How much influence does the covert influence arm of China’s Communist Party — the United Front Work Department (UFWD) — have over the Australian business sector?

At a recent Beijing conference on China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative, former trade minister Andrew Robb and top Morrison government China adviser Warwick Smith were aided by the United Front-linked organisations China Global Financial 50 Forum (CGF50F) and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT). The Chinese side of the conference was headed by Li Jiange of the China International Capital Corporation, who is a senior member of the CCPIT.

Robb’s conference was attended by a phalanx of Australian businessmen including executives from Elders, Orica, Hancock Prospecting, and top-tier law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth — all of whom got to rub shoulders with Chinese businesses belonging to UFWD organisations. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has confirmed that staff from the Australian embassy in Beijing also attended the event. 

This is hardly surprising. The UFWD is front and centre of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) application of so-called soft power, and Australian businesses and governments have been dealing with the ever-growing arms of the UFWD, either knowing or unknowingly, for many years.

It’s been particularly evident in recent years through the China Association for International Friendly Contact, which has had, for instance, a long association with Twiggy Forest’s Fortescue Metals Group. Forrest is eager to sing China’s praises at any opportunity. 

The Australia-China Belt and Road Initiative (ACBRI), founded by Robb in 2016, has worked with the CGF50F and the CCPIT since its inception. After leaving politics in 2016, Robb walked straight into a $880,000-a-year consulting gig with Landbridge, whose owner, Ye Cheng, has close ties with the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Landbridge won a 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin in 2015, but Robb has disavowed any CCP involvement in the deal.

After leaving Landbridge in late 2018, Robb tore into what he clearly sees as “China influence” conspiracy theories. “The evidence is not there,” he told the ABC. “We see a lot of nose-touching by the security people: ‘if you only knew what I know, you’d be horrified’. Well, tell us. Let us know. I was on the National Security Committee and I’ve gotta say I didn’t learn much more than I read in the papers.”

Yet, the understanding of Chinese influence by security agencies has grown immensely since 2016. 

The hitherto most prominent UFWD group in business circles, the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, has had plenty of press through its connection with the Chinese billionaire and Australian political donor Huang Xiangmo. Two more UFWD-linked Chinese business groups — Australia Jiangmen General Commercial Association and the United Chinese Commerce Association of Australia — recently came to prominence due their connections with the beleaguered Chinese-Australian Liberal MP, Gladys Liu. UFWD influence has been well-documented in the university sector too.

When quizzed about the government’s position on the Belt and Road Initiative, a DFAT spokesperson prevaricated: “Australia supports regional investment initiatives that are transparent and open, uphold robust standards, meet genuine need and avoid unsustainable debt burdens for recipient countries”. 

And like Robb, Smith is keen to tell the government what it is doing wrong on China. “The spooks, the defence people would say that the first salvo in any war is no longer a rocket but a disabling capability in networks around pipelines, telecommunications, banks and so on”, he said earlier this year.

“We are not being asked to sacrifice our values in any way but to recognise our interests and long-term relationships, built around collaborative models, to enhance trade in services, goods and merchandise trade.” 

Does that really hold water, Warwick? Just look to the NBA. The US basketball league recently felt the heat from Beijing after a franchise manager expressed support for the protests in Hong Kong. It’s clear that the CCP does in fact want businesses to sacrifice their values to get deals with China.