Saturday, 3 March 2018

Book review: Silent Invasion, Clive Hamilton (2018)

Subtitled ‘China’s influence in Australia’, this is a tiresome but formidably important book. It takes us on a trip behind the curtain into the corridors of power in Beijing where for the past 15 years or so the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have pursued a policy of world economic and political control. The way this has happened with the acquiescence of the people of the country has been remarkable, but it is necessary to know that the leaders are relying on a popular opinion that they are also fabricating to support their ambitions. To do this, the state is educating children to resent the economic colonialism pursued by countries such as Britain in the 19th century that led, for example, to the Opium Wars.

Such humiliation is hard to forgive – and for people in the West, hard to excuse – and on top of it came the further humiliation meted out by the Japanese in the 20th century. But there is a willing audience for messages based on these revanchist narratives. And we know they work. Just look at what happened in the 1930s in Europe when the German people were mobilised to overthrow their own democracy on the back of resentment at their treatment at the end of WWI.

Hamilton says that the CCP decided to pursue the goal of being the central power of “all under Heaven” as a result of the 2008 GFC, when major banks failed due to lack of regulation in the US financial system. The much vaunted free press there also did a bad job of picking the disease of interest-only loans given on limited-term contracts to undocumented mortgagees that then reverted to interest-plus-principle loans they were suddenly unable to afford, leading to a run of property sales that led to the financial crisis. So the West has a case to answer (but the answer is not less regulation, despite what ideologues in the Republican Party opine).

The education policy that underpins this policy dates from the 1990s, following the opening of China’s economy to the world as a result of US political moves. Things took a turn for the worse in 2016 when the CCP decreed that corporate chairpersons had to also be the party head in the company. The party in China thus controls all organs of the state, from the education system to the courts, from the press to the corporations. Its reach is unassailed and its goal is global hegemony. It doesn’t want to go the direction of the Communist Party in Russia, although both countries are now kleptocracies (where government is by thieves).

Hamilton’s problem with his narrative is not to do with his research, which is broad and deep. He has trouble however forming its dramatic superstructure. I managed to get about 40 percent of the way into the book before giving up in frustration.

The way in which Bob Carr, for example, who is now the vocal head of a China-focused thing tank based at the University of Technology, Sydney, turned from being an admirer of the US to being a lackey for Beijing is a case in point. A journalist with an eye for the cogent detail might have more amply chronicled Carr’s journey. How, furthermore, did the Liberal Party’s Craig Laundy become such a China booster? And who is the replacement for the CCP in Canberra in the ALP now that Sam Dastyari has fallen on his sword? Chris Bowen?

The author shows how front groups funded and promoted by Beijing through its consulates in the capital cities help to channel money to the political majors in Australia. The NSW Labor Right faction, furthermore, which is headquartered in Sussex Street, in Chinatown, is also a major supporter of policies such as the One Belt, One Road. And there are dozens of businesspeople in Australia who unthinkingly spruik the benefits of following the CCP’s line so that we can all benefit, we are told, from the economic prosperity that would follow. It seems that the only people we can rely on for unbiased opinion nowadays are ASIO and the Department of Defence.

One case Hamilton could have made more of, I thought, was the free trade agreement signed with China in 2015. Andrew Robb, who pushed the deal through Parliament, now works for a Chinese investor in Australia on a fat salary. But the reservations forwarded in Canberra by the ALP relating to its clauses about the hiring in Australia of imported foreign labour on 457 visas, has received less scrutiny, perhaps, than they should have done. We’ll have to see how that one plays out in the press, but Hamilton makes a good case for the ALP to revisit the deal if it wins the general election in 2019.

While his arguments are compelling, I think Hamilton’s editors might have given him a few pointers about how to structure a narrative so that it follows a more conventional dramatic arc. The stories that play out in the media in countries like Australia are always based on potentialities – to fall or to rise – and the dangers inherent in these liminal zones for the actors involved. Hamilton’s story frustratingly points inexorably in one direction.

He had a bit of difficulty finding a publisher for the book, on the other hand, and Hardie Grant finally agreed to accept the risk of legal action and go ahead. The legal threat is real. Chau Chak Wing, who funded UTS’s new Frank Gehry-designed Faculty of Business building in the Haymarket, is currently suing Fairfax Media and the ABC in the courts over their coverage last year of CCP influence peddling in Australia. That’s part of the story. (Gehry himself said that the building looks like a “brown paper bag”, which is apt in light of what Hamilton discovers.)

Another part of it is the way the book will be received by the community. I’ve already read one review of the book, by Tim Soutphommasane, our Race Discrimination Commissioner, that suggests one future direction for its treatment in the public sphere.

He says that we have to be careful not to provoke responses among parts of the community characterised by the sorts of racial discrimination that had motivated the views of the broader community in the country for the last decades of the 19th century and for most of the 20th century. In a way, Hamilton had predicted this sort of reaction because he says that our policy of multiculturalism is seen by the CCP as a weakness particular to Australia that allows ethnic Chinese here to participate in soft-power plays designed by the CCP to ensure that the country becomes a Chinese tributary state.

But the truly sad fact about the book for me is that even though I only read part-way through it, the argument that we are sleep-walking in a direction the destination for which is against our best interests, is overwhelming.

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