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Hard edge of China’s soft power

MELBOURNE (SE): As China was denigrating the Permanent Court of Arbitration in anticipation of an unfavourable judgement in the South China Sea case filed by The Philippines, on August 21 an unidentified woman of Chinese ethnicity looked defiantly at a television camera at a rally in the streets of Canberra, Australia, and blurted, “The South China Sea belongs to China and that is all there is to it!”

Bangkok-based commentator on China, Michael Sainsbury, maintains that such comments are partly the result of a multi-faceted programme of soft power run by China to get its view promoted throughout the world, through a process which he describes as propaganda in the guise of news.

“Other levels include education, through universities and gifts to academic institutions, as well as the network of Confucius Institutes,” he points out.

Stephen Fitzgerald, a former Australian ambassador to China, adds that academic institutes in Australia are targeted and the country’s reliance on Chinese money to sustain its higher education system puts it in a dicey position.

“Embassy and consulate staff have become more open in fronting universities… to voice displeasure at particular actions or decisions, with the suggestion that China will not be happy if these things are not reversed,” he says.

John Fitzgerald (no relation), from Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology, agrees.

Speaking at the Lowy-AMP China Series on September 19, the director of the university’s Asia-Pacific Programme for Social Investment and Philanthropy said, “Over the past seven or eight years, Beijing has embraced the idea that China’s special national culture and value system needs to be spread more widely abroad.”

However, he adds one more field of operation to the list presented by Sainsbury, the media.

He quotes Liu Yunshan, the former director of the Central Propaganda Bureau, as saying in 2009, “Those who gain advanced communication skills, powerful communication capabilities and whose culture and values are more widely spread, are able to effectively influence the world.”

John Fitzgerald then points out that in May this year, his successor in the job, Liu Qibao, was in Sydney to preside at the formal signing of a contract with Fairfax Media, Sky, the Australia-China Relations Institute and three other media outfits.

A Reuters report traced the ownership of 33 apparently independent radio stations throughout the world to China Radio International through an obscuring chain back to one source.

“On behalf of Chinese Radio International, Tommy Chaing’s (Melbourne-based) Austar Media Group… runs a national network of radio stations, websites and newspapers with exclusive placement contracts for Beijing programming,” Reuters reported on November 2 last year.

John Fitzgerald described the point of his speech as showing that Beijing is seeking to penetrate and influence Australia’s small, open inclusive society.

“It also seeks to restrict Australia’s freedom of speech, religion and assembly. It threatens harmony. Where it succeeds, it breaches Australian sovereignty and security,” he maintained.

In broad terms, he described its ambition as not being to inform or persuade, as in western public relations, but monopolise and control all flows of information; to police ideology and civic conformity; and to censor all media in the country consistent with these functions.

As such, it does not rely on the quality of its programming or information dissemination to succeed, but rather on what it can suppress.

However, he notes that what is actually published or broadcast is fairly inconsequential, as most Chinese take propaganda with a grain of salt and, according to a study done by Sun Wanning, from the University of Technology Sydney, most Australian Chinese take it with an even bigger dollop.

John Fitzgerald points out that the news, current affairs and editorial pages of well over half of all Chinese newspapers and all but a few Chinese-language radio stations in Australia are basically outsourced to Beijing. In addition, others are tampered with.

Guests are vetted and the ever vigilant United Work Front Department has representatives sitting in studios to observe what is said and cut off any unsavory comment in talkback shows (which go to air on a seven second delay).

John Fitzgerald quotes his own research in support of his claim, noting that at the time of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre (2014), eight out of 14 Chinese newspapers in Melbourne did not mention it.

“Similar silences play out daily across the suite of papers and radio stations that have contractual or commercial relations with Beijing,” he notes.

This comes about through the manner in which these media outlets are financed.

“A successful Chinese community media operation in Australia is typically a broadly based commercial operation, with interests extending beyond media,” he says.

“With Beijing’s blessing, a local media arm gains entré to business opportunities in real estate, education and professional services, and international trade and investment in China,” he points out.

That’s the carrot, but of course there is also a stick for errant performers.

The price to be paid is dumping other sources of news and commentary, and sticking religiously with the Beijing-provided material. Non-compliance can see China-based firms withdraw advertising.

John Fitzgerald quotes Fairfax journalists, Kelsey Munro and Philip Wen, as conceding, “Chinese-owned firms or businesses, which rely on good relations with the Chinese government, are told by consulate officials to pull advertising from non-compliant media outlets, and are directed to divert their dollars to those who toe the party line.”

However, John Fitzgerald says this is a wide ranging project, as since the turn of the century, Chinese shop owners and religious believers have been on notice that family and friends in China could be in danger if they stock publications or act in a manner not approved by the authorities in Beijing.

He quotes an example of an irate Chinese student simply throwing copies of the Epoch Times (Falun Gong) out of a pharmacy shop in Canberra.

A shop keeper in Melbourne said that he removed all such texts and discs because “you never know, sometimes they can threaten people’s families.”

In 2000, the Chinese Catholic Community was warned to cancel a public reception in Sydney’s Hyde Park to mark the canonisation of the Chinese Martyrs, or there may be recriminations for family in China and business interests as well.

But maybe the most penetrating incursion comes through social media. Sun reports 1.2 million discrete Chinese media accounts in Australia, mostly with WeChat. In addition, around 2.1 million Weibo posts are published each month.

Sun says that the condition under which these accounts operate is at odds with mainstream society, especially on hot button topics, such as the South China Sea.

Social media cuts deeply into mainstream broadcasting as well, as the two government broadcasters, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and its cousin, Special Broadcasting Services, rely on them to reach their Chinese-speaking audiences.

John Fitzgerald quotes an editor as saying the posts are censored and often deleted altogether.

How to combat this influence is not simple. Stephen Fitzgerald maintains, “What is at play here is a soft power offensive with a hard edge.”

He points out, “At one level, China’s engagement in domestic Australia is not altogether dissimilar from the soft power objectives of other, including the United States of America, countries. Therefore legitimate and unexceptional.”

But he adds at another level, it is exceptional, as China is wielding influence on behalf of an undemocratic system. It thus promotes a clash between Chinese and Australian national interests.

But Sun believes that Australia is also its own worst enemy. “The alienation of recent arrivals from China from mainstream media is exacerbated by the relentless monoculturalism of Australian media,” she maintains.

“Australia can no longer afford to allow ethnic media, including social media, to operate outside the regulatory framework governing mainstream media in this country,” Sun believes.

She suggests a bit of cooperation from China should not be out of the question, but adds that legal redress would be extremely difficult and eventually, the real answer may come in the development of appropriate technology to counteract the hard edge of invasive foreign soft power.

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