With Beijing pushing as far as it can wherever it can in the era of President Xi Jinping, Australia has become a global case study in Chinese government influence.
SYDNEY, Australia — In a gold-curtained meeting room in Sydney, the Chinese consul general appealed to a closed-door gathering of about 100 people, all of them Australian residents and citizens of Chinese ancestry.
He called on the group to help shape public opinion during a coming visit of China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, in part by reporting critics to the consulate. Rallies in support of China should be coordinated, he suggested, and large banners should be unfurled to block images of protests against Beijing.
“We are not troops, but this task is a bit like the nature of troops,” said the diplomat, Gu Xiaojie, according to a recording of the session in the consulate obtained by The New York Times and verified by a person who was in the room. “This is a war,” he added, “with lots of battles.”
The previously unreported meeting in March 2017 is an example of how the Chinese government directly — and often secretly — engages in political activity in Australia, making the nation a laboratory for testing how far it can go to steer debate and influence policy inside a democratic trade partner.
It is a calculated campaign unlike any other Australia has faced — taking advantage of the nation’s openness, growing ethnic Chinese population and economic ties to China — and it has provoked an uncomfortable debate about how Australia should respond.
Many countries face the same challenge from China, an authoritarian power pushing its agenda inside and beyond its borders.
In Asia, China has been accused of funneling funds to the campaigns of preferred candidates in Malaysia and Sri Lanka. In the United States, there is concern about Beijing’s efforts to stifle dissent on college campuses. And in Europe, Chinese companies and organizations tied to the ruling Communist Party have held events for political leadersand donated millions of dollars to universities.
China once sought to spread Marxist revolution around the world, but its goal now is more subtle — winning support for a trade and foreign policy agenda intended to boost its geopolitical standing and maintain its monopoly on power at home.
The contours of its playbook are especially visible in Australia, where trade with China has fueled the world’s longest economic boom. Australian intelligence agencies have warned of Beijing’s efforts, and the issue is likely to be contentious for Australia’s conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, who won a surprise victory in elections Saturday.
Representatives of the Chinese government routinely lobby Australian politicians behind closed doors without disclosing their activities, often by threatening economic punishment and persuading Australian business and academic leaders to deliver their message.
The Chinese government and its supporters have also sought to suppress criticism and elevate its views in the Australian news media, by suing journalists and publishers for defamation, financing research institutes and using advertisers to put pressure on Chinese-language outlets.
Beijing has even promoted political candidates in Australia with these outlets as well as via the United Front Work Department, the party’s arm for dealing with overseas Chinese, and — according to some assessments — with campaign contributions made by proxies.
Last year, after a scandal involving donors with ties to Beijing forced a senator to resign, Parliament approved an overhaul of espionage lawsmaking it illegal to influence Australian politics for a foreign government.
Australia’s new government — led by Mr. Morrison, who has been vague about his plans for foreign policy — must now decide what to do next at a time when the public is divided: Many Australians fear China but also favor good relations to maintain economic growth and regional stability.
“There is a lot to unravel with the China story here,” said Mark Harrison, a China scholar at the University of Tasmania.
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