China has reportedly summoned Australia’s ambassador for a pre-Christmas dressing down as the diplomatic ruckus over claims of Beijing’s alleged meddling in Australian politics intensifies.
Jan Adams, a former trade official who has been Australia’s representative in Beijing since 2016, was called into the foreign ministry last Friday after the introduction of new laws designed to combat foreign interference.
On Saturday the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull – citing words some attribute to Mao Zedong – declared it was time for “the Australian people [to] stand up” against such intrusions.
According to the Australian newspaper, China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye – who earlier this year accused Australian journalists of stirring up “China panic” – made further representations to Australia’s acting secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Penny Williams, on Monday.
That protest was followed by a strongly worded but historically inaccurate broadside from one Communist party-run tabloid, which described accusations of Chinese meddling in the affairs of other nations as ridiculous, “disgraceful” and “logically absurd”.
“China has come under massive pressure from Western values and ideology since it introduced reform and opening nearly 40 years ago, but it has never warned of guarding against foreigners in China as potential spies,” the Global Times claimed.
In fact, that is precisely what China has consistently done, ever since the days of Mao, who ruled the country from 1949 until 1976.
In April Beijing authorities began offering cash rewards of up to 500,000 yuan (about £56,000 or A$100,000) for citizens who could help unmask foreign spies “and other hostile forces” attempting to destabilise China’s political system. Last year, authorities used a poster campaign to caution Chinese women against engaging in “dangerous love” with foreign men.
During Mao’s 27-year reign, foreigners were forced from China or placed under strict supervision while Chinese citizens who engaged with Western people or influences suffered potentially calamitous consequences.
The row between Beijing and Canberra comes ahead of the 45th anniversary of ties between China and Australia being formed, with Australian diplomats reportedly due to attend a function celebrating the event on Thursday evening at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. The atmosphere is likely to be tense: in recent days Chinese newspapers have dubbed Turnbull “China-basher-in-chief” and accused him of “casting a dark shadow” over once promising ties.
One former senior government official told the Australian Beijing would likely not limit its response to diplomatic dressing downs. “I think it would be very unwise to assume the Chinese will not react beyond words … The Chinese in due course will reduce our trade and that will be pretty unpleasant,” the official said. “Absolutely, they can buy iron ore from Brazil.”
The rift is part of a wider and fast-growing global controversy surrounding Beijing’s alleged attempts to manipulate and influence politics and political discourse around the world.
Critics say those attempts take many forms: from setting up Communist party-controlled educational institutes in foreign universities, abducting booksellers and threatening the relatives of exiled dissidents, to having pro-China business figures pump donations into political parties or politicians push pro-Beijing views.
On Wednesday the US Congressional Executive Commission on China held a two-hour hearing to discuss that threat.
In a Washington Post article on the eve of that hearing, foreign policy writer Josh Rogin claimed Washington was now “waking up to the huge scope and scale of Chinese Communist party influence operations inside the United States”.
Rogin described Beijing’s foreign influence campaign as “part and parcel of China’s larger campaign for global power, which includes military expansion, foreign direct investment, resource hoarding, and influencing international rules and norms”.
“Beijing’s strategy is first to cut off critical discussion of China’s government, then to co-opt American influencers in order to promote China’s narrative,” he wrote.
Republican senator Marco Rubio told the newspaper: “We have a lot of discussion of Russian interference in our elections, but the Chinese efforts to influence our public policy and our basic freedoms are much more widespread than most people realise”.
Tom Phillips write this news and you can keep up with theguardian