Whether this pandemic is real, fake, manufactured, or simply being exploited by those with nefarious agendas, one thing is clear, it has put the Chinese state squarely in the spotlight. By any reasonable measure, China is a rogue state. It is not governed by the rule of law. Its citizens do not enjoy freedom of speech or assembly. A small elite wields enormous power over the largely compliant population. Millions of citizens are locked away for having the ‘wrong’ opinion or belonging to the ‘wrong’ ethnic group. There is no legal transparency. Individuals routinely disappear during the night. Horror stories of forced abortions, organ harvesting from executed prisoners, and other unconscionable acts routinely emerge from beneath the heavy blanket of censorship. Coming investigations into the spread of Covid-19 will prove to be illuminating.
The Chinese state has amassed enormous wealth during recent years. While many Western nations accumulated countless piles of debt, China has been enjoying trade surpluses and double digit annual growth. The Chinese government has used this cash to radically expand its international influence. This has been employed by the use of soft power, as opposed to the brash, overt American way of imposing military bases on weaker nations as a visible reminder of overwhelming US military might.
As a neighbour, Australia has felt the brunt of China’s soft power manoeuvring, and various Australian organisations have undoubtedly been corrupted. Atop the list of compromised bodies sits the Australian Labor Party, the left-leaning voting option afforded the population. High flying Labor Senator Sam Dastyari was brought down by a funding arrangement that saw unknown Chinese actors pay the bills associated with his official office premise such as rent and stationary. The Senator was destined for greatness, a charming charismatic politician who possessed real leadership potential. His forced resignation was a shameful display of fake contrition and embarrassment at his stupidity. Here was a well-funded politician, suckling vigorously at the public teat, who accepted assistance paying for his office staplers and ballpoint pens? What was being offered in return? What was the quid pro quo?
Anti-corruption bodies in New South Wales have also investigated allegations that Chinese nationals arrived at Labor Party headquarters with shopping bags filled with illicit campaign funds. What was the pay-off for these larger donations? The embarrassing element of such scandals is how low the bribery bar was set. If a corrupt political party is going to solicit illegal funds, go large mate, millions in gold bullion, or a similar amount worthy of the crime. There is just something feeble and grubby about these amateur efforts in malfeasance. What happened to the shopping bags of cash? Did a lowly staff member have to count the money in a back room with the doors locked and curtains drawn? Did they use a money counting machine, or was it done laboriously by hand? Did the employee then whisper the amount to a higher official? Was it a round number or some random figure based on the strength of the shopping bag. Did the conspirators then break the sum into smaller amounts and sneak into different bank branches to make deposits? Did they wear a disguise, and look furtively over their shoulder while waiting in the queue? How embarrassing. A few staplers get a single Senator. A couple of bags of creased fifty dollar notes buys one half of the Australian political system in Australia’s most populous state? What price the entire federal legislature?
Labor figures current and retired have kept their end of the bargain in recent years, advocating for untrammelled Chinese investment and influence. This has led to large swathes of arable land and strategic infrastructure projects change hands. Former Labor Prime Minister and party stalwart Paul Keating embarrasses himself at every turn in siding with the rogue state in recent utterances. While Keating may be suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome, a tragic loss of rational thought, his support for a state that routinely tortures its own citizens is another embarrassment.
The Labor Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, seems a staunch Beijing boy, having signed secretive infrastructure deals with Chinese companies as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. This bold $1.5tn foreign and economic policy seeks to establish maritime trade routes across the globe and has invested in projects in dozens of countries. The plan includes ports, railways, pipelines, and other major infrastructure developments. Political opponents have described the agreement as a “propaganda initiative from China that brings an enormous amount of foreign interference.” This is classic Chinese soft power at work. The goals might be admirable, but they are cloaked in secrecy and smell of corruption.
The precedent for the use of money to buy international influence is an obvious one. The Saudi Royal Family, a twisted, labyrinthian, criminal construct gets a free pass from almost every world leader. How is this achieved? The Saudis pay them money. Political donations, corporate bailouts, low interest loans, funding for think tanks – the Saudis wrote the book when it comes to exerting influence while quietly murdering their citizens. The Trumps, Bushs, Clintons – all travel to Riyadh dressed in their Sunday finest while toting as many empty suitcases as Air Force One can safely carry. Corruption is not concerned with left and right ideologies, just make with the money and the recipients will say nice things about you, lean in your direction, defend you on the public stage, and look the other way while you conduct your unspeakable atrocities.
Trump has taken a different line with the Chinese, calling out their rigging of financial markets, theft of intellectual property, and lies about viruses that might crash the global economy. He is to be commended for this. Evil prospers when good men do nothing. The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is showing some encouraging signs also. The opposition Labor party finds themselves torn between their conscience, the national interest, and the warm welcomes received in Beijing. And the food, have you attended a Chinese banquet with 18 courses? The food just keeps coming – rock lobsters, wantons, dumplings, chow mein, roast duck, sweet and sour pork, and fried rice, all washed down with the finest Aussie wine.
The welcome mat has been rolled in other ways for Chinese in Australian. Expedited visas for high rolling gamblers looking to punt in the nation’s casinos, rubber-stamping of strategic assets and property, Australia has profited greatly from the rise of China. Fee-paying university students fill inner-city apartments, tourist coaches travel the highways, China purchases our iron ore, agriculture produce including millions of tins of baby milk powder. Our biggest customer pumps tens of billions into our economy. Chinese contracts are lucrative, life-changing for Australian companies that can land them.
The University of Queensland has also recently shown its colours concerning Chinese soft power. Fee-paying foreign students keep the Australian tertiary sector afloat, and when philosophy and political science student Drew Pavlou organised a tiny Anti-Chinese protest, the university came down hard. Pavlou was expelled for his alleged disciplinary offences, exposing the university to a huge international backlash. Freedom of speech is selectively applied in the tertiary world these days.
The Chinese moral dilemma is not a complicated matter. It is not a new conundrum. It is easily framed. It asks one simple question. What price for our silence? How much does a rogue state that kills and tortures its citizens as a matter of official policy, need to pay us to say nothing. What is our price to look the other way and quietly count our dirty money, like a lowly political operative inside a state branch of the Australia Labor Party?
The only other question raised by this sordid affair is exactly how much Australian currency can be stuffed inside a single plastic Aldi shopping bag?
Jackson Byrne and G G Novack