In reporting on the threat of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) infiltration in Australian politics, Australia’s journalists have been facing major challenges in doing their job to openly report on the issue due to the chance that they could be sued for defamation.
But at a forum “The Great Thrall of China,” hosted by the Melbourne Press Club on July 25, a panel of journalists told an audience of their peers that they would continue to persist in providing in-depth reporting on the contentious topic despite currently facing legal repercussions for their past reports.
The panel included political editor of Nine News in Canberra Chris Uhlmann, The Age’s investigative journalist Nick McKenzie, former BBC and NPR Beijing correspondent Louisa Lim, and former Financial Times bureau chief in Beijing Richard McGregor.
“It’s great to be in the defamation-free zone … I love talking at the Press Club,” McKenzie said, setting the threat of defamation lawsuits against journalists in Australia as a key theme in the discussion that would follow. It was McKenzie’s report on the issue of the CCP’s infiltration of Australian politics that triggered the defamation lawsuit currently facing Fairfax and ABC.
Suspect Activity in Australian politics
McKenzie was a reporter for the joint Four Corners/Fairfax segment ‘Power and Influence: The hard edge of China’s soft power’ that aired on the ABC on June 5, 2017. The report was the culmination of a five-month investigation into how ‘China’s Communist Party is secretly infiltrating Australia.’
In its report, the ABC cited warnings from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) about activities of potential concern to national security, such as sizeable political donations made by certain Chinese business people suspected of seeking influence over Australia’s policy makers under direction of the CCP.
One such figure was identified as billionaire property developer and political donor Huang Xiangmo. In one scene in ‘Power and Influence,’ Huang told the reporters who had approached him that he has “no relationship” with the CCP. In another scene, he is shown professing his loyalty to the CCP at an event celebrating 66 years of one-party rule in China.
“We overseas Chinese unswervingly support the Chinese government’s decision to defend our nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.
“We support the development of the motherland always, and take on an important role in building one belt one road,” he added, referring to the CCP’s economic and strategic agenda to connect China with Europe via countries of Eurasia and the Indian Ocean, as well as Africa and Oceania.
Huang resigned last year from standing as president of an organisation called the Australian Council for Promoting the Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC) that the Four Corners program reported as a “CCP-aligned council.” The council had been reported to have ties to the CCP’s United Front Work Department—an agency responsible for political lobbying and propaganda.
At the time, Huang was facing public scrutiny over his generous political donations to both the Liberal and Labor Parties as well as his close ties to Labor’s former senator Sam Dastyari. Dastyari resigned in December 2017 after he went against his party and Australia’s official stance to promote Beijing’s territorial claims over Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea.
Huang said that his resignation was not to do with the criticism over his political donations but that he was wanting to focus on his business interests. However, a document obtained by The Australian confirms that he will remain the president of what appears to be an umbrella group that encompasses the ACPPRC called the Oceanic Alliance of the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (OAPPRC).
Feng Chongyi, Associate Professor in Chinese studies at the University of Technology Sydney, told The Australian that the announcement likely means the OAPPRC is replacing ACPPRC as one of the main CCP front groups in Australia.
The Four Corners investigation looked closely at the level of influence that individuals like Huang have within Australia’s political sphere, highlighting the scandal surrounding former senator Sam Dastyari as an example.
Just days prior to Dastyari’s resignation, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, “Sam Dastyari is a very clear case of somebody who has literally taken money from people closely associated with the Chinese government and, in return for that, has delivered essentially Chinese policy statements.”
Kevin Bailey, a Victorian senate candidate for the newly formed Australian Conservatives Party, told The Epoch Times that it is largely the culture of careerism that has made Australia vulnerable to political interference by foreign entities. People are entering politics to further their careers, rather than to represent the best interest of their constituents, so their loyalty is easily divided, Bailey explained. He added that, as a result, the integrity of Australia’s political institutions are weakened as a whole.
Repercussions for Reporters Who Raise Suspicion About CCP
Chinese billionaire and 20-year Australian citizen, Chau Chak Wing was also reported in ‘Power and Influence’ as being under ASIO investigation for suspected links to the CCP.
Shortly after the airing of the Four Corners segment, Chau lodged a defamation claim against ABC and Fairfax Media, alleging that he had been “greatly injured” by the program and that his “business, personal, and professional reputation has been brought into public disrepute, odium, ridicule and contempt.”
The ABC’s barrister, Peter Gray, argued in court that due to the “notoriously opaque” and secretive nature of the intelligence world, his truth defence would rely on inference and the “whole tapestry” of the circumstantial case surrounding the stories about Chau.
Gray also told the court that “the federal parliament is currently considering amending Australia’s national security laws in part” due to Chau.
During the forum, McKenzie reflected back on the Four Corners report, saying: “I think in many respects, we went too soft on the Four Corners story. But I say that here, sitting here facing significant litigation that which perhaps says more about our system of defamation than anything else.”
Louisa Lim, a journalist with 25 years experience reporting on China, has also dealt with defamation concerns when reporting on the CCP’s Confucius Institutes (CIs) in Australia.
Lim’s lawyers had deemed her story “too risky.” As a consequence, the lawyers “took out peoples names, excised bits of quotes, and they took out facts which has already appeared in the Chinese media,” Lim said.
Lim was “amazed” at the amount of legalling the lawyers did in order to avoid defamation.
“Although we do not know if the Confucius Institute actually has standing to sue in Australia, we still have to be careful,” Lim added.
CIs have been reported to spread propaganda on behalf of the CCP. In 2009, Li Changchun, the then head the CCP’s propaganda organ, the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, called CIs “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up,” according to the National Association of Scholars (NAS), an American institute that has reported on CIs in the United States.
According to Geoff Wade, a visiting fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University (ANU), the CCP has ultimate control over the CI’s curriculum under agreements signed with Australian universities. They also have control over the hiring and training of staff, budgetary investment, and the organisation’s structure and its activities.
In addition, part of the CIs policy around censorship is for teachers to avoid topics sensitive to the CCP like the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet, and Falun Gong. If teachers are pressed by a student for an answer, they are pressured to just state the party line. There is evidence that CIs exclude those who practice Falun Gong, according to NAS.
In the past two years, media coverage of the CCP’s interference in the Australian political landscape has been significant and has played an important role in bringing about changes to foreign interference laws.
On June 28, the Australian Parliament passed legislation to target espionage, foreign interference, and foreign influence. The National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018 introduces offences that target covert, deceptive, or threatening actions by foreign actors who intend to influence Australia’s democratic or government processes or to harm Australia.
In his speech in Parliament on May 22, Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, who accused the CCP of interfering in Australian politics and public debates, said, “I do acknowledge the courage of Australian investigative journalists who have sought to uncover examples of these operations here in Australia.”
“They have done so in the national interest and often with the threat of expensive defamation cases for their efforts,” he added.
From The Epoch Times