China has become that most convenient of cartoon villains in primary school-style politics, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.
It was an odd thing to do, but then again, dysfunction produces slips of oddity. Prime Minister Scott Morrison should have been heading to Cooma to aid the by-election campaign of Fiona Kotvojs, the Liberal candidate for Eden Monaro.
Instead, he ventured to the Blue Room to announce that a “sophisticated state-based cyber actor” was “currently” attacking “Australian organisations across a range of sectors, including all levels of government, industry, political organisations, education, health, essential service providers and operators of other critical infrastructure".
The state was not named. There was little in terms of detail on whether the attack was exceptional, or merely the culmination of a slow burn over a period of time.
The tone seemed somewhat different from that in February 2019, when a similar “sophisticated state actor” had supposedly made efforts in prying with its cyber fingers. On that occasion, Morrison told Parliament that the networks of major political parties had been hacked, but insisted that there was “no evidence of any electoral interference. We have put in place a number of measures to ensure the integrity of our electoral system”.
Given that Australia has that most secretive of democracies, one that tolerates clandestine trials and readily applied clamps on open justice, a public confession to cyber-attacks should have been suspicious. Was the prime minister readying the Australian public and the undisclosed “enemy” for something grander?
The following week, something grand to excite political watchers did take place. Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) raided the home of NSW Labor MLC Shaoquett Moselmane on 26 June. Moselmane’s part-time staffer, John Zhang, also had both his home and business address searched. (Zhang is said to have taken a “propaganda training course” in Beijing in 2013 at the Chinese Academy of Governance.)
The reason for the raids: to flesh out material that might expose Chinese efforts to influence the Labor MLC or other members of his office. “Goodbye and good riddance — he was a menace,” one relieved MP told the ABC.
Moselmane is but one flashpoint in a broader relationship that shows signs of lengthy decay. To mention China in terms of being targeted, or even praised in Australia, is to commit something tantamount to treason. Better condemn the Red-Yellow Devil than concede any ground that Beijing might have any legitimate claims on, well, anything.
The list of Moselmane’s comments favourable to Beijing is not negligible, at times resembling those of a schoolboy crush. Not all, however, are insensible or the product of unrepentant Sinophilia.
When anti-interference laws were passed by the Federal Parliament in late 2018, he made the salient observation that the purpose of such legislation was obvious.
“Whilst such laws are not intended to target any particular country, there is no doubt that they have been used to target China.”
Others playing a similar game were being ignored in the selective ruckus:
"It seems that they see a tree but they fail, intentionally or otherwise, to see the forest of influence peddled by others.”
Rather than being seen as part of an airing on how Australia approaches its largest trading partner, the NSW politician has been singled out as a China apologist, a point not helped by such acts as the writing of an opinion piece for the East China Normal University taking issue with 'the absolute scum of ‘White Australia'" that had made a reappearance, according to Moselmane, along with 'the theory of yellow fever'.
He is not playing the patriot’s card, having visited a country out of favour no less than 15 times. Moselmane did the unpardonable thing in praising China’s response to combating COVID-19 — one he regarded as “phenomenal” as opposed to 'the slow, and at times baffling and confused messaging by the Morrison Government'. In the slime being cast Moselmane’s way, voices such as those of his brother, Shawki, denying any links with the Chinese Communist Party, are being drowned out.
Last September, Federal Liberal MP Gladys Liu also found herself in hot water over links with China, one helped by a spectacularly poor interview with Andrew Bolt. It was Labor’s chance to send in the questioning sharks and Morrison’s chance to claim trumped-up racism. The member for Chisholm had been a council member of the Guangdong provincial chapter of the China Overseas Exchange Association, formerly of the State Council of the People's Republic of China.
Between 2003 and 2015, Liu was an honorary member of the chapter but claimed that this showed no inconsistency in terms of loyalties.
In a statement, Liu explained that she had:
'...resigned from many organisations and I am in the process of auditing any organisations who may have added me as a member without my knowledge or consent.'
Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has become that most convenient of cartoon villains. While Beijing’s aggressive impulses have been shown to be undeniable, backed by steely authoritarianism, demonisation Down Under is both convenient and unflinchingly hypocritical.
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating observed in a speech in November last year:
“The whispered word of 'Communism' of old, is now being replaced by the word 'China'. The subtleties of foreign policy and the elasticity of diplomacy are being supplanted by the phobias of a group of security agencies which are now effectively running the foreign policy of the country.”
The Australia Institute’s Allan Behm, who heads that body’s international and security affairs program, adds spice to this by suggesting that a choir of ignorance runs the Australia-China show.
Behm told the New Daily:
"If you’ve got about 20 people who know about China, you’re a hell of a long way behind the queue line. Our politicians don’t understand what they’re dealing with. They don’t have enough factual knowledge. They don’t understand its history or culture."
A good deal of this is covered in the latest Australia Institute report, 'How Good is the Australia-China Relationship?'.
Behm sums it up in harsh but accurate fashion, scuttling the ship of those fools who suggest that there is only that 'confected binary: the so-called inevitable choice' between the U.S. and China. The cock-eyed policy establishment in Canberra eagerly awaits signals, movements and grunts from its U.S. stewards before making a decision, taking 'cues from the confrontation between Washington and Beijing'.
On COVID-19, Australia stuck its neck out insisting on an independent inquiry on its origins. Since then, Beijing’s diplomats are refusing to pick-up the phone.
“How stupid can you get? It’s like the student’s representative council in primary school all running around playing a game.”
Expect more from the politics of the primary school.
Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar and is an Independent Australia columnist and lecturer at RMIT University. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.
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