Last year an agent for Chinese printing companies – which have the most advanced and cheapest production facilities in the world — handed Australian publishing houses a list of words and topics that could not appear in any books that were to be printed in China. The overwhelming majority of these books are for markets – including Australia — outside China itself, which has become the default printer globally.
Naturally, the names of Chinese dissidents, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who died excruciatingly while still incarcerated in China in 2017, are high on this list. But it also includes those of the country’s paramount leader Xi Jinping and his muse and propagandist Wang Huning, predecessors Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and references to Tiananmen 1989, the Hong Kong protests, or the Xinjiang conflict, as well as to the island groups in the South China Sea.
See also: Hong Kong’s New Security Law
This is one of the myriad intriguing and concerning anecdotes replete in the new book by Clive Hamilton, co-written with Mareike Ohlberg, Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World.
The challenges that are aligned globally against freedom, democracy and the rule of law – public values which 30 years ago appeared, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, to have “won” — are today legion. But the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has emerged in the last few years as by far the most significant, due to its immense economic and military capacity, its unparalleled and unconstrained surveillance and control technologies, its purposefulness… and its great institutional success. This was underlined on July 1 by the publication of the extraordinarily comprehensive and far-reaching “security” legislation effectively bringing Hong Kong fully within the PRC’s direct control – marking another great step forward by Xi, whose progress has persisted, unhindered in its thrust by the occasional burst of Western rhetoric or of temporarily inconvenient trade gestures.
The USSR posed nothing like the challenge China does today. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) consumed a vast amount of time and energy in reviewing what went wrong for its former “big brother” Russian party, and concluded essentially that it failed because it conceded ground, it liberalised, it lost control of history, including by permitting criticism of its great dictator Joseph Stalin.
Xi Jinping, the Chinese party’s general secretary since November 2012, has instead doubled down on core communist values. On July 23 next year, he will lead the celebration of the centenary of the party – whose period in untrammelled power, 70 years, has already surpassed that of the Russian party.
A year after Xi came to power, the Chinese party published as Document Number Nine, its Communique on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere. This forbade the spread of any of seven Western values branded as especially dangerous: promoting constitutional democracy, including the rule of law; universal values; the concept of civil society; liberal economics; free media and history that is not guided by Mao Zedong Thought; and questioning the truly socialist nature of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
The CCP has had considerable success in expunging these seven deadly sins within China. And China’s “rejuvenation” under Xi has pushed the party’s own values out into the wider world, including through his hallmark Belt and Road Initiative. Globalisation is taking CCP principles, weaponised through China’s economic heft, into multilateral organisations led by the UN and into countries everywhere, considerably more successfully than it has taken liberal values into China itself.
Western values, including the seven astutely summarised by CCP thinkers, are meanwhile widely in retreat, especially within the West’s own educational and cultural institutions.
But few have been paying attention. Australians, for instance, are massively more interested in and knowledgeable about the minutiae of politics, of celebrities, of the arts, of the history of the US and of European countries including especially Britain, than they are about the PRC, which is not at all “inscrutable” but is simply “inscruted” except by a remarkably small cohort. Those who have travelled to China have almost all done so in highly curated, limited tours. Far fewer still, have exhibited the curiosity to visit the contrasting, culturally and politically vibrant, physically stunning island of Taiwan.
China’s leaders, including Xi, say in detail what they believe in, and what they plan to do. But few take note, strangely believing that a CCP leader would be indulging in empty rhetoric, maybe in order to play cunning political games.
Clive Hamilton is someone who has leaped to international prominence for being among the fore of those who have been paying attention.
He is of course, also the Australian who did most to elevate concern about climate change. As a “progressive,” he has not been universally admired by the typical Quadrant reader, insofar as such an animal exists.
But Hamilton has demonstrated those rare qualities for a public intellectual in today’s politically and culturally polarised world – genuine curiosity and a sense of morality – as well as a capacity to leap over such tribalised barriers.
His instinct about the depth of the threat posed by the newly directed and energised thrust of the PRC under Xi has proven extraordinarily influential, not only in Australia but also now in Europe, North America and in Asia in the wake of his new book, Hidden Hand.
Hamilton does not let the grass grow. It’s only just over a couple of years since Hardie Grant rescued his book Silent Invasion: China’s Influence In Australia after Allen & Unwin withdrew it from publication due to concerns that vexatious litigation might have tied up everyone involved for years. Today, Hamilton is surfing a wave of global concern about this huge issue, which in some measure he has helped arouse.
Beijing’s reshaping of the world has been so successful and met so little resistance, in part because liberal democratic values have been hollowed out first, from within.
The journalist Luke Slattery has written persuasively about how, for instance, French academic Jacques Derrida, “was devoted to the dismantling of Western philosophy,” and retains considerable influence in academe in Australia and elsewhere. His theories, Slattery noted in The Weekend Australian (June 27-28), “blazed a trail through the humanities.”
David Martin Jones, an associate professor at Queensland University and Visiting Professor in War Studies at King’s College London, has written a new book on History’s Fools: The Pursuit of Idealism and the Revenge of Politics (Hurst), which forensically examines the way in which the very hour of Western triumph against the Soviet system also saw its enemies from within begin to assail the salient features that had assured its systemic success. He elucidates the threat posed to liberal democratic values a decade later, by the political religion of Salafist jihadism – whose “purifying violence intimating utopia,” as he puts it, was last seen within the West in the millenarian rampages of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Martin Jones writes of a “new world order” that seeks emancipation and redemption by overthrowing the Western capitalist imperium.
For a brief period, it was a Western-based concept of elitist cosmopolitanism that took a leading role in this task. Today, however – and, one anticipates, for decades to come – the prime driver of this new order aiming to supplant liberal democracy is no longer so much the recrudescence of critical theory, Martin Jones concludes, as the return of old-style power-rivalry and geopolitics, in the shape of China’s red-blooded “rejuvenation” and in a side-play, the nationalist surge of its authoritarian mini-me assistant. The latter, Russia, has an economy, however, that is only narrowly larger today than Australia’s, so it will have to rely increasingly on trying to manoeuvre Beijing to the fore on its behalf.
Hamilton, who latched on to the centrality of the PRC’s threat before many better-credentialled experts in the areas of international relations, strategic studies or sinology, gained his doctorate, which was focused on South Korea’s path to industrialisation, from the influential development studies centre at Sussex University in Britain. He then worked alongside the formidable liberal economist Helen Hughes for several years at the Australian National University before joining the Bureau of Industry Economics, then the Resource Assessment Commission as research head, and on to Jakarta for several years with the US Agency for International Development.
He set up the Australia Institute in Canberra in 1994 to undertake “advocacy scholarship” in a progressive direction – challenging, as he told me in an interview for The Australian, “a number of very influential right-wing think tanks”. Besides climate change, he also tackled consumerism — writing with Richard Denniss a big-selling book, Affluenza — and the sexualisation of children in advertising.
In 2009 he stood for the Greens at the byelection for Peter Costello’s former eastern Melbourne seat of Higgins, coming second of 10 candidates with 21,600 votes to Liberal Kelly O’Dwyer, although Labor did not field a candidate. Then he returned to university life when Charles Sturt University invited him to be vice-chancellor’s chair and professor of public ethics, “blessing me with great freedom” to pursue compelling causes.
A dozen years ago, China suddenly started to compel his focus. Hamilton was outside Parliament House in Canberra for a rally to support Tibet following a grim outbreak of violence there. The rally was aimed to coincide with the arrival of the torch relay for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Many Chinese students – including some brought by bus from other states – were also demonstrating, cheering on both the torch relay and Beijing. He told me: “I was deeply shocked by the aggressive nature of the Chinese demonstrators against the Tibetans and any Anglos like myself who had gone to support them.”
The resulting concerns began to swim around in his mind until they were pulled together and made urgent by the downfall of then fast-rising Labor senator Sam Dastyari, caused by his acting as a spruiker for Beijing.
Hamilton told me: “We have to unite on this, including, importantly, those Chinese Australians who don’t want the Chinese Communist Party to extend its tentacles in this part of the world. We who believe in democracy are all in the same boat, and we’re all threatened by the same great wave.”
He and his researcher on Silent Invasion, Alex Joske – a young expert on Chinese governance, now with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who has gone on to become much in demand globally by governments and organisations anxious about CCP infiltration — presented a 49-page submission to the joint parliamentary committee on Chinese influence, which led to pioneering legislation. They wrote in it:
A one-party state that accepts and propagates anti-democratic values and practices — where little diversity of opinion is permitted, where the judiciary serves the ruling party, and where neither a free press nor a vibrant civil society are permitted — represents a far greater threat to Australia’s interests than a nation whose values and political structure are similar to our own. (And) as long as the PRC remains as it is, claims that Australia should treat it the same as other countries create a false equivalence.
Hamilton told me that after starting to research the PRC’s influence efforts, he sensed strongly that some of the people he would usually gravitate towards at a party — fellow political progressives — began wondering: “What has happened to Clive? Is he shifting to the right? Why is he doing this?” During a public hearing of the parliamentary joint committee inquiry, he was asked why someone who had been a Greens candidate would pursue such an issue, strongly denouncing communists?
His response: “Let’s remember, the left ought to be the fiercest defender of free speech and human rights. If it’s going to be an apologist for an extremely authoritarian regime that suppresses such rights ruthlessly, then what does it stand for?” Some on the Australian left, he said, retain “a romantic attachment” to Mao Zedong, others to China’s recent modernising achievements. And “economic self-interest means human rights haven’t had the backing of business and economic forces they may once have had.”
He has received strong support from a number of Chinese Australians whose names he can’t quote: “I am offended by that. They are Australian citizens who should have all the democratic rights, but they are in fear that a foreign government will punish them for speaking out” within Australia by stopping them from being able to see relatives back in China, or by actions that impact those relatives directly, “contrary to every theory of justice and fair play.”
And within Australia, he says, he faces “xenophobia phobia — a terror of being seen as anti-China, a powerful silencing device constantly wheeled out” by organisations that receive forms of funding from China. “It’s an attack weapon used against people with good intentions.”
His new book has in co-writer Mareike Ohlberg a well-credentialled China expert who worked for four years for the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin before recently shifting to the German Marshall Fund. This is appropriate, for Hamilton has broadened his scope to the PRC’s influence globally, especially in Europe, North America, and via the UN, where Chinese officials hold the top jobs at four of the 15 specialised agencies. And Meng Hongwei, a former vice-minister at the Public Security Ministry, was president of Interpol until being brought back to China in 2018. This year he was jailed for 13 years on corruption charges.
Hamilton starts his new book by laying down why he has become so seized by this issue. For long, he points out, people in the West have believed history is on the side of freedom. However, “universal human rights, democratic practice and the rule of law have powerful enemies, and China under the Chinese Communist Party is arguably the most formidable.”
He has his critics, by no means all of them in the PRC. He is attacked for lacking “balance” – for failing to recognise the many mutual benefits of engaging with China’s until-recently vibrant economy, for fuelling racism – although he stresses that his focus is the party-state not the Chinese people who continue to suffer the most from its exigencies, for failing to acknowledge the party’s “bringing hundreds of millions out of poverty” – although it was the party that suppressed development and economic opportunity under Mao, and it has been the Chinese people who have since then seized that opportunity for themselves.
But his focus is clear. He is a terrier-like public intellectual with a theme to pursue and debate as broadly as possible, right now. He’s not so bothered about posterity, or the need to balance the CCP’s good and bad points.
He and Ohlberg also have to contend with “whataboutism,” especially from some on the left, they say: “China may be doing some unpleasant things, goes this argument, but what about the US? The tactic is more effective with Donald Trump in the White House, but whatever criticisms one might have of the US and its foreign policy, both historically and today – and we are strong critics – they do not in any way diminish or excuse the extreme violation of human rights and suppression of liberties by the CCP regime. And for all its faults the US, like other democracies, continues to have an effective opposition” and elections, independent courts, and a thriving civil society. “China under the CCP has none of these.”
This is not a “clash of civilisations,” they rightly point out. “We face not some Confucian ‘other’, but an authoritarian regime, a Leninist political party” backed by enormous resources.
The book opens with a review of what the party and its leader want and some of the means through which they are achieving their goals: “Too many Westerners routinely speak of China as if the Party does not exist, but focusing on the Party is indispensable for an understanding of the political entity we are dealing with.” The situation, they point out, “is unlike the Cold War, in which loyal citizens were ‘turned’ and began to work consciously for the other side. It’s far more effective if those arguing the CCP’s case believe in their hearts that they remain loyal but have come to the view that China’s position is in the best interests of their own country.”
The book then swiftly moves on to naming names, as it lists some of the myriad connections between party-state institutions and Western actors of influence.
Britain’s case is especially interesting. The writers describe former senior Tony Blair Cabinet member Peter Mandelson, the honorary president of the Great Britain-China Centre, as “one of the more loyal friends of the CCP’s International Liaison Department.” They detail the work of the 48 Group Club, originally established in 1954 by 48 British businessmen to build trade relations with the PRC. Mandelson is part of this too, as are Michael Heseltine, John Prescott, Jack Straw, Alex Salmond, five former British ambassadors to Beijing, masters of Oxbridge colleges, a retired general, and leading champions of business. It is chaired by Stephen Perry, son of the founding chairman, Jack. He gains the rare privilege of an audience when in Beijing with Xi himself – who has publicly lauded the “48”. The Club serves, the writers say, “as a meeting place and networking hub for friends of China, through which Beijing grooms Britain’s elites.” Stephen Perry’s commentary on the website is “a robotic repetition of CCP propaganda … He says Xi Jinping is responsible for freeing our minds,” and has called on the world to embrace fully the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Jack Perry and his two closest comrades in establishing the Club were, it has been revealed more recently, secret members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and then shifted to the Maoist element when that split from the Soviet core in 1963. Stephen studied law at University College, but told China Daily disarmingly: “I read about Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong thoughts more than law books.” Now Stephen’s son, named Jack for his grandfather, leads the Young Icebreakers, established “for promising young British businesspeople with an interest in China.”
Members of the “48” were prominent participants at a study session held last year by the Chinese embassy in London on Xi Jinping, Thought on Diplomacy. One of the speakers was Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today magazine, whose 2009 book When China Rules the World was a bestseller. In an interview last year with state broadcaster CGTN, Hamilton and Ohlberg report, “he attacked the protesters in Hong Kong as militants whose actions should not be tolerated by the authorities.” The Lord Mayor of the City of London, Peter Estlin, hosted last year a banquet to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the PRC, and praised the BRI’s “win-win culture.” Conservative peer and sometime minister Lord Michael Bates and his wife, Li Xuelin, were last December during a Beijing visit presented by a deputy minister of the CCP’s Propaganda Department with an award “for spreading the Brilliance of China.” Jim O’Neill, the former chief economist at Goldman Sachs, now chairing the Chatham House think tank, has urged the UK to create “more win-win situations between Britain and China,” and for the Britain to become “a great trusted partner of China.”
The writers conclude ominously:
In our judgment, so entrenched are the CCP’s influence networks among British elites that Britain has passed the point of no return, and any attempt to extricate itself from Beijing’s orbit would probably fail.
And so on … through a who’s who of Western elites more broadly. They name two German chancellors – the late Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schroder — as merely a couple of the myriad “useful idiots” – Lenin’s term – enlisted for the Party’s seemingly unstoppable advancement that reached as far as Rockhampton, whose mayor in 2018 instructed a public artwork by schoolchildren to be painted over because the youngsters had included tiny flags of Taiwan, where their mother comes from. The mayor incorrectly pontificated that such art defied Australia’s “one China policy” which in fact acknowledges the PRC’s claim to Taiwan, it does not endorse it.
Hamilton and Ohlberg paraphrase the veteran American journalist China-expert John Pomfret as observing that “rather than ‘us’ changing China – the dream of those urging greater economic integration – China is increasingly changing us, and Western businesses are Beijing’s decisive weapon” – though universities, arts bodies, the UN, the tech world, are all scrambling to ensure they also play their parts in this ascendancy.
This book, like its predecessor, will be viewed by critics as over-combative, as “one-sided,” as plain inconvenient. But its core thesis can only be avoided altogether at very great cost.
by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg
425pp, softcover, $32.99
Rowan Callick, a China Correspondent for The Australian Financial Review and twice for The Australian, is the author of three books on contemporary China and is an Industry Fellow of Griffith University’s Asia Institute