Inside Story

In plain sight

Books | Is Beijing really waging a successful war against the West?

Hamish McDonald 24 June 2020 1547 words

Resistance futile? Chinese president Xi Jinping on-screen during an exhibition marking the fortieth anniversary of China’s opening up. Thomas Peter/Reuters

Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World
By Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg | Hardie Grant | $32.99 | 425 pages

Britain: irretrievably in the Chinese orbit. The rest of Europe: weak against the gravitational pull of Beijing and its money. Canada: likewise. The United States: business and political leaders bought off; only Donald Trump daring to stand up.

Having looked pessimistically at the extent of Chinese influence operations in Australia, Charles Sturt University academic and Australia Institute founder Clive Hamilton has turned his sights on the rest of the Western world, and finds another bleak scene of venality and often wilful ignorance.

His new book, Hidden Hand, shows greater familiarity with the networks of the Chinese Communist Party and its coded stock phrases than did his 2018 book on Australia, Silent Invasion, thanks to his partnering with a German researcher with a doctorate in Chinese studies.

It cautions several times against conflating the party with the Chinese people or assuming that the ethnic Chinese diaspora is an agency of Beijing — lapses of which Hamilton was accused by reviewers of the earlier book, notably when he expressed alarm that the cleaning contractor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, an open campus, employed ethnic Chinese.

Hidden Hand focuses chiefly on influence-building by Beijing’s United Front Work Department, a huge, lavishly funded outfit that has been cultivating potential allies among non-communist groups since revolutionary days. With China itself under the tightening control of president Xi Jinping, the department has taken its tried and trusted methods to the wider world. “Its implementation strategy is to target elites in the West so that they either welcome China’s dominance or accede to its inevitability, rendering resistance futile,” write Hamilton and Ohlberg.

The department, as powerful as any ministry in Beijing, sits behind the Chinese organisations that partner foreigners in sister cities, parliamentary friendship groups, business and trade cooperation associations, and the like. “Western leaders can believe they are dealing with leaders of genuine Chinese civic organisations,” write the authors, “whereas in fact they are dealing with party operatives or people guided by agencies in Beijing.”

The perks of dealing with these bodies — including expenses-paid trips to China and meetings with senior leaders — draw in many retired politicians, military chiefs, ambassadors and others who miss the limelight and enjoy the sense they are listened to. Journalists and other opinion makers are given their first introduction to China and come away dazzled by its advances without realising that Japan and other countries made similar, earlier strides.

Hidden Hand gives many examples of Western figures persuaded to publicly endorse Chinese policies using terms like “friendship” and “win-win,” and willing to remain silent about human rights abuses because they accept the United Front line that “quiet diplomacy behind the scenes is more effective than vocal diplomacy.” Certain figures in parliamentary China friendship groups have been prepared to downplay the contemporary relevance of the Dalai Lama or make sneering remarks about Rubiya Kadeer, the exiled spokeswoman for the Uighurs.

In fact, cringe-making examples can be found right down the political chain across the West. Hamilton throws in some from Australia, including the decision of city officials in Rockhampton to paint over the tiny Taiwanese flags put on a multicultural festival float by local children, and then to lamely defend their action as being in line with Canberra’s “one China” policy.

One prime example of United Front penetration, say Hamilton and Ohlberg, is Britain’s 48 Group Club, derived from a body of businesspeople and sympathisers who pioneered trade with China after the Korean war embargoes ended in 1954. Its current members include Tony Blair and other senior political figures, former Bank of England officials, the chairman of British Airways and five former ambassadors to Beijing.

The club’s chairman, Stephen Perry, is quoted by China’s Xinhua news service as saying Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative is all about “sharing” prosperity, which is the “essence of Socialism with Chinese characteristics” (Beijing’s current definition of its ideology). “In our judgement,” write Hamilton and Ohlberg, “so entrenched are the CCP’s influence networks among British elites that Britain has passed the point of no return, and any attempt to extricate itself from Beijing’s orbit would probably fail.”

The French and German pillars of continental Europe are also being eroded by leaders, former chancellor Gerhard Schröder among them, who are on the Beijing gravy train. And the embrace of the Belt and Road Initiative by Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece and Malta resembles Mao Zedong’s old strategy of “using the countryside to surround the city.”

With many seeing the Belt and Road Initiative as a Trojan horse, the authors take another trip Down Under, where “wilful ignorance, and the influence of United Front agents at top levels of state governments, help explain why the state of Victoria in Australia signed on to the BRI, despite the federal government having expressly declined to do so, and the fact that the issue had been widely discussed in the media.”

In the United States, Donald Trump has filled his cabinet with bankers from Goldman Sachs and other outfits deeply compromised by investments in China, while Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is married to the daughter of a rich Chinese American who was a classmate of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. The authors suggest that Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact aimed at greater protection of intellectual property, was a result of their pro-China influence.

In Canada, they claim, Justin Trudeau has been weak in defence of the two Canadians who were arrested for “spying” in retaliation for the extradition case against Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou. Why? Because he is beholden to political donations from Chinese-Canadian businesspeople linked to the Chinese Communist Party.

By the end of this analysis, the authors come close — strangely, for the progressive Hamilton — to endorsing Trump for re-election as the only Western leader strong and confident enough to call out China. Joe Biden and John Kerry sat on their hands while Xi reinforced his islands in the South China Sea, Jeb Bush took Chinese money, and Michael Bloomberg is the most China-friendly of all recent presidential aspirants.

Like Hamilton’s previous book, Hidden Hand concedes no creditable motives to those who pursue engagement with China. They are either in it for the money or — especially in the case of the political left — inclined to “whataboutism,” pointing to instances of Western countries behaving as badly as China.

Hamilton and Ohlberg dismiss the argument that economic engagement will eventually bring political liberalisation to the Chinese system. Xi, they say, has shown the reverse to be true.

They do cut a little slack to those who have let themselves be duped by the United Front Work Department out of ignorance. They claim the West has not had to contend with such an adversary before, given its very slender economic ties to the Soviet Union. They don’t seem to recall the Beatrice and Sidney Webbs of the 1930s, the numerous peace fronts and Soviet friendship groups, the powerful pro-Soviet communist parties, the touring Red Army choirs, the ballet, the communist plants in other parties and organisations.

They think a West that stood up to the Soviet challenge has turned out to be weak before the cash-wielding cadres from Beijing. “Democratic institutions and the global order built after the Second World War have proven to be more fragile than imagined, and are vulnerable to the new weapons of political warfare now deployed against them,” they say.

They seem to accept that United Front work really is what Xi Jinping calls it: “a magic weapon.” They say that “Beijing has become the world’s master practitioner of the dark arts of economic statecraft,” with the Belt and Road Initiative “the ultimate instrument of economic statecraft or, more accurately, economic blackmail.”

Yet, with China’s economy halted and many loan recipients already seeking debt forgiveness, the Belt and Road moment may have passed. And how big is resistance inside China itself to Xi’s grandiosity? We don’t know, and may not for some years.

Hidden Hand does include examples of Western institutions resisting China’s reach. The University of Maryland supported a Chinese student who was pilloried from home for mentioning “the fresh air of free speech” in the United States during her commencement address, and accepted the loss of enrolments from China that followed. The Prague city council terminated its sister city relationship with Beijing over the inclusion of “One China” in the agreement, and switched to Taipei instead. Although Xi and the Dutch king attended the launch of the University of Groningen’s campus in Yantai, China, the university walked away from the partly completed project after Beijing announced a party official had to sit on the boards of all foreign-funded universities.

Indeed, the book’s concluding sentence concedes that “the pushback is growing by the day and the party bosses in Beijing are worried.”

If the objective of United Front work is to create a more favourable view of China around the world, it has demonstrably failed. Hamilton and Ohlberg have produced a useful compendium of what Beijing gets up to. But like the “grains of sand” theory that underlies China’s alleged mass espionage, what Hidden Hand produces is a pile of sand. And what is hidden about that? •