WASHINGTON—Clive Hamilton’s book “Silent Invasion” sounded a warning to Australians about how the Chinese regime was gaining influence in their country.
Drawing on insights from the experience in Australia, Hamilton recently sought to warn Americans of the dangers posed by the People’s Republic of China’s influence operations.
Hamilton says Americans have a false frame of reference for evaluating the threat from China. Since the 2016 election, the Russians have dominated discussions of foreign influence, but Hamilton says the Chinese regime has longer-term goals and is a much greater threat than Russia.
“Russia wants people to know that it is meddling in U.S. elections,” Hamilton said Oct. 18 during the panel “A Conversation on Chinese Influence in Australia and Beyond” at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They want people to know that it can exercise influence. Putin wants the world to know that he is a big man.
“China doesn’t think that way. Its goal is long-term. It is the second-most-powerful nation, and eyes becoming the most powerful nation in the world. It’s not interested in disruption. It is interested in long-term influence. Putin wants his activities to be visible; the Chinese government wants its activities to be invisible,” he said.
Another difference lies with the actual damage, according to Hamilton.
“The damage done by Russia to the political process is short-term, kind of spectacular, caused a disturbance and a lot of activities and media reports for a couple of years. But when Donald Trump is gone, that will go as well,” Hamilton said.
“But China is different. Beijing is aimed at long-term influence strategies. It doesn’t target particular political parties. It doesn’t really care who is in power. They want to influence every important political force. That is why it is long-term. It is thinking ‘where we will be in 10, 20, 50 years’ time.’” Hamilton said.
“Putin has a short-term objective of creating chaos and obstruction. Beyond that, he doesn’t know that he wants.
“The PRC has a far more long-term, subtle, carefully thought through the objective of gaining influence. It doesn’t want to disrupt the institutions. It doesn’t want to undermine democracy. It wants to control the practices of institutions and the people involved in the exercise of democracy.”
Another reason why “Beijing is far more dangerous to the U.S. democracy than Moscow” is that China’s GDP is almost 8 times that of Russia’s. So, it is capable of doing much more damage, according to Hamilton.
The United States can learn from the heightened public awareness in Australia, which set the stage for pushing back against the PRC’s influence operations, Hamilton said.
“About two years ago, there was a process of the awakening of the Australian public, broadly about the PRC’s influence operations in Australia.”
Because of “a very dynamic debate,” the Australian public was “fully on board” and strongly backed new legislation on foreign interference in domestic politics, Hamilton said. His “Silent Invasion,” which played a key role in that debate, details the systematic attempt by PRC to expand its espionage network and influence in Australia.
It’s also a prime example of the influence it exposed. Australia’s largest publisher, Allen & Unwin, which had published several of Hamilton’s books in the past, in November 2017, canceled its plan to publish “Silent Invasion,” owing to pressure from Beijing.
Hardie Grant acquired the rights and published the book in February; in June, Australia passed national security and foreign interference laws that Attorney General Christian Porter called the country’s biggest counterintelligence overhaul in decades.
The legislation includes tougher penalties for traditional espionage activities—such as leaking classified information and interfering with public infrastructure—along with sweeping provisions aimed at combating foreign interference and a registration scheme for agents of foreign political actors.
But in the United States, Hamilton said, a debate such as the one that took place in Australia has yet to occur.
Apart from “some elites, some adults in the White House, intelligence services, defense department, some analysts and a small handful of journalists, the broader American public has a long way to go before they understand, in the wake of the Russia issue, that the PRC is a far greater threat, far more subversive threat, to the United States.”
Free Chinese Media
Hamilton and Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), who also spoke at the event, both highlighted the importance of the media consumed by Chinese living outside China.
The majority of Chinese-language media in the United States and Australia are “partially or almost wholly owned or influenced by China,” Glaser said, with only a few exceptions, such as The Epoch Times and its media partner NTD.
To address the problem, “Maybe the Australian government needs to assist private media operations to provide Chinese-language services, so that Chinese Australians can gain a range of views through the media they use,” Hamilton said.
“One thing that’s particularly worrisome is that Weibo and WeChat are controlled and censored from Beijing,” Hamilton said. “This is a critical form of communication between Chinese Australians. So what we have are Australian citizens of Chinese heritage, who have their communication censored from Beijing. This is truly an outrageous situation.
“We really need to do something about it. The answer is to try to win Chinese Australians away from those forms of social media which Beijing can control, and provide Chinese-language media free and open,” he said.