Is China Pulling the Strings Down Under?

The Chinese Communist Party is waging a covert campaign of influence in Australia,” went the claim in the newspaper The Age, in a series of articles exploring China’s hard and soft power “Down Under.” The articles, and an episode of the popular documentary show Four Corners titled “Power and Influence,” set off a domestic debate about just how wary Australians should be about their largest trading partner. How carefully should Australia manage its ties with China moving forward? And, although American attention remains focused on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, should the United States have the same debate? —The ChinaFile Editors

Peter Mattis, Fellow, Jamestown Foundation:

A number of the things reported on the Four Corners program would, in fact, be crimes if they occurred in the United States. Part of the reason for the program’s controversy is that Australia’s laws create massive openings for a foreign government to exercise direct influence without breaking any laws. The central question for Australians is not really about China so much as the kind of democracy they want.

The Australians are not debating Chinese influence; they are debating Beijing’s attempt to exercise influence covertly and twist the integrity of the Australian political system. These are distinctions with a difference. In the crudest terms, it is one thing to play a person’s emotional and intellectual weaknesses across the table; it is quite another to compromise them.

This also is not about intelligence operations. Countering influence operations is a fundamentally different challenge than counterintelligence and counterespionage. When an intelligence service recruits an agent, there is an exchange for information. The exchange is not always clear, but it is present. When controlled information is at stake, the breach of legally-protected trust creates the grounds for prosecution. Influence is necessarily softer and more elusive. It may…

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