Australia`s `Russia` problem? It`s China
January-March 2018
By: Rory Medcalf

What is more hidden from the English-speaking Australian public, and more worrying at this stage for the country as a whole, is Beijing’s effort to control and shape overseas Chinese-language media. Additionally, the use of WeChat and Weibo by many Chinese speakers in Australia means that the Chinese Communist Party can censor what they are reading without having to own Australia-based publications at all.

As respected China scholar John Fitzgerald points out, what is exceptional here is not that China is seeking to engage with the more than one million Australians of Chinese origin. Engagement with a diaspora community is a normal and healthy thing for any government to do – Ireland does it, India does it, Australia does it, and China can and should too. What is extraordinary is the level of influence, sometimes manifested through intimidation, that the Chinese Communist Party has over Chinese-language media in Australia.

This is about silencing dissent. It is not ordinary soft power. All nations project the “soft” power of attraction – of winning the debate. We should welcome and indeed facilitate Chinese voices in a transparent and evidence-based contest of ideas about Australia’s future. But a picture is emerging of excessive influence through money, censorship and coercion. This is neither the soft power of free expression nor the hard power of military force. Instead, it is the sharp power of intrusive influence. It undermines the principles of trust and mutual respect that are meant to inform worthy efforts by both nations to build a durable and comprehensive relationship.

It is vital to underline at this and all junctures that criticism of influence by the Chinese Communist Party is not about ethnicity. We need to guard against any risk of this issue turning into one of suspicion or xenophobia directed generally at Australia’s Chinese communities. There needs to be reassurance given to Chinese-Australians that they are included, welcomed and cherished as integral to the social, political and economic fabric of this multicultural nation.

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