Once again Australia is gripped by a cash-for-comment scandal. This time it is the Chinese Communist Party supposedly paying minor bills for an Australian politician to say a few conciliatory words about the South China Sea dispute.
Ludicrously, some strategic commentators are even asserting that this is part of a sophisticated plot to peel Australia off from the Australia-US security alliance, ANZUS.
The Australian-based Chinese business people that engage in this sort of reprehensible behaviour and our politicians, on all sides of politics, that suck it up – and there are many – are barely on the radar of the Chinese Communist Party or government.
China, like the US, is a great power and understands the use of power. It doesn't need nor would pay for minor figures to make speeches on its behalf. It can do much better should it wish.
Photos on the mantelpiece
The gaggle of extremely wealthy Chinese business people, mainly in Sydney but also Melbourne, clearly have various connections back to mainland China; though few have connections to Beijing itself. Some that do, use these links to curry political favour both in Australia and China.
For the Chinese business people involved, the entire exercise is about their own narrow business interests and personal ego. It is about the photos on the bookshelves of their offices and their mantelpieces at home. Advancing the interests of China is of little or no concern. One thing these people are not, is altruistic. Their patriotism is by and large self-serving and self-aggrandizement.
Being associated with politicians, even relatively minor and insignificant figures, is craved as a veneer of respectability for otherwise shadowy and dubious business histories.
Their behaviour may be venal and grubby in the extreme, as is that of those in public office who engage with them, but it is not a matter of national security. Indeed, those that raise the flag of national security over such behaviour – in a curious way – help to make such behaviour legitimate by assigning a higher purpose to it.
Australia: too small to matter
It also suggests that in China's world view Australia is much more important than it really is. Far from lying awake at night in the central leadership compound of Zhongnanhai trying to work out how to peel Australia from the US alliance, as die- hard geopolitical realists the leadership accepts the facts of the world.
Australia is rusted onto the US security relationship and a few Guangdong business people in Australia are not going to change that. Also, Australia is, to the surprise of many strategic analysts and journalists, hardly on China's radar.
When a departing Australian ambassador asked the head of Beijing's leading strategic think thank that feeds directly into the leadership, how did Beijing really view the Australia-US strategic alliance, Cui Liru hesitated. With some embarrassment he said they did not think about it all. Asked why, he said that Australia was too small in strategic terms to matter.
The Chinese party-state does indeed have long-established and well-funded mechanisms for extending its reach and influence. There is the International Department of the Communist Party. This is equivalent to the party's Foreign Ministry. In accordance with the party's primacy in every aspect of China's government, the International Department is one level higher than the Foreign Ministry.
Transparent soft power
The International Department's role is to maintain links with non-government parties and organisations. When Labor was in government it funded China visits by Coalitiion politicians and officials, and it does the same for Labor when the Coalition is in office. It is completely open and transparent about this.
It also funds visits by media groups, such as a recent visit by a number of Australian journalists to China. Naturally, they are not going to fund these visits to have bad stories written about China. They are highly professional at spinning the story and there is nothing untoward about this.
Many countries do this. Governments from countries such as the US and Israel are very active with such programs of influence, as is the EU, funding visits by parliamentarians, party officials, staffers and the Australian media. No one argues these are threats to Australia's national security.
Legitimate security concerns
The Chinese Communist Party also has a more insidious body, the United Front Department. From the earliest days, the United Front Department was to co-opt party sympathisers mainly in Taiwan, but also Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. The name comes from a political tactic of Joseph Stalin and the Third Socialist International where communists were to form alliances with social democrats and other non- communists with the eventual aim of seizing power. Like much of the nomenclature of the Chinese Communist Party it is a historical anachronism these days.
China's United Front Department is well funded and ever-busy working overseas, including in Australia, to unite Chinese living abroad to be faithful to the motherland, meaning the Chinese Communist Party. It works with overseas Chinese, and its principle concern is to thwart overseas support for separatist movements or opponents of the party.
Owners of Chinese language publications sympathetic to Beijing would, for instance, be in close contact with the United Front Department via China's embassies and consulates. There is nothing new in this. If they had been trying to peel Australia off from the US, they have been spectacularly unsuccessful for decades.
It's all about the rules
The issue of overseas Chinese reach, backed by the Chinese party-state, into Australian domestic political life is indeed an important one to debate, as it is for many other governments that attempt to exert influence via their diaspora in Australia.
China may or may not be more deliberate and organised than others, but it could hardly have been more ineffectual. The Australia-US security alliance will most assuredly survive the efforts, orchestrated or not by Beijing, of a few self-promoting overseas Chinese business people.
The issue is really one about our lax rules and double standards for politicians which see all sides of politics taking handouts. The standards that should apply to politicians taking gifts and benefits from anyone in the community should be the same rigorous ones that the politicians themselves have imposed upon Australian public servants. If that had been the case we would not have to witness this tawdry episode and the extravagant claims of some in the strategic analysis community.