China is taking its ideological fight abroad
Of the official announcements posted on the website of China’s embassy in Sweden over the past year, nearly two thirds are vituperative attacks on individual Swedish journalists, politicians and other public figures.
“Some people in Sweden shouldn’t expect to feel at ease after hurting the feelings of the Chinese people and the interests of the Chinese side,” was one typical, mildly threatening, outburst.
The embassy in Sweden has been the most aggressive exemplar of China’s new “wolf-style diplomacy” over the past year or so. But it is far from the only one.
The key to understanding this belligerence lies in the policies and priorities that make up “Xi Jinping thought”. In numerous speeches and official documents, the Chinese president describes a bitter struggle between “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “western anti-China forces” with their “extremely malicious” ideas of freedom, democracy and human rights.
In the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev famously said the Soviet Union would “bury” western capitalist democracies. Since 2013 Mr Xi has put it this way: “Capitalism is inevitably dying and socialism is inevitably winning . . . This is an irreversible general trend in the development of history.”
This is more a struggle to perpetuate authoritarian rule in China than an ideological campaign like that of the cold war and it is primarily being waged on Chinese soil. But the fight is increasingly being exported, too, as Beijing strives to make the world safe for Chinese autocracy. The goal is to impose as heavy a price as possible on anyone, anywhere who opposes the party’s power or objectives. Western liberal democracies are the main targets.
This overseas push began because the Chinese diaspora, estimated at about 60m people, has grown so much in recent years and is viewed as a potential threat to continued party rule in China. The history of revolution often runs through diaspora communities like the ones that nurtured Vladimir Lenin in Switzerland, Sun Yat-sen in Japan and Deng Xiaoping and Ho Chi Minh in Paris. But attempts to boost China’s influence and control of global narratives goes far beyond public diplomacy and reaches well outside the diaspora.
In November, Australia’s main spy agency said it was investigating “disturbing” allegations that Beijing had tried to install an agent in Australia’s federal parliament. The agent was found dead soon after he reported the plan and police have been unable to determine his cause of death.
In next-door New Zealand, some of the biggest donors to the main political parties are China-based businessmen with close ties to the Communist party. Campaign finance legislation rushed through parliament last month has done little to close off the loopholes that allow this kind of influence-buying.
Astonishingly, a man who spent at least 15 years working for China’s military intelligence apparatus remains an elected member of parliament, even after admitting he was ordered by the party to conceal his past on his New Zealand immigration application.
Tiny New Zealand may seem like a strange target for Communist party infiltration, but the country is attractive to Beijing as the soft underbelly of the “five eyes” intelligence sharing arrangement with Australia, Canada, the UK and, most importantly, the US. A senior intelligence official from one of these countries described New Zealand to the FT as “on the edge of viability as a member” of the grouping, because of its “supine” attitude to China and its “compromised political system”.
China is New Zealand’s biggest export destination. Presumably out of fear Beijing would respond with economic sanctions, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, has gone out of her way to avoid even mentioning the topic of Chinese political interference.
Australia’s response has been far more robust. China has threatened economic consequences for Australia’s impudence, although these have mostly proven hollow.
Even as some in Canberra fretted over the poor state of the relationship last year, Australian shipments to China rose to a record high, accounting for nearly 40 per cent of all exports. Political embargoes are often ineffective as they tend to hurt importers as much as exporters by raising prices and disrupting supply chains.
There are justified concerns in some countries about a rise in xenophobia and “reds under the bed” targeting of anyone who is ethnically Chinese. The world must guard against such racism, not least because it would be deeply perverse to punish the very people who have moved to western democracies to get away from a repressive system.
But ignoring China’s bullying behaviour would be an equally egregious form of racism towards ethnically Chinese compatriots since they are the primary targets of Beijing’s intimidation and overseas influence operations.
It would also be foolish. As the recently retired head of Australia’s main spy agency said in November, the Communist party has been very skilful at exploiting the openness of western democratic systems. The “effects might not present for decades and by that time it’s too late”, he said. “You wake up one day and find decisions made in our country that are not in the interests of our country.”