China's trying to gain political influence abroad, and the West isn't happy

Key Points
  • Officials in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Germany are questioning the extent of political interference by Beijing in their home countries
  • Experts say China's Communist Party is using education, spying, political donations and people-to-people diplomacy to gain a greater say in decision-making within these counries

Western countries are growing increasingly cautious of China's Communist Party.

Officials in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Germany — major recipients of Chinese foreign direct investment — have been questioning the extent of Beijing's interference on their home turfs amid recent developments that suggest rising Chinese clout.

Children holding Chinese national flag play in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.
China Photos | Getty Images

Last Wednesday, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) held a hearing on Beijing's influence-wielding attempts states-side. That same week, China summoned Australia's ambassador after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cited "disturbing reports about Chinese influence."

Meanwhile, security experts in New Zealand warned Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern about Chinese attempts to access sensitive public and private sector information, according to a Financial Times report last week. And in Germany, intelligence officials recently revealed how Chinese spies used LinkedIn to snoop on politicians, according to Reuters.

Experts widely believe that Beijing is using education, spying, political donations and people-to-people diplomacy to gain a greater say in local decision-making in these countries. And at a time when Beijing is dominating the global trade conversation, the issue threatens to strain bilateral relations between China and Western economies.

China has vehemently rejected all claims of political interference, referring to them as "symptoms of McCarthyism" in a recent Global Times editorial.

That said, Chinese money can be found across the world in the form of loans, acquisitions, currency swaps, foreign direct investment and infrastructure projects as Chinese President Xi Jinping's government emerges as the world's largest provider of capital.

Xi's team also has spent billions "to shape norms and attitudes in other countries, relying on the cultivation of relationships with individuals, educational and cultural institutions, and centers of policy influence," Shanthi Kalathil, director at the International Forum for Democratic Studies, the National Endowment for Democracy, said at the CECC hearing. This complex network of liaisons falls under the domain of the United Front Work Department, a Communist Party agency driving the nation's push for global soft power.

What will China's growth target be for 2018?
What will China's growth target be for 2018?

Confucius Institutes, Beijing-sponsored educational organizations aimed at promoting Chinese language and culture on global university campuses are a major example of how Beijing is looking to alter global narratives.

Seen as an arm of the Chinese state, these institutes are controversial due to a lack of transparency and constant self-censorship on China-related topics, which many believe is a clear disregard of academic freedoms. "Confucius Institutes are far and away the best known vehicle by which the Chinese government is carving out a space in American education," Glenn Tiffert, visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said at the CECC hearing.

The Chinese state also monitors foreign academics, he added. "We are routinely targeted by malware, phishing schemes, and fake social media profiles designed to compromise our information security, and our Chinese informants. In many instances, our Chinese colleagues are already under surveillance, and face far more harrowing constraints."

Down Under, there are similiar fears.

The head of Australia's domestic intelligence agency warned in October that Canberra must be "very conscious" of foreign interference in universities," which includes the behavior of both foreign students and foreign consular staff in relation to university lecturers.

"Chinese security forces have reportedly engaged in a campaign to monitor Chinese nationals, including many students — even warning them not to offer any criticism of Beijing lest their relatives in China be harmed," Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a recent note.

North Korea is not going to be jettisoned by China 'anytime soon'
North Korea is not going to be jettisoned by China 'anytime soon'

That's led Australian officials to consider "whether the threat of monitoring students and tactics taken by Chinese officials to scrutinize teaching on China in classrooms has censored debate about China within Australian higher education," the note continued.

In New Zealand, links between local politicians and Beijing have also stirred concern.

Member of parliament Jian Yang came under scrutiny in September following revelations that he once worked at the Luoyang Foreign Languages Institute, a Chinese military-linked academy.

Meanwhile, Australian senator Sam Dastyari recently resigned over a scandal concerning his links with Chinese donors.

Beijing has also provided financial support to former New Zealand politicians in an attempt to promote Chinese interests, according to a September report by Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury.

Xi's administration, "which is encouraging more overseas Chinese to become engaged in politics," also funds interest groups abroad, Brady said. One of them is the Peaceful Reunification of China Association of New Zealand, which "engages in a range of activities which support Chinese foreign policy goals, including block-voting and fund-raising for ethnic Chinese political candidates who agree to support their organization's agenda," Brady explained.

In Australia, about 80 percent of foreign political donations to national political parties came from China during 2000 to 2016, according to a recent report from the University of Melbourne's law school. Turnbull has proposed a ban on overseas donations in an effort to limit overall foreign influence in Australian politics.