National Security

Democratic Nations Wary of Chinese Influence

Australia yesterday announced proposed legislation aimed at identifying and curbing foreign influence in Australian political, academic and economic circles.  Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull said the proposed legislation was general, and did not target any one country.  He admitted, however, that the proposals come amid mounting concern over growing Chinese influence in Australia.

This makes Australia the latest in a series of democratic countries to take note of covert Chinese influence in their societies.  In September, a New Zealand expert on Chinese affairs called for a special commission to investigate Chinese influence.  Professor Anne-Marie Brady from the University of Canterbury urged New Zealand law makers to draft legislation similar to Australia’s, and raised repeated examples of foreign agents operating in the country.

Chinese Influence in American Academia

American policy makers have been concerned about Chinese influence in the United States for several years.  Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) chaired a House Committee on Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing in 2014 inquiring into academic relationships.  Witnesses at the hearing testified that many American colleges and universities who accepted Chinese funding to establish Confucius Institutes on their campuses.

China frequently refuses visas for American professors or scholars on political grounds.

Some experts warned that accepting foreign government funding risked ceding some aspects of academic freedom to the Chinese government.  They also noted that China frequently refuses visas for American professors or scholars on political grounds.  This reduces the relationship to a one-way flow of propaganda, rather than a true bilateral exchange of views.

Dr. Perry Link, one of America’s foremost experts on the democracy movement in China, issued a series of stark warnings.  Link himself is not allowed to visit China.  His co-editing a collection of documents on the Tiananmen Square massacre alone was enough to get him on a blacklist of academics who are not allowed access to China.

Link told the committee that the real danger is self-censorship by scholars who want to study China, and need access to it.  He gave three recommendations:

  • The U.S. government should withhold visas for Confucius Institute instructors at high profile U.S. institutions until the practice of withholding visas for American scholars on political grounds is ended.
  • The U.S. government should fund Chinese language instruction.
  • American universities should not sign agreements for Confucius Institutes that grant Chinese control over teachers, curriculum, and topics for discussion.
Covert Activities

In every case – Australia, New Zealand, and America – policy makers and experts are careful to note their support for genuine bilateral exchanges and traditional diplomacy.  They emphasize their support for developing relationships on an even playing field.  They are concerned about clandestine influence on their domestic political systems, commercial and national security espionage, and the repression of political expression among expatriate Chinese students in their countries.

Professor Brady noted that in New Zealand, a former Chinese military intelligence officer and member of the Chinese Communist Party had obtained citizenship and then been elected as a Member of Parliament.  During much of his first term, he sat on the Foreign Affairs and Defense committee.  When his employment history was exposed, he said he had been only an English language instructor for the Chinese military.

Australia’s new proposed legislation will ban foreign donations to political parties and candidates.  It also requires anyone representing foreign interests to register as lobbyists, like the FARA laws in America.  The proposal also criminalizes receipt or possession of classified information.  At present, only giving classified data to unauthorized people is a criminal act.  PM Turnbull said the laws are aimed at “covert, coercive” activities.

Bilateral Exchanges Are Good and Necessary

It is natural that countries try to increase their influence overseas.  American public diplomacy is aimed at reaching the “gatekeepers of public opinion” in foreign countries, to use them to transmit our values directly to the populations of other countries.  Academic exchanges are a hugely important part of that effort.

Countering Chinese influence need not mean that we provoke China or treat it as a menace.

It is natural that China also would establish centers of influence here and in other countries.  Confucius Institutes should be a win-win proposition for American universities.  They provide fully funded centers to teach Chinese language and culture, even funding the teachers, staff and curriculum.  The problem occurs when the Institutes go beyond just cultural and linguistic centers, and become satellites for Chinese Communist Party influence and control.

Countering Chinese influence need not mean that we provoke China or treat it as a menace.  We simply need to ensure that we are encouraging a genuine two-way understanding, not opening the door to espionage or political sedition.  Our nations are both strong enough to have a relationship of equals, openly and honestly competing in the arena of ideas.

Bart Marcois

Bart Marcois (@bmarcois) is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration. Additionally, Marcois served as a career foreign service officer with the State Department. He is a director at the Richard Richards Foundation.

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