St George and the dragon
My book on Chinese influence in Australia was shunned and denounced. Similar pressures are at play in the UK
In November 2017 my publisher shelved publication of my book, Silent Invasion, which detailed the influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Australia.
I was shocked. The publisher had been enthusiastic; the manuscript had been through expert review, revision, editing and legal vetting. Now, in a startling vindication of the essential argument of the book, Allen & Unwin said they feared retaliation from Beijing.
The biggest financial risk was lawfare: libel actions from individuals acting at the behest of Beijing, or its agents in Australia, ready to sacrifice $1 million in legal fees pursuing the publisher (not to mention the author). Even with no chance of success, a motivated litigant can impose crippling costs.
Cyber-attacks could hurt the publisher’s marketing. And it might be denied access to printing in China, which now prints the lion’s share of books published in the West. Last year a list came to light that set out for Western publishers the names (such as those of Chinese dissidents), topics (religion, sex, politics) and maps (any that contradict the Chinese leadership’s territorial claims) that are banned from books to be printed in China. The extent of quiet self-censorship by Western publishers needs urgent investigation.
I naively expected offers from other publishers to flow in; after all, the attempted suppression and massive publicity would make the book a bestseller. But the rest of the Australian publishing industry froze.
Melbourne University Press was initially enthusiastic. But pressure from those not wanting to risk the income the university derives from Chinese students prompted a sudden change of heart. Universities are resolute in their support for academic freedom, until defending it puts revenue at risk.
Members of the Australian parliament’s powerful intelligence and security committee expressed deep concern about this violation of free speech. The committee considered publishing the book in its entirety under the protection of parliamentary privilege, a proposal that had the backing of prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. It would have been a first in the history of parliamentary democracy. But one member threatened to “blow up the committee”, and the proposal was killed.
Meanwhile, a white knight came to the rescue. Sandy Grant, chief executive of a boutique Melbourne publisher, Hardie Grant Books, had a record of defending free speech. Silent Invasion finally appeared in February 2018, and was an instant bestseller. There were no lawyers’ letters. I suspect we were inoculated by the earlier publicity around publishers’ fear of Party-inspired lawsuits. Anyone who sued would be seen as Beijing’s puppet.
Even so, denunciations rained down. It didn’t matter how carefully I had drawn the distinction between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people: the book was racist, Sinophobic, McCarthyist and a return to yellow-peril thinking. My long history of opposing racism in Australia counted for nothing. Tirades came from Labor Party heavyweights (including two former prime ministers and a former foreign minister). Culture warriors and left-wing defenders of minority rights practiced performative wokeness. Beijing’s apologists in the diaspora joined the Canberra embassy and Party media in Beijing to escalate the invective.
My personal safety became an issue, the more so after New Zealand Sinologist Anne-Marie Brady had her office and her home burgled. Security measures were ramped up, especially at my public lectures. Cyber experts told me they had found malware in “every nook and cranny” of my laptop. I wanted to shout: “This is Australia. How dare you try to intimidate and silence me?”
One of the most painful aspects was the almost total silence from the academy. The attempted suppression of Silent Invasion by a foreign power was the most egregious assault on intellectual freedom in Australia for decades. Yet, other than support from three or four individual academics, university administrations, faculties and associations did nothing. The professors were struck dumb. The academics’ union was spooked. The vice chancellors were busy poring over their balance sheets.
Although tightly focused on Australia, the book attracted intense interest abroad, notably in the United States, Canada, Taiwan, Japan and southeast Asia. It was read intently by policy-makers, think tankers and security and intelligence agencies, and the invitations flowed in. A Chinese-language edition was soon commissioned.
In Britain and continental Europe, however, interest (with a few exceptions) was minimal; very few could see its relevance. Such somnolence and naivety in the presence of widespread CCP influence convinced me of the need for a follow-up book examining China’s influence in the West. Mareike Ohlberg, a leading China scholar in Berlin with a deep knowledge of the Party’s external propaganda system, agreed to co-author it.
Britain today resembles the Australia of 2015—vague unease and an information vacuum but with big change looming. In Australia, the change was triggered by a series of disturbing news stories about CCP influence written by a handful of excellent journalists. And, out of public view, Australia’s intelligence agencies were providing alarming briefings to government, prompting hard thinking about how to protect democratic institutions.
When Mareike and I began researching our new book Hidden Hand, material on Britain was scarce. We suspected that CCP influence was extensive, even if almost no-one was writing about it. Sure enough, once we began to look more closely, especially in Chinese-language sources, a truly disconcerting pattern emerged of deep covert influence within Britain’s elites. It turns out that for years the CCP has been conducting a highly successful campaign of cultivating and co-opting Britain’s political, business, university, media and cultural leaders. An understanding of what it has achieved goes a long way towards explaining why the government is risking a break in its strategic alliance with the US and alienating its Five Eyes partners by allowing Huawei into the country’s 5G network.
Communist Party strategists know an opportunity when they see one, and they identified the Brexit opportunity early. They realised that a Britain adrift from Europe would be more eager for new investments, new trading agreements and a new place in the world. They could see that the City of London, the centre of Britain’s economic power, would find the glitter of China’s vast financial markets irresistible.
We resolved to tell as much of the story as we could in Hidden Hand (published by Oneworld on May 7). And as we finished, we wondered whether the CCP’s hold over the British elite is now so strong that it is too late to rid the country’s institutions of its influence.