Democracies Start Pushing Back Against Chinese Regime Subversion

After decades of infiltration by the Chinese Communist Party, nations wake up to threat to their way of life
By Paul Huang
Paul Huang
Paul Huang
January 4, 2018Updated: January 7, 2018

News Analysis

The Chinese regime’s decadeslong attempt to influence the politics of other nations may have run into a roadblock in the year 2017. From Australia to the United States, countries around the world have begun awakening to the painful realization that the doors they willingly opened to China for trade and cultural exchange have let in the Chinese regime’s encroachment on their political institutions and way of life.

Concern over the Chinese regime’s illegitimate influence recently came to a head in Australia, the country in the U.S. web of alliances that is perhaps the most heavily dependent on China. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, both in terms of import and export. At least 8 percent of Australians are of Chinese ethnicity, and more than 200,000 Chinese students are thought to be studying in Australia at any given time.

In 2017, Australian media delivered a series of high-profile investigative reports and headline stories about the Chinese Communist Party’s control and influence over Australia’s political institutions, businesses, and academia, as well as the Chinese students studying there. The reports changed the conversation in Australia about relations with China.

The face of the subversion of Australia’s politics might be that of Sam Dastyari, formerly a senator representing New South Wales. He resigned on Dec. 12, after details emerged about donations he received from companies owned by Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo.

Attempts by the Chinese government to guide, buy, or coerce political influence and control discussion of ‘sensitive’ topics are pervasive, and pose serious challenges in the United States and our like-minded allies.
— Marco Rubio, U.S. senator

Huang, until recently, was head of the Sydney-based Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, which has ties to the United Front Work Department, a key apparatus for the Chinese regime’s political warfare.

Critics have charged that, in return for money, Dastyari took pro-China positions, including accepting the regime’s attempts to lay claim on the South China Sea.

Among those critics was Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who said, “Sam Dastyari is a very clear case of somebody who has literally taken money from people closely associated with the Chinese government and, in return for that, has delivered essentially Chinese policy statements.”

The problem for Australia is that Dastyari is not alone in taking money from the Chinese regime. The Australian Broadcasting Company counted 13 payments between November 2014 and June 2016 from Huang’s companies to Australian politicians.

On Dec. 7, Turnbull introduced a set of bills intended to counter foreign influence in Australia’s politics.

The Chinese regime responded sternly to Turnbull’s criticism of its interference in Australia’s politics, which led Turnbull to assert Australia’s sovereignty, saying, “And so we say, the Australian people stand up.”

Epoch Times Photo
Australian Labor Party Sen. Sam Dastyari makes a public apology in Sydney on Sept. 6, 2016, after details emerged about his links to the Chinese regime. (WILLIAM WEST/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)


The Chinese regime’s encroachments have also set off alarm bells in Australia’s neighbor New Zealand, whose intelligence service issued a warning in December that Beijing’s rapidly growing political influence in the country poses a national security threat.

In one country after another, a similar backlash has started against the Chinese regime’s influence. Germany has traditionally kept quiet about the Chinese regime’s misdeeds, but the country’s intelligence agency reported recently that China is attempting to infiltrate Germany’s political institutions and businesses by using fake social media profiles.

In the United States over the past year, the media and political establishments have tended to be preoccupied with alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Nonetheless, concern over China’s influence in the United States is growing.

China’s influence operations overseas, particularly in the United States, have been extensively covered by The Epoch Times in past reports.

China’s Playbook

Among those calling attention to the threat posed by the Chinese regime is China and East Asia analyst Gordon Chang. He said the Chinese are able to move patiently in subverting other countries because they believe “time is on their side.”  

Chinese strategic thinking, both historically and in modern days, has been fundamentally shaped by the teachings of ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, whose preferred strategy of winning a war was to subdue one’s enemy without actually fighting costly battles against it.

It is widely believed that the Chinese government cultivates informants among its citizens studying abroad.

The strategy, often described as “political warfare,” places a high premium on the exploitation of any policy or tool outside the traditional definition of “hard” military power to achieve the desired political, economic, and diplomatic objectives.

Such exploitation can take place via political, societal, commercial, economic, legal, psychological, cultural, and other means, according to Michael Tsai, Taiwan’s former minister of defense. Tsai compared Taiwan’s experience with that of the United States, and said that both countries have been the prime targets of China’s political warfare operations for decades.

A critical part of China’s political warfare is its United Front strategy, which involves compromising critical individuals and institutions that are outside of the Chinese regime’s direct grasp. By deceiving these foreign actors, or exploiting their weaknesses, the Chinese regime manipulates them into doing its bidding, often acting against their own interest or the interest of their home countries.

Control of Media

“Attempts by the Chinese government to guide, buy, or coerce political influence and control discussion of ‘sensitive’ topics are pervasive and pose serious challenges in the United States and our like-minded allies,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), at a Dec. 13 hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), titled “The Long Arm of China: Exporting Authoritarianism with Chinese Characteristics.”

Controlling public opinion is a key goal of China’s United Front, said Glenn Tiffert, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution who testified at the CECC hearing. Tiffert said that internal Chinese sources regularly depict public opinion as a “battlefield” in which political struggle must be waged and won.

According to Tiffert, China does not seek to control public opinion simply through winning the hearts and minds of Americans—it is also appealing to Americans’ wallets in conducting influence operations. More often than not, China finds that it could subdue many American individuals and organizations simply by exerting economic pressure and compelling them to support Beijing’s agenda.

The appeal of the Chinese market is used to entice American companies into abandoning their principles. At the CECC hearing, Shanthi Kalathil, of the National Endowment for Democracy, pointed out the example of Apple, which recently succumbed to pressure from the Chinese regime to remove from its Chinese app store applications that help Chinese users bypass the “Great Firewall,” the regime’s system for surveilling and censoring the internet.

Rubio pointed out the examples of the networking site LinkedIn and Facebook, which each agreed to censor content in order to gain access to the Chinese market.

Fear of a lawsuit from the Chinese regime led Australian publisher Allen & Unwin to delay the publication of a book that, ironically, details the Chinese regime’s campaign of influence in the country.

Springer Nature is described by Publisher’s Weekly as the world’s largest academic book publisher. It removed more than 1,000 sensitive articles from one of its journals on topics the Chinese regime would deem “sensitive.” Springer likely did so not only to comply with China’s censorship directives and therefore ensure market access in China, but also to court Chinese tech giant Tencent, which it recently partnered with.

In a previous interview, professor Lynette Ong, a China and Asia specialist at the University of Toronto, told The Epoch Times, “The partnership between a major Chinese media company and Springer will most likely [mean Springer Nature will] have no qualms censoring its content in or outside China, for commercial or political reasons.”

As a result, trusted Western academic publications may now deliver Beijing-approved messages, with readers being none the wiser.

Epoch Times Photo
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop speaks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on Feb. 17, 2016. (FRED DUFOUR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Control of Academics and Students

U.S. congressional panels, such as the CECC, have repeatedly suggested to investigate China’s expanding network of Confucius Institutes across American college campuses, a presence that Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) described as essentially an “academic malware” in the United States.

Confucius Institutes provide instruction in Chinese language and culture at colleges and universities outside China. They are funded by Beijing, which has control over hiring staff.

According to Shanthi Kalathil in her testimony before the CECC, Confucius Institutes are noted for their “disregard of key tenets of academic freedom” and for their “ability to function as an arm of the Chinese state within academic campuses.” The institutes naturally serve as prime tools to disseminate regime propaganda in the United States.

China has also been discretely involved in funding some of America’s elite think tanks and graduate schools. A November article in Foreign Policy reported that Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, one of the top international relations schools in the country, has received funding for an endowed professorship and a research project from the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), an organization registered as a foreign agent of China.

A Chinese billionaire with ties to the regime’s military donated $10 million to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.

Control Through Coercion

When China fails to achieve its goals through either deception or bribery, it resorts to coercion to do the job. Tiffert said it is widely believed that the Chinese government cultivates informants among its citizens studying abroad, and that Chinese students in America are painfully aware of the consequences they or their families might suffer if informants report on them.

For instance, in 2008, a Chinese student at Duke University was vilified back home in China and her family was threatened, after she attempted to mediate between groups on campus that were pro-Tibet and pro-China.

In 2017, a graduating senior from China at the University of Maryland was coerced into issuing an apology after her commencement address, in which she praised life in the United States, went viral in China. She was accused of being a “traitor” by state media.

The Chinese regime also extends its coercion to those in the United States that it perceives to be obstacles to its political warfare. It targets the practitioners of the spiritual discipline Falun Gong, a group that has been persecuted heavily in China but has consistently demonstrated the will to expose the crimes of the Chinese regime without hesitation, said Levi Browde, the executive director of the Falun Dafa Information Center.

Browde said that over the years, there have been documented cases in which the Chinese regime employed thugs to physically intimidate and assault Falun Gong practitioners in the United States. Chinese diplomats have also used economic and political means to attempt to force U.S. officials and institutions not to engage with Falun Gong, or speak or act on Falun Gong’s behalf. Federal, state, and local officials have often publicized the regime’s clumsy attempts to coerce them.

Growing Call for a US-led Coalition

Ultimately, the objection to the Chinese regime’s efforts at influencing other countries is a response to the nature of the regime itself. The Chinese Communist Party has committed crimes against humanity since it began ruling China, and in recent decades has committed such crimes in persecuting Falun Gong and ethnic and religious minorities in China. The communist regime denies its people democracy and the rule of law, while suppressing democracy activists, and it has tightened surveillance and censorship inside China to degrees formerly not thought possible. On the world stage, it cheats in international trade and steals intellectual property from other nations in a wholesale fashion, and it fails to abide by international agreements it has signed.

As the Chinese regime attempts to expand its sphere of influence, the world’s democracies see that their own principles and ways of life are under attack.

Turnbull’s defiant declaration on Dec. 9 that the Australian people will stand up to China’s challenge has been echoed by members of the U.S. Congress.

The chairmen of the CECC, Rubio and Smith, issued statements supporting the Australian position and calling for the U.S. administration to take more assertive action in challenging the threats posed by China, although it is not clear what action the Trump administration may take in this regard.

“Long-time [U.S.] allies Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have been rocked by scandals involving Chinese-sponsored influence operations targeting politicians, businesses, and academic institutions,” said Smith. “All like-minded democratic allies should be supporting their efforts to root out those elements intended to corrupt or co-opt Australian political and academic institutions.”

In a recent op-ed, Rubio also called for a stronger U.S. alliance with Australia, Japan, and India. An alliance of the four “like-minded” democracies—known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”—was pitched by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 but dropped after China protested.

The re-emergence of the idea, a decade after China’s vehement insistence that the communist regime posed no threat to the four democracies, has ironically been propelled, at least partially, by a common revulsion against the regime’s political influence.