Clive Hamilton. Credit: Takver

Clive Hamilton

Clive Hamilton, it’s fair to say, has an issue with China. In February 2014, he published an article in The Guardian claiming that “cash pouring in from China” was driving Sydney housing prices up. “A good deal of secrecy surrounds the trend, yet observers know something worrying is happening,” he insisted. Alas, Clive and The Guardian came a cropper; The Guardian ended up editing his article and appending a note to it:

This article was amended soon after publication on 18 February 2014 to correct the headline, a misreported statistic and some loosely paraphrased anecdotes, the combined effect of which had been to overstate the evidence then available about the impact Chinese investment was having on Sydney’s rising residential real estate prices.

Sloppiness, strange anecdotes and loose phrasing similarly undermine Hamilton’s latest screed on China, Silent Invasion. A few examples: his foundational anecdote about the outburst of Sinofascist aggression that attended the Olympic torch relay in Canberra in April 2008, is set at “the lawns outside Parliament House”; in fact they were at Reconciliation Place, down by Lake Burley-Griffin. He maintains, without evidence, that “in the Australian public mind” “only China saved us from the 2008 global recession” and that it is “impolite to mention the systemic nature of corruption in China”.

In 2012, Four Corners did not report that “China-based hackers” had penetrated the Australian Security Intelligence Service. Tenuous links to China are played up: Bob Carr’s wife Helena is referred to as “of Malaysian-Chinese descent”; the University of Technology Sydney “abuts Chinatown”. Former PM&C Secretary Ian Watt’s connection to Treasury — apparently a den of Sinophilia — was actually limited to his early career.

In one bizarre section where Hamilton breathlessly reveals that he “has been told that” the “who’s who of cyber warfare are reading Ghost Fleet, a novel ‘grounded in hardcore research'”, he goes on to say “it is believed that foreign intelligence agencies may already be planting malware for future sabotage.”

The source for this “belief” is an article about the 2017 NotPetya malware, which was actually the result of the US National Security Agency failing to report software flaws to Microsoft and then losing its own exploits. While at the “unsecure” ADFA campus, he is “told” (again) that the campus cleaning contractor employs “ethnic Chinese”; as if in a b-grade movie script, an “ethnic Chinese cleaner” then materialises on cue while Hamilton is chatting with an expert about Chinese espionage.

That anecdote gives a flavour of the book: pretty much everything even vaguely connected to China is part of the master plan by the Chinese Communist Party to influence us, steal our secrets and silence criticism of them. Not all of it is like that — where Silent Invasion works best is in comprehensively detailing the activities of the China Lobby in Australia — rank Beijing appeasers like Hugh White, China advocates like former diplomat Geoff Raby, China-aligned business figures like Kerry Stokes, and of course Bob Carr and the Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS. The activities of ACRI, the role of politically connected donors like Sam Dastyari’s friend Huang Xiangmo, and the reflexive willingness of many local Beijing apologists to insist Australian must align itself with, avoid criticism of or otherwise pander to the world’s most brutal dictatorship — often by using the exact talking points from Beijing — is forensically dissected by Hamilton.

The problem that bedevils the book is that having identified an influential and politically potent lobby group constantly pushing Beijing’s autocratic, anti-free speech and anti-rule of law line in Australia, Hamilton can’t go anywhere with it. If there’s a conspiracy here, it’s one of the least successful in Australia history.

The murderous thugs who run China have, for all their efforts, had little luck getting their way here: bids by Chinese companies for key assets here have routinely been knocked back by governments of both sides (sorry, Darwin port does not count as any kind of strategic asset); illegal purchases of existing housing by Chinese investors have been the target of a crackdown; the Turnbull government’s clumsy attempt to push through an extradition treaty with the dictatorship was defeated; Huawei was rightly banned from the NBN by Labor, a ban continued under the Coalition; the tone of Australian government commentary about China is frequently sufficient to enrage Beijing (admittedly, they’re ready to confect outrage at the drop of a hat). And the government is legislating a new set of restrictions entirely aimed at curbing Chinese influence.

Maybe Hamilton might have been better examining the influence of other countries. He dismisses concerns about US influence because we share similar values and the US has never threatened Australia if we didn’t “toe the line”. What this blithely overlooks is that generations of Australian political leaders have so absorbed the idea of the identity of Australian and US interests as to be incapable of even questioning it; the US has no need to threaten Australia, because we’re normally not merely willing, but enthusiastic, about toeing the line — a free trade agreement with the US that damaged our economic interests; the “deputy sheriff”; Iraq. And we’ve significantly damaged cybersecurity by our participation in the Five Eyes program of mass surveillance while insisting it’s the Chinese and the Russians who are the real cyber threat.

Or if that’s too much of a stretch, how about the influence of Israel? It’s not so long since Malcolm Turnbull was fawning over the corrupt Benjamin Netanyahu on the latter’s visit here; any criticism of the Israeli government’s apartheid policies, brutal occupation of Palestine or its religious fundamentalism is labelled anti-Semitic. But Israel and its allies here conduct an open campaign to influence politicians and media figures to shut down criticism of it — and far more successfully than Beijing ever has. Bet no one would ever use hysterical titles like Silent Invasion about that.