When the Chinese government donated a library to the University of Technology Sydney few people noticed. Only slightly more seemed to care when groups friendly to Beijing began funding think tanks in Australia, making political donations and paying primary schools to run Chinese language programs.
For the public in Australia the “China issue” has always been more about economics than politics. Anger has centred on a perception that cashed up Chinese buyers were forcing locals out of the property market and buying up farmland.
But while this debate has been raging, culminating in a Chinese-led consortium being prevented from buying cattle company, S.Kidman & Co, Beijing has been quietly stitching together a series of deals that are potentially far more influential.
Taken in isolation none are overly significant.
But when put together they appear like a concerted campaign to promote Beijing’s strategic interests in Australia through deals covering all the key areas of society.
To date money linked to China’s Communist Party has flowed to both major political parties, universities, primary schools, the national broadcaster and this week to the country’s biggest media companies, including Fairfax Media, publisher of the Weekend AFR.
That deal will see the state-controlled China Daily insert an eight-page lift-out into The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review each month.
The first insert, last Friday, contained the disclaimer that it “did not involve the news or editorial departments” of the respective mastheads.
Even without such carve-outs there was no escaping the aggressive prosecution of how Beijing sees the world – the Philippines was slammed for its position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
As part of unrelated deals concluded at the same ceremony, Foxtel, owned by News Corp and Telstra, agreed to air an anti-Japanese documentary jointly produced by an Australian production company and China’s state controlled CCTV.
Sky News, owned by the Nine, Seven and Sky UK television networks, will also share video content on Australia – Chinese business.
“The nature of the Chinese state is an important element of why there is anxiety and concern about such agreements,” says Richard Rigby, executive director of the China Institute at the Australian National University.
Such concerns about Beijing can partly be attributed to China being a one party state that is seeking to influence a liberal democracy like Australia, says Rigby.
Last week’s media deals underline this point as they were ultimately overseen by the Central Propaganda Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party – the state media in China called it the “Publicity Department”.
Its head Liu Qibao made a rare visit to Australia for the signing ceremony on May 26. But his host, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, apparently didn’t think it was newsworthy that a member of China’s Politburo was in Australia.
DFAT and the media companies involved did not issue a statement on the visit or the deals signed, nor did NSW Premier Mike Baird, who dined with Liu and exchanged gifts.
“If this was an outcome the Australian government was proud of, why wasn’t it publicised in advance or announced openly in Australian media at the time,” says Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.
“We have to assume that there is a larger strategy by the Communist Party to shift domestic public opinion in Australia on sensitive issues such as the US alliance and the South China Sea.
“The long-term goal is to make Australia less likely to oppose China in regional confrontations.”
The media deals are however only the most visible part of Beijing’s “going global” strategy, which covers everything from State Owned Enterprises to private companies, state media groups and cultural organisations.
Its push into other key areas of influence in Australian society can be seen through the political donations of the China’s Yuhu Group, which has lobbied against the recognition of Taiwan.
The property developer donated $200,000 to the Liberal Party last financial year and the same amount to the ALP in the 2013 and 2014 financial years.
On one occasion Yuhu even paid the legal fees of Labor Senator Sam Dastyari.
Yuhu group also donated $3.5 million in December to the University of Western Sydney for a new institute devoted to Chinese arts and culture and $1.8 million to establish the Australia China Relations Institute (ACRI) at UTS, headed by former foreign minister Bob Carr.
“Our work is based on a positive and optimistic view of Australia-China relations,” says the think tank’s website.
The creation of the ACRI took place at the same time UTS closed down their China Research Centre, which never set out to have such a “positive and optimistic” view of the bi-lateral relationship.
UTS Social Inquiry Professor Chongyi Feng said Beijing was looking to “upgrade” its influence in Australia through the media, academia and the overseas Chinese community.
“Its … function is to promote the ideology of the Communist Party to win the hearts and minds of the Australian people,” he says.
So far the funding of universities or donating to political parties has not been a major political issue in Australia, but the Chinese government funding language programs in NSW primary schools has flared as an issue recently.
The Greens have raised the presence of the Confucius Institute in NSW schools and said there should be closer supervision of what is being taught.
“The classes might be free to Treasury but they are paid for by exposing children to a foreign government’s propaganda machine,” said David Shoebridge, the acting education spokesman for the Greens in NSW.
For Rigby, the influence of China’s Communist Party locally is something that Australians are only now beginning to think about.
“We are encountering China in more and more areas of Australian society … while China’s rise is also changing the rather comfortable order we have lived in since World War II,” he says.
“If China was just the enemy [like the Soviet Union during the Cold War] then it would be pretty simple. But that’s not the case as we have benefited hugely from China’s rise.”
Those benefits have largely been seen through the historical boost to our terms of trade, but as has often been noted, in China economics and politics can’t be separated.