If there was any doubt China would be a significant issue in the federal election campaign, that has surely been put to bed.
Alongside a recent spate of media attention — including a Four Corners exposé on Chinese influence in Australia, accusations of China harassing Uighurs on Australian soil, and confirmation that Australian children have being caught up in China’s vast Uighur crackdown — Beijing has found itself front and centre in the Australian news cycle.
China won’t be happy about that. Creeping Chinese influence in politics, academia and critical telecommunications networks have been at the centre of continuing chilly relations between Beijing and Canberra — and the accusations are unlikely to go away.
This comes at a time where the major parties have been publicly musing and experimenting with how to capture what they perceive as the growing Chinese-Australian vote. It creates a further conundrum for both sides of politics on exactly how to characterise China and how much influence politicians are ready to address to.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was caught up this week in Four Corners’ investigation for his past connections to now notorious Chinese billionaire and donor Huang Xiangmo, who was barred from entering Australia in November after being rejected for a permanent residency visa on the advice of security agencies. A meeting between Dutton and Huang (and another between Huang and retiring cabinet minister Christopher Pyne) was organised for a fee by former Liberal senator turned lobbyist Santo Santoro.
Former PM Malcolm Turnbull has since leapt on the chance to needle Dutton, who was behind the spill that saw him kicked out of The Lodge in 2018. At a speaking engagement in Sydney, Turnbull said:
Look, Peter Dutton has got a lot to explain about this. He is supposed to be the minister responsible for the domestic security of Australia, he is supposed to be the minister responsible for ensuring our politics is not influenced by foreign actors.
The Four Corners program, a joint effort with Nine’s Nick McKenzie, also pointed to Tony Abbott, who has been linked to a Chinese influence peddler — media mogul and casino boss Tommy Jiang. Abbott also rubbed shoulders with other figures connected to the ruling Communist Party during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations.
Now the Coalition is now trying to retrain the spotlight on opposition leader Bill Shorten, who had lunch with Huang in 2015 following a $55,000 donation to Labor.
This comes after a fortnight of the major parties engaging in a chest-beating contest about who loves China the most — with Shorten gushing that he welcomed China’s rise and Scott Morrison throwing $44 million at a new Australia-China Foundation. There is little news about the foundation, which appears to be a continuation of the governments policy of press release strategy.
Then there have been the other issues bubbling away, such as the strange case of Virgin Australia’s secretive new pilot training school being built near Tamworth, in Barnaby Joyce’s seat of New England. The school is in partnership with Chinese conglomerate HNA which is linked to the provincial government in southern Hainan province. This connection was told only to Chinese language media and not mainstream Australian media.
More pressing were comments made by Nick Warner, the Director General of National Intelligence, in an interview with Geraldine Doogue on Radio National. Warner outlined the six major security threats to Australia, at least three of which have China front and centre. Despite couching most of these problems as related to China-US relations, it was China that got all the airplay from Warner (perhaps unfairly, according to some observers).
It’s interesting timing by a senior bureaucrat — now one of Canberra’s most powerful — and it’s hard to think it’s a coincidence.
It may be further evidence that Australian security authorities are so concerned about China that they are prepared to go public and make the government — and opposition — confront a thorny issue no politician wants to go anywhere near during an election campaign.
Good luck with that.