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'Shanghai Sam's' fall should alert attention to China’s rise

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 5 December 2017


Most people will know by now the bald facts of Sam Dastyari's fall from grace. The NSW Senator has been twice sacked by ALP leader Bill Shorten over his links to China.

The latest episode, in which Dastyari warned a Chinese businessman with strong links to China's Communist Government that his phone was under surveillance by Australian intelligence, must cause concern. It indicates some deep-seated links that should worry many people concerned about foreign money and China's growing power.

Dastyari has shown a strange eagerness to seek out the spotlight. See for example the odd case in which he was harassed by a few louts and tried to use this incident to make himself a victim of racism. But there are far bigger issues at stake than the Senator's behaviour. Let's start by examining what lies beneath all the noise - the growing power of China.

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Our blindness to Chinese power

We in the west fall into a trap because of our own Eurocentric education. I studied European history with just a few scraps about Asia.

I learned French at school, of course: France was usually the first country you came to when you left England. That was very typical of my generation. When it comes to understanding Asia, many westerners still retain most of what we learned in our formative years.

We see China as backward, polluted and primitive, with appalling standards in the way the Chinese treat human beings. Reflect on the images of China that we see on TV, even on ABC TV or SBS: we see dirty skies, people being pushed out of makeshift houses or the Tianmen Square confrontation.

But the Chinese see themselves as the Central Kingdom, the centre of the world's oldest culture. Chinese see western countries - Britain, Germany, the USA - as countries which were great and produced great artistic achievements, once. But now, Chinese believe, the West is corrupt, materialistic and in fatal decline. In contrast to Western decadence and corruption, Chinese people praise the traditional Chinese virtues: respect for their elders; gratitude for favours given; a strong sense of duty; generosity; and application to learning. We will return to some of these later.

Young Chinese have attained remarkable success in Australia. In New South Wales, the hugely successful selective public schools are heavily populated by Chinese (as well as Indians and Vietnamese). It's indicative of how Chinese children are driven to work hard, study and be successful. (There have not been widespread protests about the racial composition of these schools: that would be called racist, of course.) The whole family is dedicated to this educational success, grandma and grandpa included. This might be one of the many keys to China's massive success in rising from its wrecked state in 1949 to probably what is the world's dominant power.

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China rules the waves.

We Australians are buried in our own concerns of trying to buy a house, paying for our kids' education, or worrying about sports teams. We are too slow to appreciate the importance of China's power for Australia. Britain ruled the seas once; and the USA's once-strong maritime power is weakening.

It's much truer to say now that it's China that rules the waves. Five of the top ten container ports are in mainland China; one more is in Hong Kong. More and more ports worldwide are controlled by China, and Chinese control of ports in Greece or Sri Lanka or Africa is often followed by visits by the Chinese People's Liberation Army.

A report to the US Congress details the worldwide scope of the problem: how foreign firms cannot penetrate China, while China moves into many countries wordwide, increasing control over perhaps 60 countries. There is far more in this report, even in the Executive Summary. I wonder if American power is secure now Trump is in the White House, bringing his thoughtful, reflective stance to steady the US ship of state?

China's students

Chinese power extends to the Chinese Government's sway over 'its' students in Australia. There is concern in university and foreign affairs circles over the way China is using Chinese students to monitor other Chinese students in Australia, and to challenge academics whose views are not the same as the Chinese Government. There have been a number of incidents in which students have criticised academics giving out the "wrong" view of China, the South China Sea issue, and so on.

In October this year Chinese students were warned by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to remember that they should respect Australian customs and that Australia prides itself on free speech. Penny Wong, Labor's foreign affairs spokesperson, stressed that Australia must understand China, "its motives and mindsets" because we don't yet understand "how China's ambitions will play out globally". Subtle, but telling.

Security issues

Chinese power has security implications. Duncan Lewis, the ASIO chief, organised meetings of Labor and coalition MPS to warn them of the danger of accepting foreign donations. He was all too aware of the Four Corners investigation into Chinese donations and how these furthered Chinese interests.

A book on Chinese influence in Australia has been written by Clive Hamilton, an academic at Charles Sturt University. But the publisher asked the author to edit the book heavily, to lessen the potential for vexatious legal proceedings. Lawyers apparently pointed to current legal proceedings already launched by Beijing's agents. Hamilton left the publisher and a further publisher has been sought. We will know more next year.

But the threat seems to point to Beijing's insistence on controlling opinion. This issue has been reported in many countries overseas. As one academic commented, "If dissent can be stifled here, it can be done anywhere".Already US film and other media are being self-censored for fear of Chinese disapproval, according to the Report on China to Congress.

Chinese donors and political parties

But let's look again at Senator Dastyari, and his power base emerging from union links in New South Wales. Questions should be asked loudly about links between Chinese businessmen and the NSW Labor Party. The Dastyari fall from grace has been dramatic.

But we need to understand the whole picture. Why are there so many links between NSW Labor and Chinese businessmen who are affiliated with the Chinese Government?

How come large donations are made by these businessmen to NSW Labor?

We noted earlier that a Chinese virtue is "gratitude for favours". Exactly how is the Labor Party, especially in NSW, expected to show gratitude for the money showered on it by Chinese businessmen?

I once believed the Labor Party served the interests of workers. That seems to be a foolish hope now.

Sadly, the conservative parties get donations as well. Some of the Chinese donations to political parties were listed by the ABC. They make startling reading.

Issues remaining

We should laugh out loud at the automatic response to these questions. We are racist, we are in a moral panic, this is China-phobia, and so on. We need to rip out foreign donations root and branch. Here's a start:

First, some kind of Independent Commission Against Corruption is clearly needed to see where the money goes and what effect it has. People do not give away their hard-earned money for nothing.

Second, there needs to be a much sharper investigation of Chinese influence and control. The links between Chinese businessmen and NSW Labor must be part of this. These links have a very strong and unpleasant smell.

Third, it is demonstrably wrong that people can retire from politics and be ushered straight away into cozy jobs in Chinese businesses, or any other firms based overseas. There are far too many examples on both sides of politics.

Finally, what goes on in our universities? Are academics free to tell the truth as they see it? Or are there pressures brought to bear on those who do not toe the Beijing line? Those of us with university experience know too well that money talks loudly, foreign students bring in large fees, and difficult students are given too much of their own way.

So let's ignore the fake cries of 'China phobia' and 'moral panic'. These issues need to be sorted.

The Turnbull Government says it has legislation restricting foreign power and influence in preparation for 2018. Surely this is an issue which will not wait. Well might the Liberals say that the Senator seems to be lacking loyalty to Australia. Yes indeed: but who else does this apply to?

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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