Australia's China scholars air divisions over interference laws

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A group of Australia-based academics who study China said well-documented reports show actions by China’s Communist Party amounted to “unacceptable interference” in Australia’s society and politics, entering a debate dividing their community.

FILE PHOTO: Australian flag flutters in front of the Great Hall of the People during a welcoming ceremony for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (not in picture) in Beijing, China, April 14, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Lee

The Australian government wants to impose laws that criminalize foreign political interference after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said late last year that foreign powers were making “unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process.”

He cited “disturbing reports about Chinese influence”. China denies the suggestions.

In a submission on Wednesday to a parliamentary review of the proposed law, the academics suggested the Communist Party’s action has the “potential to harm Australia’s interests and sovereignty.” The submission did not provide specific examples of the reports it referred to in its submission.

Critics have accused some universities in Australia of curtailing their China research because they receive funding from donors said to have ties to Beijing.

A prominent Australian opposition lawmaker resigned from parliament in December after a series of allegations about his links to Chinese-aligned interests in the country.

On March 19, a separate group of scholars said in a letter to the parliament review that China was not trying to influence Australian politics, suggesting instead that the Australian government was fuelling a “racialized narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy” which did not exist.

The submissions by the two groups were signed, in some cases, by employees of the same university.

“Within a department you have people with different views on one topic,” said Adam Ni, a China researcher at Australian National University’s (ANU) Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and signatory to the submission this week. Three employees of his university signed the March 19 letter.

China’s foreign ministry has said that China had no intention of interfering in Australia’s internal affairs, or of using political funding to gain influence.

In December, the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily described Australian media reports of Chinese interference as racist and baseless.

Reporting by Byron Kaye