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Embracing China involves risks for Australia

By Peter Coates - posted Monday, 5 May 2008

The short occupation of Canberra’s Federal Triangle by 10,000 Chinese students on April 24, 2008, probably has security services and Australians generally wondering what it all means.

Canberra is normally a quiet and highly regulated place. Most of the protest action occurred in an area of the city between the headquarters of three security bodies, that is the AFP, ASIO and the Attorney-General’s Department. Australia’s federal agents, domestic spooks and legal facilitators would have well and truly witnessed hordes of Chinese chanting pro China slogans while drowning out and physically intimidating the minorty of Tibetan and Falun Gong supporters.

Chinese marshals wearing colour coded uniforms co-ordinated their student volunteers using walkie talkies. The Age, Apri 16, 2008 reported that a student spokesman Zhang Rongan “said the Chinese embassy in Canberra ‘is organising buses, food and places to stay’ for protesters”. Does the importance of China’s trade to Australia, and the sheer weight of Chinese numbers, allow the Chinese Embassy and Chinese students to intimidate those few in Canberra willing to stand up to China?


The answer appears to be “Yes”. Due to China’s economic importance, and rising might generally, the Government has given China a broad degree of latitude outside normal diplomatic behaviour.

China’s diplomats and non diplomatic agents appear to have pushed around Tibetan and Falun Gong supporters over the past few years without being expelled. The policy rationalisation might be that as long as it is only happening to mainly Chinese minorities it is a low counter espionage, or minor law and order, priority - basically not a Federal Government concern. But when Chinese Embassy representatives can mobilise thousands of students to saturate the streets of our capital city that Embassy should at least be seen as a problem.

The Federal Government appears to be willing to frame the debate about the mass Chinese demonstration as a success and a local ACT or Olympic issue. Kevin Rudd, of course, doesn’t want to upset the Chinese. Explanations about the matter have been flick-passed to ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope.

An article from United Press International of April 18, 2008 underlines the international phenomena of Chinese student mobilisation: It recounts Canadian experience with:

  • the theatre of Chinese student demonstations over the Olympics and against Tibetan indepedence;
  • connections between Embassies or Consulates and Chinese student associations; and
  • the dubious credentials of some members of eduction sections of Embassies.

Intimidation of dissidents has been a major role of Chinese intelligence in Australia since at least 2001 when Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics was announced. Much information on this totalitarian failing became public when Mr Chen Yonglin, a Chinese diplomat at the Chinese Consulate in Sydney, defected to Australia in July 2005.


Mr Chen told Federal Government agencies that his major role in Sydney was to monitor and intimidate Chinese dissidents particularly Falun Gong members.

Mr Chen estimated there were about 1,000 intelligence officers and informants active against Chinese dissidents living in Australia. Other Chinese policemen and diplomats, who have defected, support this estimate and indicate the 1,000 might be operating in Australia under diplomatic, student, journalist or business cover.

The figure of 1,000 seemed extraordinary at the time but the efficiency of the student mobilisation in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra makes it obvious China can call on many Chinese nationals and has the money to organise them quickly. It seems that this is only a problem for Australia’s national security if the government decides it is.

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Master’s Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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