Tuesday, October 11, 2016

China’s Influence-Peddling in Australia

China’s Influence-Peddling in Australia

A ‘cash-for-comment’ scandal hurts Beijing’s soft-power ambitions.

Australian Labor Party's Senator Sam Dastyari.ENLARGE
Australian Labor Party's Senator Sam Dastyari. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
China’s global campaign to amass “soft power” has hit a rough patch in Australia, where Labor Party rising star Sam Dastyari resigned from the Senate leadership last week amid a scandal over thousands of dollars in gifts received from Chinese interests. This move may save the 33 year old’s career, but it will do little to quiet concerns about China’s influence in local politics.
Mr. Dastyari’s problems go beyond the legal and travel expenses covered for him by Beijing-linked interests, including a Sydney college called the Top Education Institute and property developer Yuhu Group. Though the lawmaker stresses that he did nothing illegal and sought to return at least some of the money, he appears to have rewarded his Chinese benefactors with apologetics for Beijing—what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dubbed “cash for comment.”
“The South China Sea is China’s own affairs. On this issue Australia should remain neutral and respect China’s decision,” Mr. Dastyari told a press conference in June. This bucked both his own party and the ruling Liberals, who have been largely united in criticizing Beijing’s maritime bullying and stressing the importance of freedom of navigation and international law.
Standing with him at the press conference was Huang Xiangmo, whose Yuhu Group paid the costs of a 2014 lawsuit Mr. Dastyari faced from a campaign vendor. Last month Mr. Huang wrote an op-ed in Chinese state media likening political donations to protection money for highway bandits. The Australian Chinese community must learn “how to have a more efficient combination between political requests and political donations,” he argued, setting off a firestorm of criticism in Australia. A spokesman soon clarified that Mr. Huang “expected absolutely nothing in return for donations.”
The Dastyari affair coincides with media investigations last month showing that Chinese firms are by far the largest source of foreign-linked money in Australian politics—and that domestic intelligence chief Duncan Lewis has warned political leaders that such donations pose national security risks. Unlike in the U.S., foreign political donations are legal in Australia, though many lawmakers now want them banned.
Parts of Australian officialdom already appear to be hardening their stance toward China. The Foreign Investment Review Board and the Treasury recently moved to block Chinese firms from buying control of power provider Ausgrid and agricultural giant S. Kidman and Co., the country’s largest private land owner. This followed last year’s controversial decision to give a Chinese firm tied to the People’s Liberation Army a 99-year lease for the port in Darwin, northern Australia, where U.S. Marines recently began rotational deployments.
Australia is working through the broader Western challenge of how to square liberal values and practices with China’s growing assertiveness. The tension is especially pronounced because China is Australia’s largest trade partner, a fact that helps explain Canberra’s decision last year to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank while finalizing a broad free-trade deal with China.
Opponents of Chinese influence-peddling Down Under include many ethnic Chinese Aussies who know Beijing’s authoritarian ways all too well. Some were instrumental in canceling concerts planned this month in Sydney and Melbourne to honor Mao Zedong on the 40th anniversary of his death. The concerts would have been an offense to Mao’s millions of victims—and a reminder of how much separates China’s dictatorship from Australia’s democracy.