The hard edge of China’s soft power exposed



Australia is reviewing its espionage laws and banning foreign political donations over concerns that China is buying influence by using rich businessmen to funnel millions of dollars in donations to political parties. “Just as modern China was based on an assertion of national sovereignty, so China should always respect the sovereignty of other nations, including, of course, our own,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters on Tuesday, The Financial Times reports:

Many other western nations, including the US and UK, prohibit foreign political donations, and Washington has expressed concern both over Chinese meddling in Australian politics and the role of a wealthy diaspora in Beijing’s drive to project soft power overseas. Mr Turnbull’s comments follow an investigation by Fairfax Media and Australian broadcaster ABC detailing A$6.7m in donations to the Liberal and Labor parties made by billionaires Huang Xiangmo and Chau Chak Wing. The report alleged that ASIO, Australia’s intelligence agency, had warned both parties in 2015 about accepting the pair’s donations because they had links to China’s Communist party. It also said that the warnings had not been heeded. 

The Chinese Communist Party… is after all a secretive and self-preserving political entity with 82 million members worldwide, significant mobilising power within Australia and an agenda sometimes directly at odds with Australia’s interests and institutions, notes Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.

Eight senior official sources said in confidential briefings that China was active on a much larger scale than other countries that also engaged in soft power or clandestine operations to wield influence, The Age adds.

“There’s an awareness of a problem, but the agencies themselves don’t have the mandate or the wherewithal to manage the problem,” said Medcalf, a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute.

It’s a tale of secrets, power and intimidation, said the ABC report, Power and Influence: The hard edge of China’s soft power, a joint Four Corners/Fairfax Media investigation which uncovers how China’s Communist Party is secretly infiltrating Australia.

“Every government has an interest in promoting itself abroad to extending its soft power, I guess what’s different about China is the way in which its run through these clandestine operations,” said one participant.

The investigation followed concerns expressed by Australian Labour MP Michael Danby (left), a member of the World Movement for Democracy’s steering committee. He commissioned a research paper from the Parliamentary Library on the issue 16 months ago.

John Fitzgerald, professor at Swinburne University of Technology, said all the available evidence pointed to an attempt by the businessmen to influence Australian politics in a manner that supported Chinese policy goals.

“Australians resent foreign interference in their electoral processes from any foreign source — America, Russia, China — as it can skew political outcomes and undermine faith in electoral systems,” he told the FT.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is making a big push to increase Chinese soft power in the world — even speaking of it in these terms, writes Harvard University’s Meghan L. O’Sullivan, who served on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007.

China’s Global ‘One Belt, One Road’, for example, has been described as a more audacious version of the Marshall Plan, spanning more than 68 countries and encompassing 4.4 billion people.

China’s ‘imperial overstretch’?

OBOR may be more than 12 times the size of the Marshall Plan, but Xi’s approach is not helping China’s international reputation, writes Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research:

OBOR projects lack transparency and entail no commitment to social or environmental sustainability. They are increasingly viewed as advancing China’s interests – including access to key commodities or strategic maritime and overland passages – at the expense of others. In a sense, OBOR seems to represent the dawn of a new colonial era – the twenty-first-century equivalent of the East India Company, which paved the way for British imperialism in the East. But, if China is building an empire, it seems already to have succumbed to what the historian Paul Kennedy famously called “imperial overstretch.”

China’s considerable efforts to modernize its foreign propaganda machine have only been partly successful in shifting international public opinion, analyst Anne-Marie Brady wrote for the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy:

On the one hand, CCP efforts to raise global awareness of the country’s economic transformation have been very effective, as have its efforts to shape the discourse on Taiwan. On the other hand, as polls and other research show, CCP efforts to improve non-Chinese foreigners’ perceptions of China’s domestic politics and role on the international stage have so far largely failed to sway these audiences.


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