Dan O'Heirity

China’s Discourse Control On Social Media Platforms

A couple of days ago I was looking at the China’s strategy to control media outlets and media stories around the world in order to ensure that China’s story is “told well”. Today I have a couple more stories that bear upon China’s strategy to control discourse about China. It is common knowledge that China “employs” thousands of people to flood social media with CCP posts about China. This story from The Guardian reports that, ” Twitter has removed more than 170,000 accounts the social media site says are state-linked influence campaigns from China focusing on Hong Kong protests, Covid-19 and the US protests in relation to George Floyd.” The Guardian story also references research from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) which evidences that the Twitter campaign was targeted at the Chinese diaspora, “with the intention of influencing perceptions on key issues, including the Hong Kong protests, exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui and, to a lesser extent, Covid-19 and Taiwan”. The dataset for the analysis comprises of 23,750 Twitter accounts and 348,608 tweets that occurred from January 2018 to 17 April 2020 The full ASPI report is available for download on the ASPI website.

What Happens to You When You Do a Deal With China?

The next story from the Sydney Morning Herald tells how the language of leaders around the world has changed as a result of signing up for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In summary, “Political leaders around the world have adopted the Chinese Communist Party’s language soon after signing on to the Belt and Road Initiative .” The claim is made by Charles Sturt University Professor Clive Hamilton who has published two books on Chinese Communist Party influence around the world. The first book, co-authored with Mareike Ohlberg is, ” Hidden Hand: Exposing how the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World.” The second book, published in 2018 is, “ Silent Invasion“, which examines Chinese influence in Australian politics. From one perspective there would not seem to be anything particularly unusual about leaders adopting some of the language that goes with the Belt and Road Initiative. However, Hamilton is making a stronger claim that these leaders have adopted “Chinese Communist Party propaganda terms and so it’s a sure sign that people have been influenced when they start to reproduce the language of the CCP.”

We can look at his claim in context of the fact that the Victorian Government in Australia has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China on the Belt and Road Initiative even though the Federal Government has said that it wants nothing to do with the project. The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews remains committed to the MOU despite significant concerns in Australia. The MOU between China and the State of Victoria for the Belt and Road Initiative, includes “the aspiration of promoting the silkroad spirit centring on peace, co-operation, openness, inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefits and aspiration to further enrich such spirit in keeping with the new era.” And here is where Hamilton illustrates his point by writing that world leaders who have signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative are now talking about, “BRI as advancing openness, co-operation and inclusiveness and people-to-people exchanges and win-wins.” This is what he means when he says that Western leaders are spouting Chinese propaganda.

Hamilton and Ohlberg write in the “Hidden Hand” that, ” Wilful ignorance, and the influence of United Front agents at top levels of state government, help explain why the state of Victoria in Australia signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative, despite the federal government having expressly declined to do so . . .“. If you haven’t come across the United Front Work Department before then this story is a good place to start in terms of understanding the significant role that the department has in furthering Chinese interests overseas. The story also provides a link to a report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) called, “The Party Speaks for You”. The ASPI report takes a detailed look at the United Front Work Department and has a summary statement stating that, ” Today, the overseas functions of United Front include increasing the CCP’s political influence, interfering in Chinese (expat communities), suppressing dissident movements, building a permissive international environment for a takeover of Taiwan, intelligence gathering, encouraging investment in China, and facilitating technology transfer.”

I was going to write a succinct summary of the activities and aims of the United Front Work Department in order to draw my thoughts together. However, University of Adelaide Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies Dr Gerry Groot has done it for me in this article where he is quoted as saying that, “the United Front’s international presence is all about maintaining control over those it regards to be its citizens, promoting Beijing’s agenda — and generating Party-positive perceptions. This applies to business people and students studying abroad — as well as exiled Tibetan communities and Uyghur ethnic group refugees.” The same article reports on Chinese who work for either United Front Work or Chinese State security as having a presence in Australia and both are active in intimidating people who have been identified as being anti-Beijing. The additional claim in this report is that Chinese consulates are also active in “looking for enemies, looking for Chinese democracy activists, Falun-Gong or other religious dissidents — Tibetan splittists, Uyghur splittists …“.

Should We Be Concerned About Chinese Students Studying Abroad?

I work for an Australian University, a sector that has been decimated by the CCP virus and one that looks likely to continue to struggle with financial woes as China tells its students to think again about studying in Australian. Australian universities only have themselves to blame for the situation in which they find themselves and I have no sympathy for these universities, particularly as they are responding to the crisis by sacking thousands of staff from across the Higher Education sector. However, those points aside, the United Front Work Department seeks to exercise a significant influence over Chinese students studying in Australia and Australian universities are being naïve in the extreme if they believe that there are some Chinese students who are tied in significant ways to the Chinese communist party. Consider these comments from Alex Joske, the author of “The Party Speaks For You” who says, “Overseas Chinese students have long been a target of United Front work . . . both while abroad and when they return home.” Joske continues, “This was reiterated in 2015 when Xi Jinping designated them a ‘new focus of United Front work’.”

There is an association called the “Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA)” which has a presence in universities across the world including Australian university campuses such as the University of Melbourne. The CSSA University of Melbourne webpage says that, “The association aims to offer a platform to all the Chinese students in university to assist personal and professional growth. It offers a range of activities for students to expand extracurricular interests, develop social skills and increase academic interactions. It facilitates culture communication in culturally diverse Australian society.” No one would want to argue that there is anything wrong with these aims. However, Joske has written of these Associations that they are “the primary platform for United Front work on overseas students … (and) most operate under the guidance of Chinese embassies and consulates”. Furthermore, according to Joske, “A 2013 People’s Daily article describes Australian CSSAs as ‘completing their missions … under the direct guidance of the Embassy’s Education Office.’” I am simply quoting here and not making any concrete claims about the CCCAs.

Did a Chinese Consulate Disrupt a Peaceful University Protest?

I’ve written many times about the case of University of Queensland (UQ) student Drew Pavlou whom UQ sought to expel from the University. The charge was something along the lines of alleged misconduct but there is a significant perception that Drew Pavlou was targeted because he spoke out strongly against UQs ties with China and because he was vocal on campus on subjects such as democracy in Hong Kong. Pavlou was at a peaceful Hong Kong pro-democracy on a UQ campus when the peaceful protesters were attacked by Chinese Nationalist Students. There is a very sorry story about how UQ failed to respond in any meaningful way to this attack including failing to denounce one of their adjunct Professors – also a Chinese Diplomat – who praised the attack as “spontaneous outpouring of national sentiment.” In fact, UQ did not condemn this statement until 11 months after it was made. Back to China’s nefarious activities in interfering in Australian Universities. “Organisers of the pro-Hong Kong rally – meant to be a peaceful sit-in at the campus – claimed the troublemakers were sent by the Consulate and that most weren’t students at UQ.”

You can take my next point just as you like, particularly as Drew Pavlou would seem to be a complicated individual, but Pavlou, has said that, “he has sought police protection for his family after he received death threats from “supporters of the Chinese Government.” Personally, I do not find it so very hard to imagine that Chinese nationalists would threaten Pavlou because the Chinese Nationalists who attacked UQ students peacefully protesting about China’s actions in Hong Kong could quite fairly be characterized as extremists. And extremists are, well, extreme which means that they would have no qualms about threatening violence and using violence to get what they want. The difficulty is, I think, imagining that these extremists are living and operating in Australia. Perhaps it is equally difficult to imagine that the United Front Work department is identifying and intimidating people in Australia who are anti Beijing. The same might go in terms of Chinese consulates in Australia. All of this could happen in China or in Hong Kong but surely not in Australia. I shall read the books by Clive Hamilton to find out more.

First Published June 14th, 2020

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s