June 13, 2017

Australian media sets misleading agenda on China


By Xu Shaomin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/13 17:43:40

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Illustration: Liu Rui/GT



A Fairfax Media/ABC joint investigation has asserted that the Chinese state has been exercising covert influence on Australian soil. This culminated in the Four Corners program, titled "Power and Influence: the hard edge of China's soft power." It claimed a full revelation in four key issues. First, closed links between political and business brokers and lobbyists in Australia and Chinese companies supposedly associated with the Communist Party of China (CPC). Second, the millions of dollars in political donations to two major Australian parties (the Liberal and Labor parties) from two key Chinese businessmen. Third, the surveillance and intimidation of Australia-based Chinese dissidents. And finally, party spies monitoring Chinese students at leading Australian universities. 

If "soft power" is conceptualized as the power of attraction, in stark contrast to coercion and payment as a definitional fiat of "hard power," the title of this program is confusing, and even misleading given that it makes us believe that China's soft power is, by and large, an iron fist in a velvet glove. 

In effect, the vulgarization of such key academic terminology as "soft power" by the media, without clarifying the boundary between soft and hard power, may easily mislead the target audience and have consequences for shaping public opinions, creating serious political ramifications. While the time-honored Confucian idea of "rectification of names" (zhengming in Chinese) has long been taken seriously by the Chinese, the wisdom of using "right" titles or words to describe things is also common sense for Australians. In general, many tenuous connections between various issues are taken for granted in this program on the presupposition that they are inextricably connected and controlled by a unitary, Big Brother-like CPC pulling the strings behind the scenes. This does not convincingly explain how and to what extent these different issues are linked in reality. 

Presumably this also applied to the massive political donations from two key Chinese businessmen, Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo, key Chinese businessmen in Australia who allegedly serve the CPC, either directly or indirectly, and because of their "original sin" in this regard, they must be heavily scrutinized by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO). 

Along these lines, this program simply sets out to provide support to the argument, rather than presenting any hard evidence to verify such a hypothetical guanxi between two Chinese businessmen and the CPC. 

Moreover, this program seems to jump to the conclusion that both Chinese businessmen have calculated their insidious political purposes, for which they seek to buy influence and access to the Australian political system, despite the fact that the ASIO investigation has not yet concluded. A reasonable explanation for all this is that the Australian mainstream media as a whole attempt to set the Chinese agenda, which subsequently shapes public opinion, with a view to push political elites to take actions against this perceived threat. 

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's subsequent warning to China to respect Australian sovereignty sets the tone for the significance of the Australian mainstream media's agenda-setting. If this agenda becomes increasingly pronounced, it will complicate the relationship between Australia and China, and may even have significant political implications for ethnic Chinese living in Australia. The Chinese community in Australia has the potential to be negatively categorized and increasingly marginalized, becoming a victim of "the spiral of silence" as their fear of isolation leads to keeping silent instead of voicing their opinions on issues that concern them.

As the issue of China's covert influence in Australia "ferments," it is time for the two nations to cooperate, rather than talk past each other. For those who strongly believe that the Big Brother of the CPC is watching them, it is important to bear this question in mind: to what extent does Australia really matter in China's domestic and foreign policy architecture?  

The author is a research fellow of the Institute of Public Policy, South China University of Technology. He was just granted a PhD degree by the University of Western Australia. Dr. Andrew Chubb (The University of Western Australia), Dr. James Oswald (Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, Beijing), and Dr. Will Lee (The University of Western Australia) contributed to the article

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