Former Labor senator Sam Dastyari

Australia’s intelligence agencies, with the encouragement and facilitation of the government, have sent a clear signal to the China lobby active in Australian public affairs: you and your connections to the Chinese regime are being monitored and you will publicly exposed if you embrace Beijing too closely.

The savaging of Labor’s Sam Dastyari, who was sacked from his Senate committee and deputy whip positions overnight by Bill Shorten, is serving as an exemplary punishment for any figures in politics who are close to mainland Chinese figures. And especially those tempted to take an overly Sinophilic approach to key issues of policy, as Dastyari did — and appeared to do quite deliberately, not as a kind of misspeaking accident he portrayed it as.

The fact that it’s a Labor figure suits the government, which is desperate for something, anything, to distract from its profound woes. But there is plenty of Chinese influence within the Liberal Party, too. Long gone are the days when Labor had a monopoly on cultivating six-figure Chinese donors. The ferocity of the government’s attack on Dastyari might end up backfiring when the next Liberal is exposed for similarly close links to Beijing-connected figures. And remember, Labor tried to ban foreign donations in 2009 but was blocked by the Coalition.

But the broader point is that Australia’s intelligence establishment, with the blessing of the government, is determined to counter Beijing’s growing influence and the normalisation of its efforts to interfere in Australian politics and public debate by silencing criticism of it. Whether via Australian and Chinese-Australian business figures, prominent academics, former politicians or Chinese-Australian community groups, the China lobby has worked diligently to push Beijing’s line, especially on the South China Sea and Australia’s alliance with the United States. 

Part of this normalisation process is to obscure the astonishing brutality of the Beijing regime, the near complete absence of the rule of law, its execution of thousands of people a year for a wide variety of violent and non-violent crimes, as well as its systematic oppression of minorities and the people of occupied countries and its relentless commercial espionage against other countries. One cannot be “friends” with such a regime; even from a point of view of pure self-interest, it cannot be trusted to behave in any way other than strictly in accordance with the interests of the regime and the ruling Communist Party, rather than the interests of the Chinese nation.

With Dastyari’s head now on a pike, the agencies charged with curbing China’s malign influence within Australia will be hoping other members of the China lobby heed the message.

Peter Fray

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