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

While this was extraordinary enough, there are other, even more disturbing reports. One involves an offer to provide the Australian Labor Party AUD$400,000 (Rp 4.1 billion) at the height of Australia’s 2016 election campaign. According to the report, the offer was withdrawn after Labor’s spokesperson for defense affairs restated the party’s position that in government it would be open to conducting freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, an issue of critical sensitivity to China.

This was one of the revelations from forensic media investigations by Fairfax Media and ABC TV’s highly respected “Four Corners” program. It has also been reported that Australia’s main political parties have received close to AUD$6 million in donations during the last few years from individuals associated with the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China. This council, in turn, is reported to have connections to the United Front Work Department, an organization that reports to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Of course, what is not clear is the precise calculation behind each such donation, and those calculations may vary from case to case.

Several explanations are possible. One, of course, is that those making the donations have such admiration and respect for Australia’s democratic political system – so distinct, as it is, from the Chinese party-state – that they would like to invest in its dynamism and longevity. Unlikely. Another possible reason is that this is partly about buying profile, status and access for personal and commercial reasons. One donor has been quoted in the Chinese media as saying that this is akin to buying protection from “bandits.” There is also the possible explanation that enthusiastic individuals, with what they may see as patriotic Chinese intent, are freelancing by making donations that they think will resonate well among the powers that be in China. Another possible explanation is that political donations are encouraged by the Chinese Communist Party as part of its wider efforts at influence abroad.

Each of us is entitled to draw his or her own conclusions from all of this. But whatever the mix of motives, one thing is clear: the donations were enough for the director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization to take the highly unusual step of directly warning the major parties that they and Australia’s national security could be compromised by such donations. For the head of ASIO to take such a step suggests he was genuinely worried, from a national security and national interest point of view, about Chinese donations.

Security agencies cannot take effective action on any of this, because it has been entirely legal – all they can do is raise the alarm. It is now up to the political class to decide whether there is within Australian democracy enough self-respect to function without money linked to the Chinese Communist Party. This, after all, is a massive, secretive, self-interested and foreign entity, with interests that can sometimes clash directly with Australia’s.

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