Australia’s top spy agency has said it is combatting foreign governments’ “covert influence” in the country, as commentators and senior politicians raise fears regarding the Chinese Communist Party’s influence over Australian business, politics and university life.
In its annual report released this week, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) made a number of statements which – while not explicitly mentioning China – seem to allude to the Communist Party’s attempts to exert influence over business and politics in Australia.
“We continued to identify and investigate harmful espionage and foreign interference directed against Australia,” read the report.
“Ethnic and religious communities in Australia were also the subject of covert influence operations designed to diminish their criticism of foreign governments.”
The report was released amid concern regarding the influence of the Chinese Communist party on Australian university campuses and a warning from ASIO earlier this year that political donations from Chinese businessmen could be compromising the country’s democracy.
“These activities—undertaken covertly to obscure the role of foreign governments—represent a threat to our sovereignty, the integrity of our national institutions and the exercise of our citizens’ rights,” said ASIO.
Australian security agencies are reportedly at the forefront of efforts by the so-called Five Eyes intelligence partners – along with the UK, US, New Zealand and Canada – to combat the Chinese intrusion in western universities.
Earlier this week, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a warning to Chinese students that “this country prides itself on its values of openness and upholding freedom of speech, and if people want to come to Australia they are our laws,” as quoted by the ABC.
Counter-espionage and foreign interference efforts will be a “major focus” for ASIO in the coming years, said its report. “While we had a number of successes in identifying and degrading the harmful effects of espionage and foreign interference, the scale of the threat to Australia and its interests is unprecedented.”
Some 200,000 Chinese students were enrolled in Australian universities in 2016, and 1.2 million Chinese have visited the country as tourists over the past year.
Chinese agents are said to be placed on campuses in Australia, reporting on Chinese students who do not conform to the Communist Party’s ideological agenda. Student associations are used to tow the Communist Party line.
“Because many Chinese students have internalised the need to align with official views, maintaining Australia’s standards for free and open debate will remain a daunting challenge,” wrote Merriden Varrall, Lowy Institute’s East Asia Program director, recently.
Last year, the Australian Financial Review raised concerns regarding Communist Party-funded infrastructure for several Australian tertiary education institutions, claiming there was a “concerted campaign to promote Beijing’s strategic interests.”
The newspaper pointed to the University of Technology Sydney receiving an entire library from the Chinese government and an additional AUD1.8 million (US$1.3 million) for the Australia-China Relations Institute from the Chinese-owned Yuhu Group.
“We identified foreign powers clandestinely seeking to shape the opinions of members of the Australian public, media organisations and government officials in order to advance their country’s own political objectives,” added ASIO’s report.
Speaking earlier this month at the Confucius Institute at the University of Adelaide, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Secretary Frances Adamson emphasised that “Australia’s university campuses have a proud history of supporting free debate – of enabling the robust exchange of viewpoints.”
“Here I want to address my remarks to those of you who are international students: We want you to experience our contest of ideas and participate fully in it, as it is part of what constitutes an authentic Australian education,” said Adamson.
“The silencing of anyone in our society – from students to lecturers to politicians – is an affront to our values.”