Beijing has been grooming Australian business leaders to lobby the federal government to change its policy settings on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), amid rising scepticism of Australia-China relations, according to Professor Clive Hamilton, an expert on CCP influence.
Hamilton, author of “Silent Invasion”–which details Beijing’s influence operations in Australia–said the CCP was leveraging business “proxies” to pressure the government. The activities of these proxies have escalated in the fallout from the recent Beijing-instigated trade dispute.
The trade dispute has seen tariffs, bans, and warnings imposed on Australian exports to China affecting the barley, meat, coal, travel, and education industries.
“[The CCP] routinely mobilises business groups and corporate leaders in the targeted country to apply pressure on their government to relent,” he stated in a submission (pdf) to a parliamentary inquiry into diversifying Australia’s trade relationships.
“A few hints from Chinese officials about how it would be a pity to jeopardize a good relationship is usually enough to prompt business lobbies and mining tycoons to speak out in public or to privately pressure senior ministers to capitulate to Beijing’s demands,” he said.
Hamilton called this a “well-drilled tactic” commonly employed by the communist regime called “yi shang bi zheng” meaning – using business to pressure government.
On April 26, Chinese Ambassador Cheng Jingye’s said the Chinese public was “frustrated, dismayed, and disappointed” in Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s calls for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic.
When pressed on whether Beijing would boycott trade with Australia, the ambassador said, “tourists may have second thoughts.”
He continued: “Maybe the parents of the students would also think whether this place, which they find is not so friendly, even hostile, is the best place to send their kids to.
“Maybe the ordinary people will think why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef. Why couldn’t we do it differently?”
Hamilton said the ambassador’s comments were calculated, targeting export-reliant industries, and designed to send a message to “vice chancellors, tourism executives, farmer representatives, and wine exporters to pressure Canberra to back down.”
“It’s worth noticing that as soon as Beijing expressed its ire at Minister Payne’s call for an inquiry, several influential commentators who frequently call for appeasement of China went on the attack, castigating the government for its ineptness and for provoking Beijing ‘unnecessarily,’” he said.
In late April, two prominent West Australian billionaires Andrew Forrest and Kerry Stokes caused a stir when they called on the Australian government to ease its rhetoric around China, at a time when there was bipartisan support for an inquiry into the virus.
Forrest, a mining magnate and chairman of Fortescue Metals (which ships 1.3 billion tonnes of iron ore to China each year) invited Melbourne’s Chinese consul general to speak at a joint press conference with the health minister on April 29 as an “olive branch” to ease diplomatic tensions.
Kerry Stokes, a media mogul with previous business interests in China, gave an interview on April 30 in the West Australian newspaper (which is owned by Stokes’ company Seven West Media) warning the Australian prime minister to “stop making accusations” and pushed for the government to “mend relations with China.”
Hamilton said business leaders had been “groomed” over many years and were “easy targets for the CCP’s techniques of persuasion.”
“Their minds have been rewired so that they believe that whatever keeps Beijing contented is in their own and their country’s interests,” he wrote.
Years of grooming can result in business leaders speaking up for Beijing, even if there is no financial gain at stake.
Hamilton also called into question foreign investment from Chinese firms saying Australia’s due diligence on China-based companies needed “urgent upgrading.”
“Due diligence faces special barriers when the information must come from China’s extremely opaque court system, corporate regulators, banking system and complaints mechanisms,” he said.
Hamilton made three recommendations to the federal government. The first is to liaise with industries deemed vulnerable and overly exposed to the China market. They should be encouraged to factor in potential risks in their business planning and be told they cannot rely on taxpayer support if risks evolve into problems.
The second recommendation is to direct Austrade to play a more proactive role in diversifying Australia’s trade relationships.
Third, the government can introduce a levy on exports to compensate companies if they are penalised by Beijing. Hamilton referred to Beijing’s plan to compensate brewers in China for the increased cost of barley imports—a consequence of the regime imposing 80 percent tariffs on Australian barley.
The “China Inquiry” is examining Australia’s trade relations and will look into whether the country is too reliant on one trading partner.
The inquiry was spearheaded by Queensland federal politician George Christensen who told Parliament on May 12 that Australia was at a “crossroads” and it needed to stand up for its “sovereignty and economic independence.”
“With more than 36 percent of our exports being sold to China, representing 7.9 percent of GDP, it’s clear we have put too many eggs in the one basket,” he said.