australia, was very critical of vice-chancellors in a lecture on Wednesday. “The corporatisation of the tertiary sector and the extraordinary dependence on revenue flows from China, coupled with a sustained and highly effective influence campaign directed at senior university executives, has meant that many have lost sight of the meaning of academic freedom.”
Another issue, which has come into plain sight with the recent clashes particularly at the University of Queensland over events in Hong Kong, is the influence Chinese authorities exercise over many students here.
Then there is the murky area of collaborations with researchers and institutions. A paper put out by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute late last year authored by Alex Joske, an ASPI analyst, highlighted that “China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is expanding its research collaboration with universities outside of China.
“This collaboration is highest in the Five Eyes countries, Germany and Singapore […]. Australia has been engaged in the highest level of PLA collaboration among Five Eyes countries per capita, at six times the level in the US.”
In the education field, it is not just the universities where China’s influence has become a growing worry. This month the NSW government announced it would end the Confucius Classroom program, funded by the Chinese government, that has been running in 13 schools.
On a totally different front, hearings at the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption this week produced a new episode in the saga of the activities of Chinese property developer Huang Xiangmo.
ICAC heard evidence that Huang allegedly gave $100,000 in cash to NSW Labor in 2015, despite donations from property developers being illegal. The ALP covered up the donation. As a result of the evidence, the general secretary of the NSW party Kaila Murnain has been suspended.
Leaving aside alleged illegalities, the wider point is that large donations (and Huang gave to both sides) are made in the hope of buying political access and influence.
Huang, who late last year was stripped of his permanent residency and banned from re-entering Australia on ASIO advice because of concern over his links with the Chinese Communist Party, has achieved the bizarre distinction of contributing to the downfall of two senior Labor figures. Former senator Sam Dastyari’s dealings with Huang were central in events leading to Dastyari quitting parliament.
This was influence of a sort the billionaire businessman hadn’t quite intended.
Anyone identifying the challenges Scott Morrison will face this term would have to put managing the China relationship high on the list. It’s a complicated juggle, trying to keep bilateral relations on course while protecting Australia’s sovereignty, as well as advancing its strategic interests through policies such as the Pacific step up.
Although it’s sometimes interpreted as responding to US pressure, basically it is Australia’s own national interest currently driving its toughening position.
Much as we might wish the Australia-China relations could be kept on an even keel, and crucial as that might be for Australia’s economic wellbeing, the indications suggest the ups and downs will continue and may get rougher.
- Michelle Grattan is a press gallery journalist and former editor of The Canberra Times. She is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra and writes for The Conversation, where this column appears.