(Image: Unsplash/Jonathan Petersson)

The revelations emerging from Nine about Crown hint of more to come out, especially about Chinese government influence and interference operations in Australia.

But is the Crown affair to date a story about “China influence”?

Nick McKenzie first focused media attention on Beijing’s influence operations in a Fairfax/Four Corners program aired in June 2017. The case was straight forward and dealt with allegations of China-sponsored organisations seeking to gain support for Chinese government positions on controversial issues. As far as foreign influence operations go, it was a laydown misere.

The Crown affair differs in several ways. First, the revelations highlight the failure of Australian business, governments, and regulators to pay heed to clear messages from Chinese government authorities. Just as the Four Corners program on China influence was going to air in 2017, a Chinese court found that Crown employees were operating outside the law in promoting Crown’s gambling operations within China. Authorities in Beijing had long signaled this risk with the arrest in October 2015 of South Korean gaming agents for operating illegally in promoting gambling in China. That message seems to have got no traction in Australia.

From online Chinese and Hong Kong court records we have also known for years that fugitives from justice in China have been living the high life in Australia and making fortunes as junket operators, and possibly as money launderers, courtesy of their contracts with Crown. Who among our business and political leaders was paying attention to the work of police and justice authorities in China by tracking these known fugitives? No one, it seems, or at least no one involved with Crown.

Second, the Crown affair exposes quite different vectors of political influence at work in Australia. Without any prompting from Beijing, Australian businesses have been exerting influence through domestic political donations and post-career sinecures for politicians and other public figures, securing the cooperation of government departments, and keeping regulators at bay. With these arrangements in place Crown employees have promoted its gambling business within China, contrary to Chinese law, and allegedly engaged junket operators linked to underworld networks operating across the Asian region.

On the evidence presented so far, the Crown affair is a story of home-made corporate greed and local political fixers largely ignoring public authorities in China and having the gall to think they can exercise enough influence in China and Australia to do as they please.

And China’s interference in Australia? The key piece of evidence about China influence operations in Australia tabled in the Crown affair is that Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping’s cousin, Ming Chai, is a VVIP high roller who hangs about with shady characters allegedly linked to organised crime.

Discovering that Xi Jinping’s cousin cuts a figure about town in Melbourne is certainly newsworthy. But again, influence? Ming Chai was detained some years ago in China for his offences and disowned in 2014 by Xi Jinping who was reported at the time as saying he would “wear a blindfold” and tackle corruption without fear or favour. Ming Chai was a poster boy for Xi’s hard-line approach.

Like a 19th century English wastrel, banished by his family to Botany Bay after gambling away his inheritance, Ming Chai has been living off his reputation while lounging about in clubs and bars in Australia. What kind of influence is he likely to be exercising here or in China? Perhaps not much.

There may be more substantial vectors of Chinese government influence yet to be exposed in the Crown affair. Historically, one way that banished wastrels try to recover their reputations back home is by doing patriotic favours for the home country, volunteering for the Boer War perhaps, or launching a charitable foundation. The contemporary equivalent among fugitives from China hoping to redeem their reputations back home would be to sponsor a United Front community organisation or host a visiting propaganda troupe to perform at multicultural festivals around the country. These could of course be regarded as exercises in improper influence.

But even to hint that the Crown affair is another instance of China influence operations subverting an otherwise healthy and hearty Australian way of life diverts attention from a serious home-grown problem that owes nothing to China.

The big takeaway from the Crown affair is that there is little China can teach Australia about corporate greed or political connivance. Moreover, there is little need for China’s communist party to exercise undue influence in this country when corporate Australia can undermine faith in Australian institutions and democracy without any assistance from abroad.

John Fitzgerald is an Emeritus Professor at Swinburne University of Technology who specialises in China and Chinese affairs.

Are the claims of Chinese political influence through revelations about Crown overstated? Write to [email protected] and let us know.

Peter Fray

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