The corporate media have been full of complaints and accusations about Chinese influence in Australia. Author Clive Hamilton claims China is carrying out a “silent invasion” that is eroding “Australian sovereignty”.
The scaremongers point to a wide range of activities by China’s government and Chinese companies in Australia, such as rising investments, the lobbying and bribing of politicians, the growing reliance of universities on fee-paying Chinese students and establishment of Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes, and the alleged theft of “intellectual property”.
The Australian government has taken measures to restrict the activities of Chinese companies in Australia.
Huawei has been banned from participating in the proposed 5G mobile phone network.
Two Chinese companies have been blocked from buying a majority stake in NSW energy distributor Ausgrid.
The Chinese-financed CU River mining company has been blocked from expanding its iron ore mine at Woomera, and threatened with the loss of its existing permit.
These decisions have all been made on “national security” grounds.
But how real is the “Chinese threat”?
China is a rising power. Like all powers, it tries to influence events beyond its borders.
But we need to keep a sense of proportion.
The United States is still the dominant world power. US influence continues to be predominant in Australia.
The ban on Huawei is a result of US pressure. Huawei threatens the dominance of the US in information and communications technology.
A large part of Australia's media is owned by News Corp, a US company controlled by Rupert Murdoch, a US citizen. The Murdoch media empire plays a major role in promoting reactionary ideas.
Australia has several US military bases on its soil, including Pine Gap, which spies on electronic communications around the world, and North West Cape, which communicates with US warships and submarines. US marines are stationed in Darwin.
Australia’s alliance with the US has led to its involvement in other wars, including Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and is threatening to involve it in a new war with Iran.
US companies have a strong presence in Australia. They have economic power and political influence. Their actions can damage Australia’s economy and harm workers here.
An example was the closure of the car industry. For a long time Ford and General Motors (as well as Toyota) received assistance from the Australian government, in the form of tariff protection and subsidies, to keep their plants open. But when it suited them, they closed their factories, leaving thousands of workers without a job.
While the Australian government says it has shut out Huawei from the 5G network because of fears it could spy on electronic communications, there is no similar concern about US government spying nor data collection by US companies such as Facebook.
The US is a longstanding imperialist power — the dominant one since World War II. China's history is more complex.
China was formerly a semi-colony of Western imperialism. Britain seized Hong Kong in 1842, while other European powers and Japan grabbed other pieces of China’s territory.
The victory of the 1949 revolution ended Western domination over China.
Communist Party leader Mao Zedong talked of a transition to socialism. But his undemocratic methods resulted in a very distorted form of socialism that ultimately led to the restoration of capitalism.
China instead became a source of cheap labour for Western companies. For example, Apple iPhones are made in China.
But China has managed to go beyond its former semi-colonial status. Chinese companies are increasingly investing overseas and some, like Huawei, can compete with Western companies.
Formerly a victim of imperialism, China has begun to act like an imperialist power.
China has intervened in conflicts in distant countries. For example, China (like the US and Australia) supported the racist Sri Lankan government against the Tamil independence movement.
Democracy vs dictatorship?
In the conflict between the US and China, we should not support either side.
It is often argued that we should support the US, because it is a democracy while China is a dictatorship.
It is true that the Chinese government is repressive. Tibetans and Uighurs are oppressed. Workers demanding better pay and conditions are often attacked by police and socialist students who support workers have been jailed.
But is the US any better? Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans are oppressed.
The US has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. Millions of people, mainly poor and disproportionately Black, have been jailed for non-violent offences such as drug use.
Widespread murders of Blacks by police go unpunished, leading to the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Millions of US citizens are deprived of the right to vote through various mechanisms, including disenfranchisement due to criminal convictions.
US politics is dominated by billionaires and giant corporations that can buy politicians from both major parties.
The US has also played a crucial role in crushing democracies in other countries. It instigated numerous coups to overthrow elected governments, such as in Iran (1953), Chile (1973) and Honduras (2009).
The US is no friend of democracy. So “defending democracy” is no valid argument for supporting an alliance with the US.
Australia is a junior partner of US imperialism. But Australia is also an imperialist bully in its own right.
An example is the bugging of the East Timorese government offices by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), with the aim of gaining an advantage in negotiations over oil in the Timor Sea.
Australia imprisons refugees and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people suffer dispossession and racism.
Free speech is under attack in Australia — not from China but from the Australian government. An example is the trial of Witness K, the ASIS agent who exposed the East Timor bugging, and his lawyer Bernard Collaery.
Australians should be more worried about the actions of the US and Australian governments than the Chinese government.
This does not mean we should ignore repression in China or nefarious actions by China’s government or Chinese companies in Australia. These should be denounced — just as we should denounce similar actions by US and Australian governments or companies.
[Chris Slee is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]