How Pervasive and Systematic is Beijing’s Interference in Canada’s Democracy?

Charles Burton, Joshua Kurlantzick, David Mulroney, & Clive Hamilton

Clive Hamilton, Founder, Australia Institute

In 2020, you penned a National Post article, in which you stated that Canada needs to put in place defences against the covert, coercive, and corrupt influence of the CCP. Could elaborate on what some of these defences could look like, and perhaps highlight some areas in which Canada could adopt some of Australia’s policies?

Clive Hamilton: Well, they range from informal society-level responses, up to more formal legislative ones, with various administrative and civil service changes and changes with institutions in between. As I stressed, public awareness, and the political pressure that it brings to bear on leaders, is really vital.

One of the most important changes in Australia is that there are so many Australian citizens now who are aware of the potential risks, that they’re more careful about the danger of co-optation, or influence by the CCP and its agents in Australia. The intelligence and other agencies in Australia have also undertaken a kind of quiet education campaign in some of the major institutions. I’m thinking of businesses and universities in particular, where CCP’s influence had become quite strong over the previous couple of decades.

That was necessary because some of those institutions, particularly universities, were extremely resistant to facing up to what was happening. There’s a great deal of denial going on in universities, with senior administrators captured by the dream of money and linkages with China, this great rising power. And so in the first instance, more so at some universities than others, they just refused to accept that it was a problem, in fact, mocked it. They mocked the security services and the moves taken by governments. But governments have really persuaded them, or in some cases compelled them, to take seriously CCP interference and influence in their institutions.

At a more general level, the government has introduced quite a wide range of legislation. specifically directed, although not naming, China’s interference in Australia—from the protection of critical infrastructure, from ownership and penetration by malign foreign governments or principals operating on behalf of malign foreign governments, up to the really landmark foreign interference legislation. Now that law was really a world first because, when we started to wake up to what the CCP was doing, we really didn’t have a way of thinking about it.

Traditionally, we had two ways of thinking about relations with foreign governments. One is influence, lobbying, and pressure diplomacy, and the other is espionage—various Cold War covert activities. But we didn’t have a way of thinking about the broad range of influence and interference activities that China had developed and had become extremely good at. So first, we in Australia needed to get our heads around it. As one expert, who was some years ahead of me in his thinking, said, “You know, Clive, we don’t have the concepts to think about what the CCP is doing.” I thought that was so true. We didn’t have the categories in which to put the CCP’s activities, so we could understand it. A lot of people were deeply misled by trying to think of it in Cold War terms. It’s a real mistake.

Australia developed this foreign interference legislation, passed in 2018, which outlawed, with severe penalties, any covert activity undertaken on behalf of a foreign power, or a foreign principle, which is aimed at influencing the political process in Australia or interfering with the exercise of a democratic right by a citizen. That might be tailing citizens or disrupting legitimate protests or interfering with petitions by pro-democracy Chinese people. Any attempt on behalf of a foreign principle to disrupt the activities of citizens as they go about exercising their democratic rights is now a serious offence in Australia. I think that law, although personally, I would like to see it enforced much more comprehensively, sends a very strong message to the CCP’s forces in Australia. Everywhere from the embassy down to local United Front groups, they know they’d better watch out because a lot of what they were doing is now illegal with potentially up to 10 years in jail if they’re convicted of it.

I’m wondering if you could comment on the efficacy of Australia’s foreign registry, especially considering that that is something Canada is considering implementing right now as well.

Clive Hamilton: People expected vastly more of it than it was ever going to deliver. It is, after all, just a system whereby people acting on behalf of foreign governments or foreign principals place their names and declare their interests. There are many ways in which people who are covertly operating on behalf of foreign powers can avoid it.

The way it’s actually operated has not exposed any significant player working on behalf of the Chinese government, or indeed the Russian or Iranian governments. In fact, our foreign influence transparency scheme defines registerable activity as including lobbying, communication, payments to people for work done, and so on, on behalf of a foreign government. It has picked up a lot of benign activities that have always gone on and no one’s worried about. For example, Tony Abbott, our former very conservative Prime Minister who’s strongly in favour of taking action against China’s interference in Australia, had to register because he did some work for the United Kingdom Board of Trade. I noticed too, that even the former boss of ASIO, the equivalent of CSIS, Duncan Lewis, who guided through the foreign interference legislation, had to register his name because he was for a time a director of the French arms manufacturing company, Thales.

So, it picked up a lot of people that we didn’t really need to pick up but didn’t expose anyone at whom the transparency scheme was aimed. They’ve just gone underground. It’s also true that China’s government and related agencies now have more difficulty. An Australian lobbying company, for example, would probably be quite reluctant to work for Huawei or certainly anything more closely connected with the Chinese government. So perhaps it’s had a hidden effect. It’s a bit hard to tell.

In what ways would you say Australia is vulnerable to CCP interference? And are you confident in Australia’s ability to resist Beijing’s interference efforts?

Clive Hamilton: Australia has been very vulnerable in precisely the same ways that Canada has been very vulnerable. The difference is that we woke up to it earlier. That’s number one and when I say “we” I mean the broad Australian population. Second, we had a government with the backing of the opposition (a conservative government backed by the Labour Party, the progressive party which is now in government), to draw a line in the sand and say, “We are not going to allow foreign interference from Beijing or anyone else in our democratic processes or the exercise of democratic rights.” More broadly, they said, “We’re not going to allow covert and coercive interference in the institutions of Australia, universities, business, culture, media, and so on.” It’s one thing to shine a light on covert CCP activities, which is essential, but it’s another thing to stand firmly against it.

We were lucky that we had a government that was willing to do it. First, Malcolm Turnbull’s government, then Scott Morrison’s, and now with the Labor Party in power, Anthony Albanese’s government, all had been firm from the very beginning. Sending a clear message to Beijing that we’re not going to tolerate it, and we don’t care what you do.

Beijing pushed back very hard against Australia in a whole range of ways. Most notably, a series of trade bans. And I have to say, in my mind, I was really quite worried about whether the Australian Government would waiver, would go weak at the knees, and start relaxing some of the defences of democracy that it had put in place. But it didn’t. There was a unified view amongst political leaders that we must not allow Beijing to win this. And that’s what’s happened.

Standing staunchly across the board, without turning into a political battle, is extremely important for resisting Beijing’s interference. Sadly, Canada is not in that place yet. The Trudeau Government is extremely weak on Beijing’s interference. The CCP has a powerful influence within the Trudeau Government. So, I don’t see the current government standing up for the protection of democracy in Canada. Although I’m a person from the left myself, I fear that it may take the election of a Conservative government to really take the necessary measures, not that the Conservative Party isn’t subject to the influence of the CCP as well.

Claims from segments of the community, such as the frequent accusation that standing up to the CCP amounts to Sinophobia, which terrifies most politicians, are completely incorrect. It’s not the Chinese people, and certainly not Chinese Canadians, who are the problem, it’s the CCP and those who act on its behalf. So, standing firmly against interference, and putting up firm defences of democracy is the only way to resist the corrosion of democracy and national sovereignty.

It’s extremely important to always distinguish between the Chinese Communist Party on the one hand, and China and the Chinese people on the other. Eliding the Party and the people is, of course, a tactic of the CCP that many people in Australia fall for—that criticism of the Chinese government is criticism of China and the Chinese people. It’s absurd. If I criticize the Trudeau Government no one would call me anti-Canadian. That would be ridiculous. And yet people do it all the time in the case of the Chinese government. It’s a very effective tactic in countries like Canada and Australia, which have sorrowful histories of race relations, particularly towards indigenous people. So, basically, my message is, “Don’t be scared off by those accusations. Stick to the facts. Call out those who confused the Chinese people with the Chinese Communist Party and carry on.” That’s the only thing to do.

Canada is about four or five years behind Australia in coming to grips with this problem. It’s been a relief for me here in Australia to see Canadians waking up because I spent quite a bit of time in Canada looking at this problem, and particularly, talking to people within the Chinese diaspora. It’s a relief to see this issue blow up in the media so that Canadian people are starting to recognize that there’s a serious threat to democratic practice and national sovereignty. I hope that the momentum is maintained. It’s exceptionally important. I hope people of good faith join together to protect the basic principles of freedom that we love and yet take for granted. So here’s hoping that Canada can accelerate its defences against CCP interference in your nation.

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