In Australia, students from mainland China and from Hong Kong came to blows over the latter’s protesting the controversial extradition bill in the past months, with the most serious incidents occurring at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

While a dispute of this severity between Chinese students on an overseas campus is perhaps unprecedented, the events echo protests by Chinese students abroad in the past. For some, the recent disputes might bring to mind the 2008 protests during the Olympic torch relay, as well as one incident in 2017 in which Chinese students drove to Sydney University in Bentleys emblazoned with the Chinese flag to protest the Doklam border standoff with India. But for most Australians, these disputes simply amount to an image problem for China, as people are left with the impression that Beijing wields considerable influence over how students conduct themselves abroad.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Pro-China supporters wave flags before the start of the Olympic torch relay in Canberra April 24, 2008.

While it is problematic to label the behavior of any particular group, these clashes are evidence of the effect that patriotic education programs have had on Chinese youth, who are in large part brought up with the oversimplified narrative that China’s recent history is largely one of oppression by foreign nations (and therefore China needs to be a strong power to resist this).

What Does “Chinese Influence” Mean In Australia?

What complicates the subject further is the increased talk of “Chinese influence” in Australian politics over the last two years, much of which has amounted to a blurred understanding of the relationship between the two countries.

Perhaps the most recent misguided contribution to the public discussion about China were the inflammatory remarks from an Australian minister of parliament Andrew Hastie who described Australia’s situation vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as similar to that between France and Nazi Germany in the 1930s. This loose historical analogy naturally summoned the ire of Beijing. Not only do these sorts of nebulous characterizations of China needlessly feed into the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative to mainland Chinese that foreigners are “against them,” but they might also further muddy the image Australians have formed of the PRC in the last two years.

The question of “Chinese influence” came to a head in late 2017 when Australian MP Sam Dastyari was reported to have made remarks on South China Sea policy that were sympathetic to Beijing's. Arguing that it was not Australia’s place to be involved in the dispute, a view which contradicted both the Australian government’s as well as his own party’s stances, Dastyari soon resigned amid evidence that he was persuaded to make these comments by CCP-affiliated financial donors.

Australia China Trade

Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, back center, watches as China's Minister of Commerce Gao Hucheng, second left, and Australian Minister for Trade Andrew Robb, second right, sign a free trade agreement between the two countries in Canberra, Australia, June 17, 2015.

Since then, media and thinktank reportage on China’s “influence operations” abroad has substantially increased, particularly in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Coverages have focused on the activities of the United Front Work Department, a CCP organ established during the revolutionary period to rally allies to the Communist cause. Today, the department is said to manage extensive networks including organizations and prominent business figures that operate abroad to promote the CCP’s political interests.

It is before this backdrop that the rather imprecise phrase “China influence” irreversibly reshaped Australian political discourse. The issue naturally led some academic commentators to suggest that the discussion of “China influence” in Australia would too easily slide towards a sort of new Red Scare or McCarthyism against the Chinese community in Australia.

The fault for this misnomer lies in part with the 2018 polemical tome Silent Invasion, by the Australian public intellectual Clive Hamilton, which attempted to provide an overview of CCP activities in Australian society and was criticized for its somewhat overblown rhetoric. The controversy surrounding the book was exacerbated by the original publisher’s postponing its printing due to fears about the potential response from Beijing.

Australia's Rhetorical Shift: From "Chinese Influence" to "Beijing Interference"

Australia has historically held a strong suspicion towards foreign influence, including Western allies. The establishment of closer ties with the United States following the Second World War has been met consistently with public criticism, particularly with regard to its military installations on Australian soil and its record of military interventionism globally.

What seems so peculiar about Australia’s relationship with China in the 21st century is that an equivalent level of cautionary rhetoric had not been maintained. Rather an all-embracing and optimistic tone of mutual economic benefit has entirely overshadowed the harder discussion about the foundationally different political values (and strategic aims) of the two trade partners.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Protesters hold a banner as they walk down Elizabeth St in Sydney, Australia, during a protest against Hong Kong's proposed extradition law, June 9, 2019.

Ultimately, the problem is one of clarity. In Hong Kong, the lines of Beijing’s overreach are very clearly demarcated – namely, the revocation of the extradition bill. This results from the territory’s informed elites, particularly in the legal community, informing civil society of the consequences of Beijing’s demands.

Australia's experience, however, demonstrates a lack of corroboration between media organizations, the academic community, as well as state and federal governments, to engage in dialogue more openly whenever problems regarding Beijing arise. But much headway has been made since 2017, as the rhetoric surrounding problems in its relations with Beijing has shifted from “China influence” to “Beijing interference,” just as the CCP’s activities have been brought into sharper focus.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is to keep a closer eye on the work of the Party, rather than on the People.

READ NEXT: Australia to Examine Press Freedom After Police Raids on Journalists

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

If you've enjoyed this article and wish to receive more story updates, please be sure to like our Facebook page below.