SYDNEY—When politician Clive Palmer claimed in January that the Liberal National Party (LNP) in Queensland was ready to offload state owned power networks to the Chinese, he hit a nerve in the electorate.
The China-owned State Grid had just appointed HSBC to act for the company to buy $50 billion worth of assets that the Queensland and NSW Governments want to sell.
“Our assets will still be owned by government but it won’t be our government—it will be the Chinese government,” Mr Palmer said in a statement.
That was in January before the Queensland state election which saw the LNP lose power to the Labor Party in what was seen as an unlosable election.
Fears about those asset sales were a significant contributor to the loss and while it may not have been all about Australia’s northern neighbour, it is likely Mr Palmer tapped into concern within the electorate about the growing influence of China.
Research conducted by Sydney think tank the Lowy Institute indicates there is underlying concern about China’s growing influence in the region.
The majority (56 per cent) of Australians surveyed said that the Australian Government is allowing too much investment from China, according to a 2014 Lowy Institute poll. The results have changed little over five years of similar polls.
Almost half the population also believes China could become a military threat to Australia within the next 20 years.
Are the concerns unfounded? Studies from human rights organisations and defense specialists suggest not. Below are ten reasons to be concerned about the present administration in China.
1. It is a one party, authoritarian system
China is not a democracy, and contrary to the view that under new leader Xi Jinping rights are improving, conditions are becoming more oppressive and authoritarian, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) in their 2015 world report. Chinese authorities have also taken a hard line on democratic aspirations in Hong Kong, the report notes.
2. Opaque and aggressive military strategy
Increasing military spending, a lack of transparency, aggressive actions and a refusal to engage in dialogue are behaviours adding to concerns about an arms race in North Asia, says Australian National University’s Professor Des Ball, one of Australia’s top security analysts. Specific military concerns include: damaging cyber-espionage and cyber-warfare attacks; increasing numbers of surveillance and military intelligence satellites; and the development of long range ‘carrier killer’ missiles, sophisticated military planes, drones and ships, according to the US Dept of Defence.
3. Rule By Law rather than Rule of Law
Despite a new focus on the constitution by leader Xi Jinping, corruption remains rife in China and Chinese authorities on both the national and the local levels use the law to suit their own interests or the interests of the Communist Party. Those who propose changes in line with the constitution face harassment and jail time.
4. Restrictions on press freedom
China ranks 175 out of 180 in the 2014 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RWB). It is also the world’s worst jailer of journalists according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), jumping from 32 journalists in 2013 to 44 journalists in jails in 2014.
5. Religious repression
Human rights organisations have documented the treatment of religious groups that fall outside the control and monitoring of the state. These groups are often prohibited and demonised as “evil cults” by Chinese officials and the state media. The government has stepped up control in 2014, increasing arrests particularly of Christians, HRW reported. Falun Gong, a meditation and exercise practice banned since July 1999, also “continues to suffer state persecution”, the HRW report noted.
6. Propaganda exported
Chinese authorities export mainland views to Chinese communities outside China. A study conducted last year by Dr John Fitzgerald, from Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology, found that the majority of Chinese newspapers in Australia were owned, run or under the influence of mainland China. “Chinese Australians are being lectured, monitored, organised and policed in Australia on instruction from Beijing as never before,” he said in a paper for online journal, The Asan Forum. Australian language students may also encounter propaganda via the controversial Confucius Institutes program.
7. Foreign policy
As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, China regularly blocks scrutiny of human rights abuses, even in other countries. In 2014, China voted down resolutions “spotlighting abuses in North Korea, Iran, Sri Lanka, Belarus, Ukraine, as well as Syria”, according to the HRW report. Pressure on other states by China ensures that Taiwan remains unrecognised by many countries, and that Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is restricted in the countries that will allow him to visit.
8. Regional dominance
China has claimed nearly all of the South China Sea and made provocative grabs for territory in East China Sea. In doing so it has picked fights with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. The provocations heighten concerns about stability and that Chinese authorities are intent on establishing China as the pre-eminent power in the region. “Beijing is not satisfied with the status quo in the South China Sea and it is amassing capabilities to gradually change the situation to its advantage,” writes US-based analyst Bonnie Glaser for the Lowy Institute.
9. Organ harvesting
An estimated 150,000 Chinese prisoners have died in the last 15 years because of forced organ harvesting, according to New York based NGO, Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting. Many of those have been prisoners of conscience from ethnic and religious minority groups, but primarily from Falun Gong practitioners.
10. Delusion about China
Of most concern is that the international community and Australia have convinced themselves that China is improving despite all the contrary evidence, says Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher with HRW. Humans rights are rarely raised, often reduced to “human rights dialogues” which have become mere formalities, conducted behind closed doors and with low level officials.
“After years of finding justifications for not taking up human rights issues publicly with China, the Australian Government has ended up believing its own – and China’s – propaganda about “the human rights situation improving overall”, “encouraging signs”, and, above all, that “human rights matters are best raised in private meetings”, Mr Bequelin wrote on ABC’s The Drum, December last year.