One day in late May 2005, Chinese envoy Chen Yonglin gathered his wife and daughter, stepped out of his country’s consulate into the streets of Sydney, and defected to the Australian authorities.
Already disillusioned by the Chinese Communist Party’s widespread human rights abuses, Chen had bad news to tell. Australia, he said, was home to 1,000 Chinese spies. Two years later, Chen gave extensive interviews with The Epoch Times detailing Beijing’s campaign of propaganda, bribery, and blackmail to sway the large Chinese-Australian diaspora in favor of the Communist Party’s agenda.
Since then, Chen Yonglin’s warnings have become only more relevant for Australians as well as its Chinese community.
In recent years, Chinese billionaires with close links to the Communist Party have become major sponsors of Australian politicians, and run large-scale campaigns across media and universities targeting the overseas Chinese community.
As the Australian government struggles to study the effects of Beijing’s influence and impose restrictions on foreign influence in its political process, free discourse concerning the very fact of the Party’s long arm in Australia is coming under pressure.
“Even my freedom in Australia is increasingly under threat from China’s ‘soft power,’ said professor Chongyi Feng in an article run in Australia’s ABC News. Feng is a strong critic of the Chinese regime.
Earlier in 2017, Feng was barred from returning to Australia, where he lives, by the Chinese authorities when he went to China to visit relatives. He was only allowed to return home after being subject to an interrogation under the pretense of aiding a legal investigation.
In November, a book called “Silent Invasion: How China Is Turning Australia into a Puppet State” was dropped from publication by Australian publisher Allen & Unwin.
In a personal email to author Clive Hamilton, the publisher’s chief executive Robert Gorman admitted that while he had “no doubt that ‘Silent Invasion’ is an extremely significant book,” he was also worried about “potential threats to the book and the company from possible action by Beijing.”
At the behest of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has begun investigating attempts by Chinese billionaires with connections to the Communist Party to exert influence over Australian politicians.
In one widely scrutinized case, Labor Party senator Sam Dastyari twice contacted Australian immigration authorities to personally support a donor, Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo, in his application for Australian citizenship.
Huang has ties to the Chinese Communist Party through a number of organizations, including his role as the Australian branch leader of a Party-controlled association that supports Taiwan’s reunification with mainland China under the communist regime.
In the 2000s, when the diplomat Chen Yonglin defected in Sydney, he spoke in detail about how representatives of the Communist Party operating in Australia and other nations were required to actively push the Party line as regards groups and individuals it considers its political enemies—chiefly among them Tibetan exiles, Taiwanese, Uighur Muslims, democracy activists, and practitioners of Falun Gong.
The spiritual practice of Falun Gong, which has been subjected to the biggest communist persecution campaign since the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), also became one of Beijing’s prime targets for overseas attack.
While Falun Gong adherents living beyond China have been active in condemning the Party’s persecution of their faith, the extent of regime influence in Australia’s Chinese-language media curtailed their means of public expression, said Chen Yonglin in one of his interviews with The Epoch Times.
According to an editor at a pro-Chinese regime media speaking in interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, “Nearly 95 per cent of the Australian Chinese newspapers have been brought in by the Chinese government to some degree.”
Due to its size, prosperity, and geostrategic position, Australia is an important diplomatic target for the Chinese regime.
But the Communist Party is perhaps most keen on establishing control over the growing Australian Chinese community to shore up its efforts to “maintain stability”—that is, suppress social and political dissent—at home.
As described in the work of specialist James To, Beijing affects these goals through a body of policies known by the Chinese abbreviation of “qiaowu” or “overseas Chinese affairs.”
In 2014, a Chinese student called Tony Chang left his country to study in Australia. Chang was on the Party’s watchlist. In 2008, when he was 14, he had been arrested in 2008 for hanging pro-Taiwanese independence banners in his hometown. As reported by ABC News, he had been questioned by the authorities earlier in 2014, an event that partially motivated his decision to go abroad.
Residing in Australia, Chang stepped up his political activism. In response, Chinese security agents took his parents, still living in their hometown of Shenyang in northeast China, for a tense round of questioning in a tea shop.
“The agents pressed the point that my parents must ask me to stop what I am taking part in and keep a low profile,” Chang said in a statement made to Australian authorities.
Chang is just one of over 1.2 million Chinese or people of Chinese descent living in Australia—a figure that has nearly doubled since 2006. Many of the recent arrivals come from mainland China and are already steeped in the Communist Party’s political culture. A large number of university associations with ties to Chinese consular establishments bring the some 100,000 Chinese exchange students in Australia under the Party’s aegis.
Though the Communist Party prefers to establish a united front—that is, a network of political influence and control pioneered by Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin—among the Chinese Australians, individuals like Tony Chang fall under what specialist James To called “coercive measures.”
According to ABC News, pro-regime Chinese student leader Lupin Lu “stressed the importance of blocking out anti-communist protesters.”
For the Chinese Australian community, the risks associated with expressing dissenting opinions or sympathy means that many remain apolitical or silent. Drawing from the example of Prof. Chongyi Feng, who was detained and interrogated because of his dissident views upon visiting China, Beijing and its consular operations wield considerable powers of coaxing overseas Chinese into submission.
In June 2005, shortly after Chen Yonglin’s defection, Chinese ex-secret policeman Hao Fengjun corroborated Chen’s assertion that Australian society was heavily penetrated by Chinese spies. As a former member of the 610 Office, a Communist Party commission tasked with handling Falun Gong, he also confirmed that Beijing targeted ethnic and religious minorities overseas in addition to persecuting them in China.
“The control of the overseas Chinese community has been a consistent strategy of the Chinese Communist Party and is the result of painstaking planning and management for dozens of years,” Chen Yonglin said. “It’s not just in Australia. It is done this way in other countries like the U.S. and Canada, too.”