September 13, 2021

PRC Overseas Political Activities Risk, Reaction and the Case of Australia - By Andrew Chubb Copyright Year 2021 -  ISBN 9781032152073 - Published August 24, 2021 by Routledge - 104 Pages

Book Description: 

Political elites in liberal democracies are showing heightened concern about threats to national security from the overseas political activities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its supporters. This Whitehall Paper argues that an effective liberal democratic policy response requires careful disaggregation of distinct sets of risks: to national security; civil liberties; and academic freedom. Although widely cited as a model to follow, Australia’s response to these issues illustrates how aggregation of these diverse risks into a singular national security threat – commonly labelled ‘Chinese influence’ – can produce alarmist public policy discourse, legislative overreach and mismatched institutional responsibilities. The Paper suggests a set of measures for liberal democracies to manage their engagement with China’s powerful and increasingly authoritarian party-state.

Introduction for Book: 

The emergence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a global power has reanimated a central challenge for liberal democracies: how to protect both national security and political liberties when adversaries are willing and able to use one against the other. In President Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ of PRC power, politicians, pundits and the media in the UK, the US and Australia are paying increasing attention to the overseas political activities of Beijing and its supporters. Many such concerns are well founded. Covert and overt political activities are in the Leninist DNA of China’s ruling party, and communications technology has created new opportunities for authoritarian regimes to suppress dissent beyond their borders. On top of this, pro-Beijing patriots and wealthy lobbyists are advancing their views with increased confidence, and many influential economic actors involved in trade relations with China share significant overlapping interests with its party-state. Yet the need for policy responses to these developments also raises a further set of risks from within liberal democracies. These range from the polarisation of public discourse and the rise of alarmist rhetoric that fans xenophobia and harms social cohesion through to legislative encroachments on civil liberties and growing powers of national security agencies that operate with limited public oversight.

Such dilemmas are not new. The onset of the Cold War in the mid-20th century prompted painful choices and numerous missteps in liberal democracies. In the US, claims of widespread communist infiltration and subversion led to ‘McCarthyist’ political inquisitions and purges, along with legislation later deemed unconstitutional.1 The UK and Australia both saw a major expansion in the largely unaccountable powers of security agencies that historians have argued generated little useful intelligence.2 Since the 1990s, and particularly after 2001, the ability of transnational terrorist groups to inflict mass fatalities – and potentially acquire weapons of mass destruction – prompted radical new security measures that encroached significantly on civil liberties and had debatable effectiveness in reducing the threat.3 Most recently, in the age of social media, democracies have struggled to counter Russia’s attempts to influence electoral processes, co-opt elites and suppress dissent by émigrés.4 The overseas political activities of the PRC and its supporters present another expression of the ongoing challenge of protecting national security and democratic freedoms while preventing their abuse.

Debates on these policy dilemmas often frame liberty and security as being in tension, with an increase in one held to warrant a decrease in the other.5 Yet recent experience has shown this assumption of inherent trade-offs does not always hold. During the Cold War, Australian security agencies mistakenly perceived causal linkages between foreign communism and activism on a wide array of issues – from Aboriginal rights and immigration policy to South African apartheid and the Vietnam War – leading to both encroachments on political freedoms and wastage of national security resources.6 Post-9/11 attempts to strengthen national security have produced avoidable side effects affecting both liberty and security. Inflammatory political rhetoric on terrorism, for example, has undermined the government–community relations upon which effective security intelligence depends.7 Sensationalist media and public commentary have stoked social division and Islamophobia by presenting Muslim communities as problem populations, while also amplifying the sense of insecurity and mistrust among citizens more broadly. These experiences have highlighted the critical importance of the language and framing terminology used in policy debates, the need to draw sound analytic distinctions between issues, and the potentially harmful influence of elite political rhetoric and media coverage on the prospects for methodical, evidence-based public policymaking.

This paper examines the array of challenges the PRC’s overseas political activities have presented to liberal democracies, as well as the significant risks involved in responding, drawing primarily on Australia’s experience with both. This makes sense for two main reasons. First, Australia’s regional proximity and relatively high level of economic and people-to-people engagement with the PRC have ensured a wide array of detailed examples are available, rendering many complex issues amenable to focused analysis. Second, since 2017 Australia has carried out an intense public policy debate on these issues, and Canberra has launched a series of policy initiatives accompanied by heavy publicity. These responses have been hailed internationally as a trailblazing model for countering foreign interference. Domestically controversial, Australia’s policy responses have so far received little critical evaluation outside the country. This paper argues that Australia’s experience offers cautionary lessons for other China-engaged liberal democracies.

The notion of engagement with China has come under heavy criticism as the PRC’s domestic politics have become increasingly repressive.8 From the 1990s onwards, successive governments in the US and the UK advanced the argument that expanding trade ties could help to liberalise the PRC. The Clinton administration drew rhetorically on this argument as it negotiated the PRC’s entry into the World Trade Organization.9 New Labour under then Prime Minister Tony Blair likewise claimed that trading with China would help promote internal liberalisation.10 A 2009 Foreign Office report laid out 15 ways that the UK was seeking to promote ‘sustainable development, modernisation and internal reform in China’.11 Whether or not such goals were plausible (or sincerely pursued) at the time, it has become clear that the PRC has moved in the opposite direction domestically, while its capabilities and interests outside its own borders have expanded markedly. These developments are increasing the political salience of PRC overseas political activities in the national security discourses of many liberal democracies. Given growing Sino-American security tensions, this is likely to intensify further, particularly for US-aligned states such as the UK.

The UK’s relations with the PRC have deteriorated significantly since David Cameron and George Osborne, respectively UK prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer, flagged a ‘golden era’ of bilateral ties in 2015. Controversy over PRC telecoms giant Huawei’s potential involvement in the UK’s 5G network, Beijing’s abrogation of treaty commitments to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms, and extreme repression of ethnic and religious groups have placed ties under increasing strain. There is broad political momentum behind tougher stances constraining scientific and technological cooperation in areas with potential military relevance, and on human rights abuses such as the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims in re-education camps. A significant number of Conservative MPs now advocate a generalised rollback of economic cooperation with the PRC and an overarching policy aimed at countering the PRC’s influence around the world.12 In response, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed to ‘be tough on some things, but also … to continue to engage’.13 Finding this balance is likely to be increasingly challenging in the coming years.

As the PRC becomes an increasingly global power, engagement is neither an inherent good nor a general threat to be avoided or eliminated. It is, instead, a reality of today’s world. The UK's 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy assessed China’s rise as ‘by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today’.14 Given the PRC’s economic and political footprints, its growing military power in the world’s most economically vibrant region, and its importance in global crises such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, ongoing engagement with the PRC across a range of sectors is both necessary and inevitable, irrespective of any view of the appropriate volume and nature of economic cooperation. As Charles Parton notes, a blanket policy of disengagement would serve no discernible purpose.15 Rather than engagement itself, it is the specific forms of engagement with the PRC across different sectors that merit debate. Even if a general ‘decoupling’ was possible, the PRC – and the overseas political activities examined in this paper – would remain a reality with which democracies must grapple. As Australian writer and translator Linda Jaivin surmises: ‘Ready or not, China is here’.16

Andrew Chubb CWP Lancaster University

Andrew Chubb is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, undertaking a three-year investigation of the role of domestic public opinion in international crisis diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific. A graduate of the University of Western Australia, his work examines the linkages between Chinese domestic politics and international relations. More broadly, Andrew's interests include maritime and territorial disputes, strategic communication, political propaganda, and Chinese Communist Party history.

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