Rowan Callick, from The Australian, 21 February 2018, where the title runs “Clive Hamilton: poking the Chinese dragon”
The debate on the growing influence of the Chinese government within Australian institutions, which has grabbed the attention of policymakers around the world, is about to roar decibels louder. For Silent Invasion, Clive Hamilton’s controversial new 350-page book that was knocked back by several nervous publishers before finally being taken on by Hardie Grant, will raise a noisy row when it goes on sale on Monday.
One of Australia’s best-known public intellectuals, Hamilton is not easily silenced. He has pursued a succession of big-picture issues that he has identified as challenging our national wellbeing, most famously climate change and consumerism.
But taking on the immense new international ambitions of the world’s most powerful organisation, the Chinese Communist Party, marks a step in a distinctly different direction. Hamilton tells The Australian that the Turnbull government’s proposed new law to counter foreign influence is “vital if Australia is to begin pushing back against China’s penetration of Australian institutions. Until now, we have been just watching it happen, essentially defenceless.
“We have to unite on this, including, importantly, those Chinese Australians who don’t want the CCP to extend its tentacles in this part of the world. We who believe in democracy are all in the same boat, and we’re all threatened by the same great wave.”
The Turnbull government has drafted the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill to address the issues of overseas powers in general. And the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is reporting on its consultations into the bill on March 23.
Hamilton and his researcher, Alex Joske, presented a 49-page submission to the joint committee on the influence of the Chinese party-state in particular. In it, they say that while the planned legislation does not name any particular source of threat, “not all foreign principals are equal”.
“A one-party state that accepts and propagates anti-democratic values and practices — where little diversity of opinion is permitted, where the judiciary serves the ruling party, and where neither a free press nor a vibrant civil society are permitted — represents a far greater threat to Australia’s interests than a nation whose values and political structure are similar to our own.
“(And) as long as the People’s Republic of China remains as it is,” they say, “claims that Australia should treat it the same as other countries create a false equivalence.”
Since embarking on his research for the book, Hamilton says, he has the distinct feeling that some of the people he would usually gravitate towards at a party — fellow political progressives — are wondering: “What has happened to Clive? Is he shifting to the right? Why is he doing this?”
He was quizzed about this during a public hearing of the parliamentary joint committee inquiry: why would someone who was a Greens candidate in 2009 pursue such an issue, strongly denouncing communists?
“Let’s remember,” he says, “the left ought to be the fiercest defender of free speech and human rights. If it’s going to be an apologist for an extremely authoritarian regime that suppresses such rights ruthlessly, then what does it stand for?” Some on the Australian left, he says, retain “a romantic attachment” to Mao Zedong, others to China’s recent modernising achievements.
“Economic self-interest means human rights haven’t had the backing of business and economic forces they may once have had.”
For the most part, Hamilton says, Australians defending Beijing on the issue of influence are in denial. He says his “bottom line” in general “is that I see things that annoy me that need to be exposed to a wider public”.
It was a decade ago when China suddenly flew into his radar. He went to the area outside Parliament House in Canberra for a rally — timed for the arrival of the torch relay for the Beijing Olympic Games — to support Tibet following an explosion of violence there, while a large number of Chinese students also were demonstrating, to back the relay and Beijing.
“I was deeply shocked by the aggressive nature of the Chinese demonstrators against the Tibetans and any Anglos like myself who had gone to support them,” Hamilton says.
He held in the back of his head the thought of pursuing the questions this raised — until stories began to be published 18 months ago about the pro-Beijing stance and connections of Sam Dastyari, then a fast-rising young Labor senator from NSW.
Hamilton has degrees in arts and economics from the Australian National University and the University of Sydney, and a doctorate from the influential development studies centre at Britain’s Sussex University, where his thesis was on the industrialisation of South Korea.
He worked for several years at the Australian National University, where his boss was the formidable liberal economist Helen Hughes. He then worked for the Bureau of Industry Economics, and became research head at the Resource Assessment Commission before spending a few years working as an economist for the US Agency for International Development in Jakarta.
In 1994 he set up the Canberra-based Australia Institute to pursue what he called advocacy scholarship, in a progressive direction — responding to the important role in public debate being played by “a number of very influential right-wing think tanks”.
Besides climate change, he also tackled consumerism — writing with Richard Denniss a big-selling book, Affluenza — and the sexualisation of children in advertising. The latter led to litigation by David Jones a decade ago that hit tabloid front pages and made commercial TV headlines.
This legal battle, even though his defence succeeded, was “an education in how the legal process can cause enormous pain for innocent parties. I’ve never forgotten that, and how friends can desert you when you need them most.”
In 2009 he stood for the Greens at the by-election for Peter Costello’s former eastern Melbourne seat of Higgins, coming second of 10 candidates with 21,600 votes to Liberal Kelly O’Dwyer, although Labor did not field a candidate.
After 14 years, he returned to university life when Charles Sturt University invited him to be vice-chancellor’s chair and professor of public ethics, “blessing me with great freedom” to pursue causes that seized him.
His chief contact with China previously had come from visits to encourage universities there to send students or researchers to the ANU. “Typically they were very good students, diligent and especially good at maths, although often at that time with weak English,” he says.
When he returned to focus on China 18 months ago, it was to research voraciously the stories behind the stories being published “by very knowledgeable journalists” in Australia’s media about Beijing’s influence, including “the Chinese donors who had become the principal backers of both main political parties”.
“I started to look at the influence operations in Australia and I thought, ‘This is huge, this is my next book.’ ” It was disturbing, he says, “but I had no idea of the personal impact of getting into this area of research”, or of the involvement of what he calls “scary people”. China’s government is “a ruthless regime, determined to assert its power around the world, and it doesn’t like people criticising”.
As a result, he is “much more careful these days of his personal and cyber security — more so in the last couple of months since the story emerged of Allen & Unwin dropping my book”.
It would have been his ninth book for the publisher. The firm’s lawyers had combed the manuscript and Hamilton had revised the text to accommodate all their concerns. But then, he says, the publisher received some broader advice, which he concedes was well-meaning, that highlighted concerns there was a good chance that legal action might be taken for strategic reasons by someone with deep pockets.
Even without much prospect of a win in court, this could have tied everyone up in injunctions and “vexatious claims”, Hamilton says, that might have gone on for years. “You can win such cases and still end up, effectively, as losers,” he says.
His response to Allen & Unwin’s consequent pulling out from publishing the book was “surprise, shock, upset”. “I hadn’t seen it coming and felt kind of betrayed. I then felt alone, out there with this manuscript,” he says. However, “I didn’t have any second thoughts. It only made me more resolved. Within an hour I had started looking for another publisher. A lot of people who work on China were also watching closely, as was the embassy belt in Canberra.”
He received further knock-backs — due, it seems, to concerns about becoming bogged down in the courts and, on university publishers’ parts, about the risk of losing lucrative Chinese student fees.
Hamilton admits to being “a real tyro” about China and if someone else had appeared to tackle the issue in book form, “I would have pulled back”. He knows a lot about politics in Australia though, he says, as well as how to encapsulate issues and present them in book form. And he has received generous advice and support from prominent experts on China, including from within Australia’s Chinese community.
So he persisted. A friend saw Hardie Grant chief executive Sandy Grant speaking in favour of publication on ABC TV’s 7.30, so Hamilton emailed him and a deal was soon struck. Grant was the publisher in 1986 of Spycatcher, the memoir of English MI5 principal scientific officer Peter Wright, who had come to live in Tasmania and whose publication the British government sought to suppress.
After taking on Silent Invasion, Grant said: “Having gone through Spycatcher, it’s my experience that governments will try to prevent things from getting into the public domain that may damage their perceived interests. We value freedom of speech ahead of those interests.”
The lawyer who successfully represented Hardie Grant in the Spycatcher case, bringing him international renown, was Malcolm Turnbull. In his closing submission, Turnbull said: “Nothing is achieved in this world, particularly politically, other than with persistence … The public interest in free speech is not just in truthful speech, in correct speech, in fair speech … The interest is in the debate. You see, every person who has ultimately changed the course of history has started off being unpopular.”
Hamilton says that since starting work on this issue he had begun asking himself: “Am I getting paranoid?” He then asked others involved with China, “and they answered, ‘No, that’s how things are.’ ”
Another motivating force driving him to persist is that “if you criticise the CCP and are Chinese and live in Australia, you live in fear”.
Such people, he says, have learned to “take extensive measures to protect themselves, for instance by communicating carefully, only through secure means”.
The young Chinese cartoonist and artist called Badiucao — famous throughout the Chinese-speaking world and beyond for his striking images of Chinese leaders and of Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died in Chinese custody last year — now lives in Melbourne. He wears a mask whenever he appears in public and does not reveal his true name.
Hamilton has not met Badiucao but he says others in the Chinese community have been “very, very willing to help as they have got to know me, and have proven an invaluable source of information for the book”.
However, because of their fears, “I can’t quote them by name. I am offended by that. They are Australian citizens who should have all the democratic rights, but they are in fear that a foreign government will punish them for speaking out” within Australia, by preventing them seeing relatives in China or even by actions affecting those relatives directly.
“To punish a family for the infractions of a relative is contrary to every theory of justice and fair play,” Hamilton says.
Within Australia, he says, he faces “xenophobia phobia — a terror of being seen as anti-China, a powerful silencing device constantly wheeled out” by organisations that receive forms of funding from China. “It’s an attack weapon used against people with good intentions.”
Former foreign minister Bob Carr, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, says he will not comment on a work he hasn’t seen but says an ACRI research paper on Chinese students in Australia “rebuts some of the alarmism we’ve heard: 131,355 Chinese students, and a mere four incidents, and none involved classroom discussion or freedom of expression being shut down”.
ACRI deputy director James Laurenceson has written that “there’s been no evidence produced that any Australian university has flouted” the requirements for potentially sensitive research to satisfy commonwealth defence controls.
And Carr describes a pattern during this debate of “hyperbolic statements about university engagement with China”, adding: “Hamilton has overegged the available evidence before.”
One of Australia’s leading China experts is John Fitzgerald, who was head of the Ford Foundation in China from 2008 to 2012 and has been a professor at La Trobe and Swinburne universities and at the ANU. He says Hamilton’s involvement in the issue, “spreading the load of critical engagement” beyond a narrow sphere of journalists and Sinologists, is immensely important: “He has public street cred.”
Fitzgerald, author of Big White Lie, a major work on anti-Chinese racism in Australia, says until now most of the debates about national sovereignty have been about migration — who comes into Australia and how. “But this case raises quite different issues around sovereignty — the independence of institutions, the importance of principles, the resilience of national values — in a changing geopolitical climate,” he says.
But Fitzgerald adds: “It’s an important book, and the fact its publication was almost prevented makes it all the more important. “Right across the community and government, a conversation is now under way about these huge issues facing Australia, and that has to be reassuring.”