Scholarly intimidation is being imported into Australia under official Communist Party licence in the guise of patriotism


It’s a truism that we take our freedoms for granted until they are taken away, but recent events have really driven that home to me. In November, my imminent book exposing the subversive activities of the CPC in Australia was dropped by its publisher because it feared retaliation from Beijing.

I never imagined that such a thing could happen. Allen & Unwin has been my publisher for many years and its enthusiastic backing for my new book gave me the sense that we were taking on the powerful Chinese state together. Then, suddenly, it abandoned the battlefield, leaving me out there on my own, looking over my shoulder.

The reason that I was given had the merit of honesty – “threats to the book and the company from possible action by Beijing” and, especially, the possibility of vexatious legal actions against me and the publisher by Beijing’s “agents of influence” in Australia. Beijing-linked Chinese billionaires have in recent times launched defamation actions against major news outlets in Australia, with cases winding their way through the courts.

Cyber-attacks against the company were also mentioned. And the likelihood of being denied access to cheap printing works in China. No threats were actually made; the shadow now cast by Beijing over Australia was enough. The publisher did a last-minute assessment of the risks of publishing, decided that it was not worth it and asked me to come back with my manuscript in a year or so when it would reassess.

The book describes an orchestrated campaign by CPC agencies to influence Australia and silence China’s critics. One element of the campaign is the massaging of senior Australian journalists with all-expenses-paid junkets to China in the hope (fully realised) that they write articles more sympathetic to the country and its leader. It details an extensive network of research collaborations and personal links between Australian scientists and researchers at Chinese military universities, part of China’s programme of sucking advanced knowledge from the West to boost its industrial and military capabilities.

One of the big questions that I felt I had to answer is how it came to pass that the most influential members of Australia’s policy and intellectual elite were won over to Beijing’s view of the world to such an extent that they now advocate for China’s interests over Australia’s. Who are these agents of influence and how do they manage to dominate the debate?

Using defamation laws to suppress criticism of China in a Western country seems to be an entirely new tactic. Yet hints can be found in manuals for Communist Party operatives. An internal document that details the ways in which the party is subduing Taiwan calls on cadres to “utilise legal warfare and public opinion warfare”. In mid-December, a People’s Daily editorial in effect endorsed use of “the weapons of law” to punish those in the West making “incorrect reports about Chinese”.

I don’t know whether my publisher carried out an assessment of the risks of not publishing the book. Judging by the flood of support that I have received, and the worldwide media interest in the story, the downside of reputational damage and sagging staff morale may be bigger than the publisher had guessed. I worry about the message that has been sent to other publishers. Will they find excuses to reject proposals for books that might offend Beijing? Will other scholars decide to stay on safe ground for fear that their manuscripts may end up gathering dust on their bookshelves?

Already, academics in Australia work under a subtle silencing regime. Emboldened by China’s economic might and President Xi’s muscular nationalism, Chinese students at Australian universities are on the alert for any offence by their teachers. A lecturer who used a map that, if you looked carefully enough, showed Indian rather than Chinese lines in a disputed Himalayan border region was denounced on social media. The lecturer was forced to apologise.

Memo to all staff: In your classes, please acknowledge the validity of any and all Chinese territorial claims.

Reflecting on this new culture of denunciation, Australia’s leading sinologist, Swinburne University’s John Fitzgerald, had argued that “scholarly intimidation” is being imported into Australia under official Communist Party licence in the guise of Chinese patriotism. These trends are eroding the foundational principles of the university, those of free and open inquiry and the contest of ideas. Yet Xi has publicly declared that the CPC is waging a war against Western values, including academic freedom. Until now, we thought that the war was being fought against the spread of Western values in China. Now, the primacy of Western values in the West is being challenged.

Although they deny it, the money that pours into Australian universities from China has an insidious silencing effect. It’s not just the income from student fees (as much as 15-20 per cent of total revenue at some of the leading universities) but cash for Confucius Institutes, multimillion-dollar gifts from Chinese benefactors and scores of lucrative joint research agreements with Chinese universities.

And so, under pressure from Chinese diplomats, the University of Sydney banished the Dalai Lama to an off-campus venue and banned use of the university’s logo at his lecture in 2013. At the prestigious Australian National University, the head of the Chinese students’ association allegedly walked into a busy campus pharmacy in 2016 and angrily pointed to the Epoch Times, the Falun Gong newspaper. He began shouting at the pharmacist, demanding “Who authorised you to distribute this?” Intimidated, the pharmacist removed the offending newspapers. University authorities did nothing.

Among those most dismayed at the dumping of my book are those Chinese-Australians who settled in this country to escape the strictures of the Communist Party yet feel increasingly alarmed as they see its growing influence here. Over the past 15 to 20 years they have been outnumbered and outspent by pro-Beijing immigrants arriving in Australia, including billionaires with links to the CPC.

In the course of researching my book I spoke to many of those Chinese-Australians. As I formed a picture of their lives, I became offended at the fact that large numbers of Australian citizens live in fear of being pressured and penalised by an autocratic foreign government if they express their political opinions. Anonymous phone callers issue dark warnings to those who step out of line. I heard of a visa being refused to a man wanting to visit his dying mother, and of a brother’s business in China being closed down to punish his relative in Australia.

But never for a moment did I think that the reach of the Chinese government would be used to penalise me. Yet as one of my Chinese-Australian friends reminded me: “We are in the same boat.”

In a coda to this story, my manuscript has now been rejected by an initially enthusiastic university press, ostensibly for the same reason as Allen & Unwin. However, the grapevine tells me that the university became anxious about the river of gold from its Chinese students drying up if it were to publish a book critical of the CPC. To have one’s central thesis vindicated in this way is cold comfort.

Author Bio: Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra. He is seeking a publisher for his book.