With China’s interference in Australia becoming increasingly evident, it’s high time that Clive Hamilton’s controversial book and its warnings against the Chinese Party-state be taken seriously, Kevin Carrico writes.
“Isn’t that book just a bunch of Yellow Peril conspiracy theories?”
After recommending Clive Hamilton’s controversial Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia to a fellow academic and friend, this was the question I received in response.
He hadn’t read the book, he told me, but he had seen some reviews.
Hamilton’s book, released a year ago last week, has been widely – and often quite negatively – reviewed. Early in David Brophy’s review, he mocks Hamilton’s concerns about his personal safety, scoffing at his “dark epiphany” about “the ruthlessness of China’s security apparatus.” Considering revelations over the past year about the intimidation Anne-Marie Brady has faced, however, such sarcasm has not aged well.
From there, Brophy provides a lengthy exposition of his own political convictions and rarely engages with the book itself, safely placing its contents in intellectual quarantine as a “McCarthyist manifesto.”
A pattern for reviews soon emerged. Allan Patience lambasts the book’s “factual vagueness and inaccuracies”. Yet, despite his call for realism, Patience himself remains notably vague about what any of these inaccuracies are. Graham Richardson was equally imprecise yet far more direct in his characterisation of Hamilton’s work – which he regards as “just plain crazy.”
There is a standard list of ingredients for a Silent Invasion rant-as-review. Firstly, be unabashedly negative. Secondly, in your negativity, don’t bother specifying where Hamilton is wrong: keep criticism on the abstract level of denouncing the book as a whole as “Yellow Peril and Sinophobia to the extreme”. And thirdly, make the review more about your own political positioning rather than the actual contents of the book.
So, for those who have not yet had a chance to read Silent Invasion, here is an overview: Hamilton begins with two chapters introducing the Chinese Party-state’s official ideology and its essentialising claims on the Chinese diaspora. He demonstrates with unflinching clarity how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has produced a revanchist national narrative that recasts the Chinese people’s greatest oppressor as their great saviour.
Hamilton also shows how this narrative falsely lays claim to the Chinese diaspora as an essential part of China’s – read, the CCP’s – global rise, and how some self-declared “community leaders” in the diaspora have bought into this narrative.
We are only two chapters into the book and, admittedly, things are already getting a bit tricky. There is indeed a network of so-called community organisations – their names inevitably sprinkled with references to ‘peace’, ‘justice’, and, of course, ‘unification’ – who claim to represent ‘the Chinese in Australia’. By casting aspersions on these group’s leaders and their ideological and financial links to the CCP, isn’t Hamilton essentially casting suspicion on the entire Australian Chinese community?
The simple answer is ‘no’. These organisations and leaders are not genuine community representatives, but have simply declared themselves representatives. This is yet another instance of the phenomenon all too familiar to people of Chinese descent of forcefully ‘being represented’ by agents of a self-serving ideology.
These many United Front groups have only a very small cohort of members, while the majority of people of Chinese descent literally have nothing to do with them. I know no one who is a member of these groups nor anyone who has ever participated in any of their activities. Everyone, however, knows what they do.
Thus, rather than casting aspersions on an entire community as his critics allege, Hamilton is, in fact, working to free ‘Chineseness’ from extensively documented and rapidly growing CCP intervention and monitoring via United Front organisations.
This is a cause that really should not be anywhere near as controversial as it has been: looking to a collection of ideologically retrograde, non-transparent, and self-referential ‘community organisations’ with murky links to a dictatorship, and accepting them as authentic representatives of people of Chinese descent in Australia is a glaring example of racism of low expectations.
Hamilton’s next five chapters profile various organisation, individuals, and ideologies contributing to the false conflation of Chineseness and the CCP dictatorship.
These are not paranoid Yellow Peril imaginaries, these are real trends. And developments over the past year since Silent Invasion’s publication have only confirmed their relevance.
Anyone who managed to move beyond the reviews to read Silent Invasion could see echoes of Hamilton’s points in some of the main events in Sino-Australian relations over the past year: a local council covering up children’s paintings of the Taiwanese flag to avoid angering Beijing; revelations that China-based printers are engaged in political censorship of Australian books for Australian readers; the denial of Huang Xiangmo’s citizenship application and the weaponisation of Australia’s defamation laws against reporting on politically connected billionaires’ activities; the Australia-China Relations Institute’s aspirational role in minimising carefully researched reports on China’s political interference; the Victoria government’s decision to sign an initially ‘confidential’ memorandum of understanding on One Belt, One Road; Beijing’s threats to limit international student numbers; the current uncertainty about Australian coal imports; and, of course, state-sponsored hacks at the Australian National University, the Lowy Institute, and beyond. As more evidence emerges, Hamilton’s insights and analyses remain as timely as ever.
In the final chapters of the book, Hamilton moves on to Beijing’s influence on research in Australia. Here we see universities collaborating with the same army that massacred its own citizens in 1989, academic “friends of China” always eager to condemn the “Sinophobic blatherings” of the “anti-China Taliban”, and PRC consular officials actively intervening in how China is discussed in Australian universities in clear violation of diplomatic protocol and academic freedom.
Although critics of Hamilton like to play the ‘what about’ game, implying that Beijing’s interference in Australia is comparable – or even pales in comparison – to that of the United States, any United States diplomat who became involved in tracking and ‘managing’ critical discussions of American policy in Australian classrooms would undoubtedly find themselves suddenly very, very busy.
In sum, Hamilton argues that the CCP is, despite all of its propaganda to the contrary, quite a nasty political organisation, which is intent on doing quite nasty things in Australia. These are not “crazy” assertions, nor paranoid imaginaries. This is common sense, and the evidence Hamilton provides is extensive and carefully documented.
Silent Invasion is, I believe, a book that anyone interested in the PRC and its relationship with Australia should consider seriously. Why, then, have so many reviewers so bitterly dismissed this book? Why has the discussion of Chinese influence over the past year been so torturous and divisive?
Thinking through this conundrum, a useful point of comparison may be the debate on Russian influence in the United States. Both are examples of non-democratic actors interfering in open societies. Yet the discussion of Russian interference has not been characterised by anywhere near the same degree of hand wringing, qualifications, and caveats that we have seen in the debate on CCP’s interference.
Perhaps the ‘whiteness’ of Russians allows for discussion of interference operations – already a sensitive topic – without the added complexity of racial anxieties. Certainly, the tragic history and continued dilemmas of anti-Chinese racism should give us all pause when discussing Chinese influence, or what I prefer to call more directly, CCP interference.
Yet, the sad fact that Australia had a White Australia Policy does not logically mean that there are no CCP interference operations in Australia today. It also does not mean that people concerned about these well-documented interference operations are inheritors of White Australia ideology, or that they are any less concerned about the dangers of racism.
It does, however, mean that it is far easier to deflect discussions of interference operations with reference to this tragic history – a method that we have seen deployed repeatedly over the past year.
Huang Xiangmo, not exactly a disinterested party in this debate, was quick to hop on the ‘Deflection Express’ earlier this month, when he voiced concerns that the denial of his citizenship application signalled a “return to the White Australia policy”. A politically connected billionaire comparing his failed citizenship application to the horrors of historical racism is a puzzling trivialisation of real suffering.
While avoiding such trivialising historical comparisons, let’s also avoid trivialising real suffering inflicted by the CCP and its agents in Australia today. In an open letter last year, a number of academics expressed their concern about “the creation of a racialised narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy,” claiming that “we see no evidence, for example, that China is intent on exporting its political system to Australia, or that its actions aim at compromising our sovereignty.”
Yet research by Hamilton and other scholars in the field shows that there is indeed an official conspiracy that appeals to racial identity. Australia’s sovereignty is compromised whenever a person of Chinese, Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian, Taiwanese, or Hong Kong-ese descent in Australia feels intimidated by the Party and its agents. And Beijing’s political system is exported here whenever anyone hesitates to speak their mind out of fear that their thoughts will be reported back to the CCP. A brief discussion with any member of the Tibetan community in Sydney or the Uyghur community in Adelaide will confirm that this is not just some Yellow Peril imaginary – it is a real threat to the freedoms of our fellow citizens.
For anyone who still sees no evidence of this threat, one year after the publication of Hamilton’s book, I can only recommend moving beyond the reviews to pick up a copy of Silent Invasion for your own consideration.