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Our China spy law bares its teeth with raid on Labor MP

The raid is the first public action to investigate with a view to enforcing the foreign interference law passed by the Australian Parliament two years ago.

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“We will unleash the full force of powerful new laws and defend our values and democratic institutions,” Malcolm Turnbull, then the prime minister, told the House as he introduced the bill. “Foreign actors who would do us harm are now on notice: we will not tolerate covert, coercive or corrupting behaviour in our country.”

His next words signalled that, although he also mentioned Russia and North Korea, this was a law aimed squarely at China: “Media reports have suggested that the Chinese Communist Party has been working to covertly interfere with our media, our universities and even the decisions of elected representatives right here in this building. We take these reports very seriously.”

But it was hard to take this very seriously at all. Because there was no hint that the federal government did anything whatsoever to actually enforce the law.

A close student of the Chinese Communist Party’s operations in Australia, Professor Feng Chongyi of the University of Technology in Sydney, says that some of the organisations and activists operating on behalf of the Chinese government ceased activity when Parliament passed the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, in tandem with an updated Espionage and Foreign Interference law. “But we still see some friends of the Chinese Communist Party in the community – as well as some Australian politicians and the staff of politicians – continuing to be active after the law was passed. Some are covert but some are operating quite openly.”

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The United Front Work Department is the arm of the Chinese government that seeks to impose Beijing’s will in foreign countries through the Chinese diaspora abroad. Chinese President Xi Jinping has described it as one of the party’s three “magic weapons”, together with party-building and armed struggle. Professor Feng counted more than 300 United Front organisations in Sydney alone. “They’ve had no investigation to deter or to punish this unhealthy trend,” Feng said.

Australia has many fine laws that have been flouted through lack of polit­ical will. Underpaid workers? Major businesses and famous chefs systematically underpaid staff with impunity for years because the Fair Work Commission wasn’t enforcing the law. Bank bastardry? Misconduct by the major banks was rampant because federal agen­cies lacked the staff and the will to investigate. New apartment blocks abandoned? New structures are uninhabitable because state governments failed to enforce their building codes.

Was the foreign interference law going to suffer the same fate? One prominent individual with ties to Beijing, billionaire Huang Xiangmo, had settled in Sydney. He financially supported Labor Senator Sam Dastyari until Dastyari was drummed out of Parliament. And he personally recruited former foreign affairs minister Bob Carr to run the Australia-China Relations Institute, a post Carr has since left.

The federal government cancelled Huang’s visa after ASIO advice. He’s now persona non grata. It was an important step. But it was an old-fashioned visa decision that removed one man from the equation. It was not a systemic response to a systemic problem.

“In Chinatown, in the Chinese community, there are lots of guys who behave like Huang Xiangmo,”remarked Feng. “They should be required to explain their activities too.”

After media reports of Chinese government efforts to put agents of influence into the Australian Parliament, and with the NSW Labor Party investigated by ICAC over dubious donations from Huang among others, Scott Morrison acted.

In December last year, the Morrison government allocated $88 million to create an enforcement capability. The Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce was set up, led by ASIO and also staffed by the Federal Police and other agencies.

Now, with Friday’s raid, we see the first public evidence that it is on the job. Shaoquett Moselmane is a fool. That’s no crime. He has said all sorts of foolish things expressing his admiration for the Chinese authoritarians and disdain for his own country. That’s no crime either. We enjoy freedom of speech in Australia. It’s one of the defining differences between the two countries.

Moselmane enjoys the presumption of innocence before the law, and he has not been charged with any offence. That’s another defining difference, of course. In China, the Communist Party is the police, the prosecutor, judge, jury, jailer and executioner. This investigation might turn out to be important for what it finds or fails to find.

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As my colleague Nick McKenzie, who broke the story, writes: “If sufficient evidence was found, the inquiry could ultimately result in an Australian and world first: a prosecution for foreign interference offences arising from an alleged covert Chinese Communist Party plot to influence a serving politician.”

But, then again, it might not matter much. The federal government’s preparedness to act in defence of Australia’s sovereignty is the far greater revelation here.

Australia has been likened, more than once, to the “canary in the coalmine” for democracies that are under assault from Chinese government pressure campaigns.

“Australia is the canary in the coal mine of Chinese Communist Party interference,” the former Beijing correspondent, now consultant, John Garnaut, wrote a couple of years ago. “Nobody knows what happens when a mid-sized, open, multicultural nation stands its ground against a rising authoritarian super­power that accounts for one in every three of its export dollars.”

The canary stuck its head into the coal mine when Turnbull proposed the foreign interference laws, and then deeper when his government banned China’s national champion telecoms gear maker, Huawei, from the 5G network. It went deeper with the call for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. The noxious coal mine gases of Beijing’s response is threefold.

First, political. It imposed a ban on top-level political contact. Which it this year extended to minister-level contacts. With the odd insult – Australia is “chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoe”, according to state media – for good measure.

Second, economic. It applied a customs “go slow” on Australian thermal coal last year, followed this year by sanctions on Australian barley and beef, and a travel warning to threaten the tourism and university education industries.

Third, it began a campaign of internet intrusions. Morrison raised the alarm on this last week as the campaign intensified.

The raid on Moselmane’s house demonstrates that the canary of Australian sovereign independence is still alive, in spite of all this. The raid on a sitting MP related to a Chinese government interference investigation had to be authorised by the Attorney-General, Christian Porter. And, in a sign of the gravity of the act, the Prime Minister himself was briefed on Thursday night.

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Asked about it at a Friday press conference, Morrison made no effort to minimise it as a one-off matter, or to soft-soap China, or to understate it in any way: “The government is absolutely determined to ensure that nobody interferes with Australia’s activities. We won’t cop it. We are a resilient people. We will stand up to it and we will take action, as what you’ve seen today demonstrates.”

Commendably tough in the face of an authoritarian bully, yes. But politically risky, no. Morrison has a double luxury. He enjoys solid support from the Labor Party. And he has strong and rising support from the Australian people. As this week’s Lowy Institute poll shows, the people’s trust in China has halved, from 52 to 23 per cent, over two years.

The prime minister who initiated the foreign interference law says of Beijing’s latest frenzied pressure tactics: “How can you describe it as anything other than bullying?” Says Turnbull: “All that’s really needed is to ensure the relationship progresses harmoniously is for each side to treat each other with respect. That doesn’t mean deference. We respect China’s sovereignty and China should respect ours.”

Which is not about to happen. Morrison knows to expect yet further faux fury from Beijing. And he’s prepared to face it.

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