My first response to the Gladys Liu scandal was laughter.
Last week, Liberal MP Gladys Liu was interviewed by Andrew Bolt on Sky News. This led to further questions into her alleged links with persons or groups in Australia connected with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These questions led to accusations of racism against Chinese-Australians from certain sections of Australian politics and Twitter.
As someone who spent 15 years growing up in Melbourne before returning to Hong Kong to live in 2001, I just couldn’t stop laughing when I saw such reactions. I showed Hong Kong friends; I showed Australian friends who had migrated from Hong Kong. We all felt the same way. Why? Because we’ve seen it all before in Hong Kong.
The term “United Front” gets bandied about a lot in the discussion about China’s influence in Australian politics, but I’m not sure everyone knows exactly what it means. It’s a common short form for the United Front Work Department of the CCP. Its role is to set up, infiltrate or influence groups and persons within or outside China for the purpose of ensuring that they support (or are otherwise of use to) the CCP.
As such, groups or persons falling under United Front influence are mostly not CCP members. Sometimes, they knowingly embrace connections with the CCP. At other times, they end up unwittingly becoming purveyors of the United Front message through social, commercial, or academic connections.
In the years since China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, United Front influence has gradually permeated through Hong Kong society: local neighbourhood associations, apartment block owners’ management committees, chambers of commerce, professional associations, charities and the like. The infiltration often starts with the United Front identifying individuals that are considered influential in such groups, or persons who are qualified to join such groups. They never paint their approaches to such individuals as CCP influence operations.
Instead, they present networking opportunities. They (and the groups to whom they belong) get feted by political and business leaders when they visit China. Seminars about the “national situation” — which parrot CCP lines — are sometimes thrown in with such visits. The individuals also join various WeChat or WhatsApp networking groups where more pro-CCP information is received.
Gradually, or so the playbook goes, these people are influenced; they infiltrate the groups to which they belong. They act to shut down dissenting voices within their groups. They deny access to facilities within their control or influence to opposition voices. They offer unqualified praise or at least decline to criticise the CCP, its leaders, its positions on issues, or anyone sympathetic to it. They treat all criticisms of such as separatism, or anti-Mainland Chinese prejudice, or both.
These people are politically active, using their financial clout and social influence to place advertisements and op-eds parroting the CCP line. They would lobby a Hong Kong government that is already in sync with the CCP to toe the CCP line. Their groups are mobilised to raise funds and to act as volunteer campaigners for pro-CCP candidates in Hong Kong elections.
I have no knowledge of whether the allegations against Gladys Liu are true. That is a matter for journalists in Australia to look into further. But it’s surreal for me and my friends to watch, at a distance, as the allegations and howls of “racism” pour in — some of the allegations to date bear similarities with what we have long seen in Hong Kong.
We must all be careful of xenophobia and witch-hunts, but it’s foolish to dismiss allegations of CCP influence as mere “racism”. To do this — to look to the individuals rather than the systems they inhabit, to not interrogate methods and results — would be to play directly into the United Front playbook.
The lesson from Hong Kong for Australians is simple: be vigilant.
Kevin Yam is a Hong Kong lawyer and political commentator. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of his employer or any organisations to which he may belong.