Chairman Xi Jinping promised a more “loveable” China. Now his new chief diplomat is leading an assault against Australia and the world.
Senator James Paterson says it seems to be a “no-brainer” to consider banning TikTok for Australians, particularly as it is controlled by the “authoritarian power” of China. “What worries me so far about the government’s response to this issue is that the easiest thing to do, the lowest hanging fruit is to get it off government-issued devices,” Mr Paterson told Sky News host Paul Murray. “And they can’t even do that. “So if it’s not willing to tackle that issue, then how on earth are we going to get them to take seriously the even more complex and broader question of what to do about the millions of Australians using it. “There are lots of things that are popular but if they’re harmful they shouldn’t be permitted.”
Chairman Xi Jinping promised a more “loveable, admirable, appealing” China. Now his new chief diplomat is leading a direct — and indirect — assault against his critics in Australia and the world.
An annual threat assessment presented to the US Senate Intelligence Committee warns China is stepping up its global efforts to shape public — and political — opinions. It adds Xi may have accepted that his previously dogmatic tactics have backfired.
“Beijing’s growing efforts to actively exploit perceived societal divisions using its online personas move it closer to Moscow’s playbook for influence operations,” the report, which was released Thursday, finds.
And this change in tactics are “motivated by their view that anti-China sentiment is threatening their international image, access to markets, and technological expertise”.
But the new outburst wasn’t unanticipated.
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil told the Australian National University in late February that “coercive, corrupting, deceptive or clandestine” foreign influence campaigns were well and truly active within Australia.
“The threat is ever-present. It is relentless, and it is insidious. And it not only affects individuals. It fundamentally undermines our democratic processes,” she warned.
Some international affairs analysts agree.
“It sure feels like the (Chinese) side has decided to level up in responding much more forcefully to what it sees as unfair accusations and actions,” writes Bill Bishop.
“Expect US-China to get worse faster, and the mooted Tsai visit to the US will not necessarily be less provocative to the PRC than a McCarthy visit to Taiwan. I fear we are entering into a much more dangerous period in US-China relations.”
Others, however, express bemusement that Xi is doubling-down on tactics that have already backfired – and adopting those that have exploded in Moscow’s face.
“China has failed in its efforts more often than not, using clumsy and ineffective tactics, and leading to backlashes against it around the world – and in Australia,” argues Council on Foreign Relations analyst Joshua Kurlantzick.
Winning without fighting
“Over the past decade, Beijing has embarked upon a strategy to wield influence within politics, local discourse, societies, online discussions, universities, and media in several countries,” Kurlantzick writes in the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter publication.
“To do this, China uses media and information tools.”
Propaganda is nothing new.
What is new is its global reach through social media and the ability to identify – and target – specific susceptible “markets”. It’s a marketing tactic the economic models of Facebook, Google and Tic Toc are built upon.
But instead of printed-shirt and miracle-cure hawkers sifting through billions of user profiles to find potential buyers, Beijing’s marketing efforts are centred on selling its single-party, single-leader aspirations.
It’s a technique also embraced by politicians and lobbyists in Australia, the US, the United Kingdom and beyond.
“Beijing is using media and information tools to influence politics, media and the information environment in other countries,” Kurlantzick explains. “To offset such efforts, countries must bolster regulations, reassess the use of Chinese State media, and keep democracy strong to underline its effectiveness”.
But Qin this week declared that “China’s diplomacy has pressed the ‘accelerator button’”.
This isn’t likely to rely on the same clumsy attempts to impose “Xi Thought” on a sceptical world as we’ve previously seen, US intelligence agencies warn.
Instead, Beijing appears to be embracing much more nuanced Russian disinformation and leveraging tactics.
Old dog, new tricks
Xi was unusually blunt earlier this week when he personally accused the US of being behind a campaign to suppress the rise of China. “Western countries led by the United States have contained and suppressed us in an all-round way, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our development,” he told a group of hand-picked government advisers at an annual legislative session in Beijing.
The next day, his freshly appointed foreign minister took up the message.
“If the United States does not hit the brakes, but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation,” Qin Gang said during a media presentation.
“China may have meddled in Australian politics – and tried to do the same in Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States, Canada and other countries during election seasons – but its efforts often have been caught and worked against Beijing,” argues Kurlantzick, author of the new book Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World.
“Its disinformation efforts, though becoming more sophisticated, still remain fairly clumsy in much of the world, compared to those of Russia, for instance.”
US Army Psychological Operations officer Patrick Cunningham argues Beijing’s diplomats and propagandists have been struggling to balance what Chairman Xi wants to hear with the types of messaging that could prove effective against the West.
“PLA’s approach to information warfare suffers from several key weaknesses: bureaucratic infighting, cumbersome approval processes, centralised decision-making, and a seeming overconfidence in their own data-sensing capabilities,” Cunningham writes in the Small Wars Journal. “Together, these factors are a recipe for strategic miscalculation or disaster”.
But Kurlantzick argues Beijing is capable of learning from its blunders: “Foreign interference is a serious worry – but it is important to see China’s flaws and mistakes right now, to understand what it is doing wrong – and help prepare for how it might adapt and do better in the future.”
Think global, act local
US National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone told the US Senate that Beijing had redoubled “its efforts to build influence at the state and local level to shift policy in China’s favour because of Beijing’s belief that local officials are more pliable than their federal counterparts.”
Study tours. Holidays. Investment. Future jobs. All are time-honoured tools used to sell the agendas of global corporations and governments.
But Beijing is allegedly adopting Russia’s well-established tactic of targeting and entrapping media and politicians “in hopes of developing vectors for future influence operations”.
“It also uses more traditional methods — including using the United Front Work Department (UFWD), a major intelligence agency within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — to wield influence with the Chinese diaspora, foreign politicians, businesses, and in universities abroad,” Kurlantzick adds.
The situation has reportedly prompted Washington to share new intelligence with its allies – including Australia – to turn the information tide against Beijing.
An Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report released this week details China’s influence operations in the Pacific. It’s achieved only limited success. So far.
“The CCP’s attempts have so far had limited success in swaying public opinion or generating the desired online response to real-world events,” write analysts Blake Johnson and Joshua Dunne. “Pacific commentary actually shifted towards greater anti-China sentiment and pro-Western sentiment following the CCP’s efforts to influence the regional discourse on AUKUS.”
China’s attempt to turn the 2018 Malaysian national election to its favour backfired. And its discovery gave Mahathir Mohamad’s coalition the justification it needed to substantiate its anti-Beijing stance.
It was a similar story in the 2021 Taiwanese presidential election. Its blatant interference angered the population, who went on to back the candidate Beijing wanted to depose – Tsai ing-wen.
“It has also resulted in publics ranging from Northeast Asia to Europe to North America to Australia developing intensely negative views of China, exactly the opposite of what Beijing needs to wield effective soft power,” says Kurlantzick. “Backing Vladimir Putin hasn’t exactly helped China’s global public appeal either.”
‘What great teeth you have’
China’s new foreign minister, flush with a 12 per cent boost to his budget, is attempting to sell the message that the West’s response to its treatment of the Uighur ethnic population, its claims over India’s Himalayan territories, Japan’s East China Sea islands and the entirety of the South China Sea are “a zero-sum game of life and death” aimed at “containment and suppression”.
But Qin has to contend with what a recent Pew survey determined to be a global backlash against its territorial belligerence and perceived attempt to conceal the Covid pandemic outbreak in Wuhan.
Then there’s the legacy of his predecessor’s “wolf warrior” diplomats.
“Those who coined the term and set the trap either know little about China and its diplomacy, or have a hidden agenda in disregard of facts,” Qin told media earlier this week.
That’s despite indications it was his own ministry that first embraced the jingoistic term after the success of the 2018 action film “Wolf Warrior 2: Whoever attacks China will be killed no matter how far the target is”.
The sentiment is also entrenched in Qin’s own words: “In China’s diplomacy, there is no shortage of goodwill and kindness. But if faced with jackals or wolves, Chinese diplomats would have no choice but to confront them head-on and protect our motherland”.
But the shortage of goodwill and kindness among Chinese diplomats is already on the public record. And all over Western social media.
In October 2022, officials at the Chinese Consulate in Manchester in the United Kingdom – including the then Consul-General – were caught on film attacking a protester and dragging him into the consulate’s grounds.
And in 2020, Chinese embassy officials gatecrashed an event at a luxury hotel in Fiji to destroy a cake made in the colours of Taiwan’s national flag in front of an audience of 100 dignitaries. This soon degenerated into a fistfight.
The war of words shows no sign of abating.
On Thursday, the Communist Party’s Global Times accused Australian media of “egregious and provocative” behaviour.
“China-Australia ties are improving. This is not what the US pleases to see or allow. If hyping up the “China threat” through Rupert Murdoch’s media is not enough, the anti-China propaganda must continue on other media outlets”.