Over the course of 2017, Australians have been forced to shake off their complacency about China. Events of the past year – centred on the controversy surrounding Labor senator Sam Dastyari – have highlighted China’s gradual consolidation of power over Australia, bringing the issue to the forefront of public attention. The quiet warnings about China from establishment figures beginning in late 2016 have become blaring alarms, as China’s aspirations to turn Australia into a vassal state have become impossible to ignore. Apparently wishing to validate Edward Luttwak’s description of China’s ‘great state autism’, the Chinese government has overreacted to Australia's belated realisation of Chinese manipulation of its political affairs with petulant rage, issuing formal complaints, broadcasting condemnations of Australia through its propaganda arms, and issuing hysterical warnings for the continued ‘safety’ of its citizens in Australia.
For those who pay close attention, recent years have seen a steady drip of stories auguring what the rise of China will mean for Australia. We have seen Chinese capital pouring into Australian housing, inflating prices to the detriment of young Australian families looking to buy their own home. We see Chinese comprising a large plurality of international students in Australian universities: a reliable gateway to future citizenship. These developments have proceeded in lockstep with high levels of Chinese migration, which has transformed Sydney into a city ‘more Chinese than British’, with the China-born population having quintupled since the early 1990s.
We have seen enterprises backed by the Chinese government acquiring Australian assets, including prime agricultural land, the electricity grid, and – against the wishes of defence authorities and the United States – the strategically-vital Port of Darwin. In the face of China’s claims that we have ‘nothing to fear’ from these developments, we have also seen large-scale, coordinated Chinese hacking operations against high-value Australian targets.
Each of these individual stories is significant enough on its own. When viewed in combination, as part of a larger pattern, they give great cause for alarm. They reveal a great power using a variety of techniques to gradually attain a stranglehold over Australia.
Notwithstanding the growing apprehension of the defence and intelligence establishment, there is every chance that things would have continued to drift in the same direction, with China gradually increasing its control over Australia in ways that largely evaded the public eye. Most dramatic social and political changes do not happen overnight, with a big bang and fuss heralding their arrival. Instead, the most consequential changes are often slow, creeping, and almost imperceptible on a day-to-day basis. They rarely elicit much focus or comment, as the attention of people naturally gravitates towards the issues dominating the daily media cycle.
Gradual, incremental changes such as China’s accumulation of power over Australia can be difficult for the media to concretise; to turn into a story suitable for mass consumption. Occasionally, however, things happen that cannot help but draw sustained media attention and focus the public’s gaze on a widespread problem. In such cases the significance of the newsworthy episode becomes even greater than the surface details would suggest because of the larger issue it represents. All of a sudden, slow, almost imperceptible changes have a story, a face that can be presented to the public.
Such has been the case with the Dastyari Affair, which more than any of the other developments mentioned above has served to heighten public awareness of China’s designs for Australia, and the extent to which China seeks to control the workings of our political system.
The first revelation came in September 2016, when it was reported that the Sydney-based Top Education Institute, a company with links to the Chinese Communist Party, had paid a $1600 bill of the young Labor senator after he had overspent his travel allowance. Further investigation of Dastyari’s register of interests prompted by this incident revealed a shady history of Chinese companies covering tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Dastyari's travel, legal, and catering expenses between 2014-2016. One of these companies was the Yuhu Group, chaired by Huang Xiangmo – a billionaire property developer with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party, and a major donor to both sides of Australian politics. After the details of his financial ties to Chinese interests were revealed, Dastyari was forced to the senate backbench, although it appeared that the scandal would not prove fatal to his political career.
A Four Corners investigation, broadcast in June 2017, revealed what the Chinese, and Huang Xiangmo in particular, received in exchange for their ‘investment’ in the Labor senator. During the election campaign of June 2016 Dastyari stood next to Huang Xiangmo and defended China’s claim to the South China Sea in opposition to official Labor policy, after Huang had threatened to withdraw a promised $400,000 donation to the ALP. Four Corners also revealed that the senator had taken a close interest in Huang’s stalled application for Australian citizenship, making four separate enquiries to the Immigration Department on the subject. In exchange for a few thousand dollars, China had acquired an energetic advocate for its interests, both within the ALP and the parliament. A Newscorp analysis of senate committee transcripts later found that throughout his career Dastyari had peppered defence officials with hostile questions regarding the South China Sea and Australia’s relationship with Japan.
In the closing weeks of 2017, the Dastyari Affair emerged from the elite media bubble and forced itself into the wider public consciousness. Fresh from his memorable experience at a Melbourne pub, Dastyari was confronted by a new Fairfax report that would finally end his political career. It revealed that in October 2016, soon after Dastyari had been forced on to the backbench over his financial ties with Chinese organisations, he had met with Huang Xiangmo at the latter’s Mosman mansion. In this meeting, which also came after ASIO had briefed ALP officials on their interest in Huang, Dastyari had alerted the Chinese billionaire to the fact that he was likely under surveillance, and had recommended that the pair leave their phones inside and instead go outside to speak confidentially.
The story, an egregious example of a member of the political elite compromising Australia’s security to serve the interests of a menacing foreign power, quickly engulfed the media. It was soon followed by other examples of Dastyari acting as a Chinese toady, such as a revelation that in 2015 he had pressured Labor’s Deputy Opposition Leader to abandon a scheduled meeting with a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, warning it “would upset figures in the Chinese community in Australia”. After a tortuous fortnight, during which he did everything he could to hold on, Dastyari eventually realised that his position was untenable, and resigned from the senate.
It was the drawn-out nature of the Dastyari Affair that gave it such prominence. Had the senator done the honourable thing and resigned as soon as the revelation was published, it is likely that the question of Chinese influence in Australia would have again quickly disappeared from the front pages and nightly news bulletins. But Dastyari's obstinate refusal to step down until absolutely necessary ensured that the story stayed at the centre of public attention for days - ensuring that discussion of China remained a heavy focus of parliament and the media.
The Dastyari Affair has brought political consequences, including the introduction of a long-overdue ban on foreign political donations. However, the more significant impact will be its exposure of naked Chinese interference in the Australian political system. For decades, Australia’s establishment has been complacent towards China, thinking that the world's most populous country could be engaged with as a trading partner, a source of capital and migrants, without any adverse consequences. This view is no longer sustainable. The Australian people face the new year armed with the knowledge of China’s contempt for their nation’s sovereignty.