The revelation by the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Mike Burgess of a plot by a foreign state to have sympathetic candidates elected to Parliament is a reminder of the vulnerability of our political system to outside interference. Similarly, the Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw reported that a number of successful disruptions of foreign interference had been achieved in the past 18 months. Although not named by the ASIO boss, it has been widely reported that the foreign state was China and the candidates they were seeking to impose were through the Labor party. This is unsurprising. The Chinese regime has been engaged in a war on many fronts against Australia and other Western nations. Economic coercion, cyber-attacks and attempted intimidation are the most obvious manifestations. As the security agencies have revealed, countering foreign espionage is now their most significant task. Shadowy organisations like the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification have long-established links to the CCP. Almost every Chinese news outlet in Australia runs a pro-Beijing line, taking their coverage of events directly from the CCP on many issues.
Writing in his 2018 expose of CCP influence in Australia, Silent Invasion, Professor Clive Hamilton reported that the ‘NSW Labor party is the epicentre of PRC influence in Australian politics.’ He also detailed influence in the Liberal party. A former Greens candidate and executive director of the left-leaning Australia Institute, Hamilton is hardly the typical ‘hawk’ on China. But his two books on the country have exposed in detail the penetration of the CCP in Western nations.
Direct involvement by Chinese diplomatic officials in the activities of diaspora groups is routine. Pro-Beijing student demonstrations have been arranged and assisted by consular staff. It was reported recently that the Australian Federal Police had discovered a plot by a suspected Chinese spy and a Russian-born Brisbane businessman to smuggle military equipment out of Australia. In the UK, Ken McCallum, the Director-General of the domestic security service MI5 recently warned that both China and Russia were targetting MPs and their advisers in the House of Commons. The NSW ICAC revealed this week that $100,000 in donations had been secretly provided to the NSW Labor party in an arrangement involving a state MP and a wealthy Chinese businessman.
Social media, especially the popular Chinese social media tool, We Chat, is also being deployed in the CCP’s war on the West. Pro-Beijing individuals have established numerous closed groups that have been used to spread propaganda against Western governments. The impact of such activities was on clear display in the recent Canadian elections where the CCP harnessed WeChat to defeat a conservative member of the House of Commons, Kenny Chiu.
Mr Chiu emigrated from Hong Kong in 1982 and won a seat covering parts of greater Vancouver in 2019. The electoral district is the home to a large Asian population, with some 47 per cent of the population Chinese and another 20 per cent from elsewhere in South East Asia. Chiu was an outspoken advocate for democracy in Hong Kong, his former home, earning him sanctions from the CCP. In 2021, Mr Chiu introduced the Foreign Influence Registry Act into the Commons. Modelled on Australia’s foreign influence transparency scheme, the Act required notification of actions designed to influence public policy, contracts or legislation in Canada. Angered by the proposal, the CCP spread fake news in a propaganda campaign against Chiu and other opponents of the totalitarian regime. The propaganda asserted that the proposal would target all Chinese emigrants in Canada. ‘Once this Act becomes law, all individuals or groups connected with China may be considered as spokespersons of the Chinese government and will be required to register specially,’ claimed one WeChat post. ‘Activities related to associations in mainland China, as well as normal Sino-Chinese economic, cultural and technological exchanges’ would ‘be suppressed’ and ‘have a profound negative impact on the Chinese community.’
The disinformation campaign against Chiu which when examined by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab was found to significantly misrepresent the Act. Two McGill University information warfare experts concluded that the nation needs to better protect itself from such campaigns.
It would be naive to believe that the CCP will not continue to interfere in the Australian political system. The PM’s Weibo account has been taken over and changed without notice or explanation. The Communist party’s international mouthpiece the Global Times ran an article recently by long-time critic of the Australian government Bruce Haigh. The former diplomat was given prominent space to claim that ‘weak Australian leadership inhibits a potential relationship reset with China.’ Angered by the Morrison government’s preparedness to call out the regime, the CCP wants a reset that involves kowtowing to Beijing. It is particularly angered by any leader or nation that stands up to its bullying, intimidatory behaviour.
There are eight House of Representatives seats where more than ten per cent of the population were born in China, including my electorate of Menzies, and another three seats in which between seven and ten per cent of the population were born there. This excludes people born in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. At least four of these eleven seats are marginal. The overwhelming majority of people who have emigrated from China are loyal Australians who have escaped totalitarianism for democracy, but we cannot ignore the possibility of external interference in our electoral processes.
Our intelligence agencies can only report publicly on a fraction of what they have discovered or plots they have foiled. In a world in which billions of pieces of information are generated and digitally transmitted each day, they have been remarkably successful, but we cannot be sanguine about the future. It is generally accepted that Chinese agencies and other malevolent actors have pre-positioned tools of interference in cyber networks which could be utilised in the future if not discovered and removed. Business in particular must step up their efforts to counter cyber threats to our supplies of essential goods and services.
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