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Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security

HAMILTON, Professor Clive, Private capacity


CHAIR: I now welcome Professor Clive Hamilton to give evidence today. Is there anything you would like to add to the capacity in which you appear today?

Prof. Hamilton : I'm Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, and I appear in my private capacity.

CHAIR: Thank you. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a statement.

Prof. Hamilton : Thank you, Mr Chairman. I'd like to make a few remarks about the submission prepared by Alex Joske, who is here today, and myself in response to the national security legislation amendment bill 2017. Perhaps I should apologise right now for that missing comma, which changed, in a very important way, the meaning of a sentence in our submission.

But before making comments about our submission, I'd just like to say that 18 months ago I couldn't imagine myself saying the sorts of things that we say in the submission. They would have seemed to me then exaggerated and implausible. But, in the process of writing my book on China's influence in Australia, I've been exposed to a vast amount of evidence and I've spoken with the leading experts in Australia, in China and elsewhere. It now seems to me that there's only one conclusion—that is, that we in Australia face a severe threat to our freedoms and independence as a nation.

So the submission details a highly sophisticated campaign being waged by the Chinese Communist Party to influence and infiltrate Australia's institutions, from parliaments and universities to the media, the business community and cultural organisations. It's ultimate objective is to shift Australia away from our alliance with the United States, and turn Australia into a nation that complies with Beijing's wishes. Based on the best international analysis, our submission shows that the Chinese Communist Party has an elaborate structure of agencies designed to implement its strategy. These party agencies have a network of linkages into organisations and individuals in Australia, and it's through those that Beijing exercises its influence.

Over the last 10 or 15 years, intensive efforts have been put into trying to ensure that all significant ethnic Chinese associations in Australia, including Chinese language media, adopt a pro-Beijing political position, and that campaign has been highly successful. At the centre of the network we describe is the United Front Work Department. Our submission comprehensively sets out its role in Australia for the first time. When focused on the Chinese Australian community, the United Front Work Department's and related work involves intimidation and coercion, as well as persuasion. As a result of this, a large proportion of the Chinese Australian community lives with a constant low-level fear. These Australian citizens are being deprived of their democratic right to participate freely in the public life of the nation, and I think we need to take measures to free them of the fear that they live with and allow them the rights enjoyed by other Australians. This is what the proposed legislation aims to do, among other things.

In more recent years, Beijing has shifted the focus of United Front Work Department to mainstream Australia, cultivating friends and supporters across the range of institutions. Indeed, some of those institutions have made submissions to this inquiry—some asking for exemptions from its provisions. The package of foreign interference legislation introduced by the Turnbull government is indispensable in my view if we are to begin pushing back against the PRC's clandestine influence operations. Without it, we're largely defenceless.

To finish, I'd like to make two general points about some of the other submissions to this inquiry. The first concerns the anxiety that the proposed laws will limit certain freedoms unreasonably. I believe it's essential to our democracy that we don't impose any new restrictions on journalists, academics and whistleblowers—after all, media reports on influence operations have been essential to public understanding of the danger that led to this legislation and this inquiry. I particularly was impressed by the Human Rights Law Centre submission. The bills under consideration may need to be amended to protect those rights of free speech whilst also achieving their aims. However, I think most of the submissions miss the essential point of the proposed laws, and that is that the legislation is designed to protect our freedoms and to safeguard democratic rights that are under threat in Australia from the incursions of an authoritarian foreign power. This fact should not be forgotten: the bills under consideration are designed to protect our freedoms.

The second and last point I'd make is that, like much of the Australian public, many of those making submissions don't fully understand why this legislation is now before the parliament, and that's because they don't understand the gravity of the threat we face. I hope that the submission which Alex Joske and I have written will help explain the nature and extraordinary extent of foreign interference in this country. The book I have written—still to be published—lays out the case much more comprehensively.

CHAIR: Thank you, Professor Hamilton, for your submission and also for the unpublished manuscript—at something like 300 pages—which this committee has as an exhibit and at this stage has not chosen to publish. To begin, I think it would be helpful for you to frame the foreign interference, which you suggest that China is undertaking in Australia, in strategic terms so that we have a greater context of the ways in which they're doing some of the things that you suggest they are.

Prof. Hamilton : When I began undertaking the investigation that led to the book, the critical question was—you could look at what's happening in Australia, but you have to ask why. Why has the PRC developed this elaborate mechanism of foreign interference—not just in Australia; exactly the same kinds of issues are coming up in Canada, New Zealand, the United States and, of course, throughout South-East Asia. China in recent times, and particularly under President Xi Jinping, sees itself as the emerging hegemonic power. It's a totalitarian state that operates exceptionally close control over its domestic population, and it plans to extend its influence throughout the world, and particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. It has a long history of United Front operations—it emerged, actually, in the 1930s. The Chinese Communist Party has been refining these techniques for a very long time and is now applying them, as one intelligence officer said to me, in a way that can be regarded as a full-court press. I had to look that up; it's a basketball term. It means, basically, an 'all-out assault', and I think that's what's happening. The objective is to, essentially, pacify other nations, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, so that China can become the hegemonic power, and to edge or indeed drive the United States out of this region and replace it.

CHAIR: Why Australia?

Prof. Hamilton : Australia is particularly important because it's become apparent from public statements by PRC officials, but more importantly from confidential documents, that Australia is seen to be the weak link in the Western alliance. This was a strategy formulated in 2004. It was brought to Australia by a senior PRC official and put to the embassy here in Canberra that Australia was seen as the weak link and should become a focus for United Front and other kinds of influence activities. We know this because of the testimony provided by the defector Chen Yonglin, who's an extremely important source of information but, of course, not the only one. And ever since then we've seen a campaign of increasing sophistication and increasing pressure applied to Australia, exploiting, in particular, our economic relationship with the People's Republic of China as a way of ultimately liberating us from the American alliance.

CHAIR: You'll note in the EFI bill particularly there are new offences and some have been modernised. I specifically refer to the offence of theft of trade secrets and also a modernised sabotage offence which extends sabotage beyond the traditional definition, which is premised on defence premises, to public infrastructure, which includes private infrastructure that serves a public good and services Australians in their everyday lives. Can you talk a bit about the importance of economic security of this country and also the security of critical assets to Australia in the context of what you've just discussed?

Prof. Hamilton : I think the PRC is developing an increasingly sophisticated and effective offensive capacity in its military and related forces. I should say I'm not an expert on this, although I do know quite a bit about it, particularly as to how it might apply to Australia. In the cyber world we now live in, it's pretty well understood that the first hours of any major war would be all cyber, and that would mean targeting the essential communications, power and transport infrastructure of an enemy. This is why in the United States there's increasing concern from defence and intelligence agencies about the role of Chinese corporations, state-owned and private—private with links to the government or intelligence agencies—gaining a foothold, or more than a foothold, in infrastructure—power, telecommunications and so on.

The same concern is clearly manifest perhaps not quite as much in Australia's defence community but certainly in the intelligence community, and it seems to me and others who understand the objective of the PRC a really great folly to allow Chinese corporations to get close access to our critical infrastructure. One thing that most people don't understand is that investments from Chinese companies in Australia often have a strategic as well as a commercial objective. If it's in the interests of the PRC and the government of Beijing for a Chinese company investing in Australia to carry out some kind of political or strategic task, then they are obliged to do it. You don't argue with Beijing. The kind of separation that we have in Western democracies between the operations of private industry and government concerns doesn't apply in the PRC. So, now that we've allowed Chinese companies to take ownership of a substantial portion of our electricity assets, I think we have exposed ourselves to significant risk. That is why the government, through the FIRB, is looking much more closely at those investments.

CHAIR: Thank you. I'm conscious that others have questions, and I will give to Mr Leeser in a second. I wanted to ask very briefly a question about your unpublished manuscript.

Prof. Hamilton : Yes.

CHAIR: How many times now have you sought to have it published?

Prof. Hamilton : There's been strong interest from three publishers, all of whom have pulled out because of concerns about retribution from Beijing.

Mr BYRNE: Has that been put to you directly?

Prof. Hamilton : Yes.

Mr BYRNE: They've said that?

Prof. Hamilton : Yes.

CHAIR: In other words, fear of foreign influence?

Prof. Hamilton : Absolutely, yes. More than influence—punishment, retribution or retaliation through their sympathisers or agents in Australia. Two of them have put it in writing, and one has expressed—

Mr BYRNE: Are you able, under privilege, to name the companies?

Prof. Hamilton : I'd rather not.

Mr BYRNE: But they're Australian based?

Prof. Hamilton : Obviously Allen & Unwin is one of them, but the other two are respectable Australian publishers.

Mr BYRNE: They would have wanted to have published this book, but that was a sense that you got and then they were stopped?

Prof. Hamilton : More than a sense. In one case, the principal of the company said to me: 'Clive, I'm dead keen to publish this book. I need to consult with others in the company.' He came back and said: 'Look, the risks are just too great. I'd like to find another way of doing it.' In the other one, the chief executive of the company was extremely enthusiastic about publishing. I had a contract in hand. It was all done and dusted, effectively, and the board of that company intervened and said, 'No, we're not going to do it, because we are afraid of the financial penalty that might be imposed on the company as a result of retribution prompted by Beijing.'

CHAIR: What's really at stake here is not just sovereignty, national security and our long-term economic prosperity but our democratic tradition, including free speech, free press and free thought.

Prof. Hamilton : Absolutely. It's been an extraordinarily difficult period for someone like me who cares about free speech in Australia. I've written a book that's critical of the Chinese Communist Party. I'm sure members have read at least parts of it. It's an extremely thoroughly documented and scholarly book. There are 1,200 footnotes. I've tried to follow every academic practice possible to make it as foolproof as it can be. Publishers are extremely keen to publish it. They can see that this is a book the Australian public should read and that—they obviously believe—will sell in sufficient numbers to make it worthwhile commercially, but they won't publish it. And so this is a really serious question of free speech. If an academic in Australia cannot publish a book critical of the Chinese Communist Party, where's free speech in this country? This is a really serious test case of our resolve. If this book sinks then I despair for my country.

Mr LEESER: I want to take up this line of questioning for a moment. Were you ever told what form the retribution that was to be visited upon these publishers would take?

Prof. Hamilton : Yes.

Mr LEESER: What can you tell us of that?

Prof. Hamilton : Three forms have been mentioned. I'll take them from the least worrying to the most worrying. The first is that—just by way of explanation, many Australian publishers have their books printed in China because that's where you can get the cheapest quality printing done—they felt that they would not be allowed to do that. Certainly, they wouldn't try to have this book published there; that just wouldn't happen. Therefore, that might be an additional commercial cost in the future because they'd have to have books printed somewhere else.

The second one is cyberattacks on the company, closing down their websites. For publishers nowadays, their websites are extremely important selling devices and so on and so forth. And the third is vexatious litigation taken against the publisher and the author by people in Australia acting on behalf of Beijing—people with deep pockets.

Mr LEESER: To use the language of the legislation which we're considering, a foreign principal, or an agent of a foreign principal, told the publishers that they would suffer the inability to get not just your book but other books published in China, cyberattacks and vexatious litigation?

Prof. Hamilton : No. No actual threats were made, and, in a way, this is more worrying. It was the shadow that Beijing casts that was enough to frighten these very respectable publishers, and they had in mind, very clearly, two high-profile defamation actions that have been launched against major news organisations in Australia.

Mr LEESER: If no actual threats were made, in what form were these threats communicated?

Prof. Hamilton : They weren't communicated. It was the sense that there are people in Australia with deep pockets who are willing, at the behest of or encouraged by agencies of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, to take legal action to punish major news organisations in Australia for writing things that were said to be defamatory.

Mr LEESER: So, as it were, the publishers took a commercial decision based on a fear that those things might happen rather than anything that was actually threatened?

Prof. Hamilton : Yes.

Mr LEESER: Professor Hamilton, you're a one-time Greens candidate—that's true, isn't it?

Prof. Hamilton : Yes.

Mr LEESER: It's probably unusual to hear people involved in the Greens party advocate for the US alliance or call for stricter security measures, isn't it?

Prof. Hamilton : Yes.

Mr LEESER: I think your contribution in that respect is quite extraordinary. The second thing I wanted to draw attention to is that you're a professor at Charles Sturt University—is that correct?

Prof. Hamilton : Yes.

Mr LEESER: And you've run a think tank. I don't know whether it is subject to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, but it's the sort of organisation that might well be subject to it. I'm not saying it should be, but it's the style of organisation.

Prof. Hamilton : Could I correct you? I used to. Ten years ago I set up and ran the Australia Institute, which was indeed a charitable organisation.

Mr LEESER: That all predated the ACNC, as it were.

Prof. Hamilton : Yes, it did.

Mr LEESER: Where I'm going with this is that you have experienced, both in the university sector and in running something that might be regarded as something subject to the ACNC, you've heard—because you've been here and followed this closely—that universities and also bodies involved in charitable institutions, including organisations that are involved in public policy advocacy of the sort the Australia Institute was involved in, have called for exemptions from this legislation. Given your experience, I'd be interested in your view about the wisdom or otherwise of those exemptions.

Prof. Hamilton : As I understand it, the charities have called for exemptions because they argue that it would be unduly onerous for them to have to register and meet the various provisions. My view is, first of all, if charities were exempt, then there's no question in my mind that United Front organisations would immediately target charities as the most effective way to prosecute their aims. Secondly, as someone who was the executive director of a charitable organisation—that is, a think tank which had tax deductibility—the issue about whether it would be onerous really depends on the system that the government sets up in order to implement it. It could be onerous, but if the government sets up to manage the registration process in a way that's clear and simple and well managed, I don't think it would be particularly burdensome on charities. It's just another one of those tasks that the executive director of a charitable organisation would do as a matter of course along with all of the other legislation, from GST to maintaining their charitable status, that they do.

Mr LEESER: If we chose to exempt them, how might a foreign principal or their agents try to influence the charity, given your experience and knowledge of this space?

Prof. Hamilton : They would pick ones that might be sympathetic anyway, and they would direct resources and personnel to those charitable organisations so that those organisations would carry out, for example, United Front activities and not have to disclose it to the authorities. It's an obvious thing for them to do. Of course that wouldn't apply to most charitable organisations in Australia, but if there were categories of them that were exempt, in order to pursue influence operations it would be a natural thing to do to go to those organisations that were exempt.

Mr LEESER: Do you allege that those sorts of organisations have been the target of foreign influence by China to this point, at any rate?

Prof. Hamilton : Yes, in a very aggressive and very effective way. In the course of doing my research, I've spoken to quite a large number of Chinese Australians, including some very critical of the Chinese Communist Party or, more particularly, very critical of the influence of the Chinese Communist Party in Australia, because they came here to get away from its influence. Some of them have told me how they used to be on the executive of various Chinese professional organisations and they found that suddenly, from nowhere, a whole bunch of people joined up and at the next meeting they were voted out and the organisation shifted from a neutral position, one apolitical or critical of the CCP, to one that took a pro-Beijing stance. That's happened over and over again in the Chinese Australian community.

Mr LEESER: And what about in the academic sphere? Academics and universities have asked for an exemption too. What do you think if that were to happen? What has been your experience in that space?

Prof. Hamilton : I have to say as someone who has been an academic for 10 years and started out as an academic that I was really dismayed by the submission made by Universities Australia when I read it. Universities are at the epicentre of China's influence operations in Australia and yet when you look at Universities Australia's submission nowhere do they express any concern about what's happening on their campuses. Some are in complete denial about it. We didn't see them saying that they are concerned about student organisations that were set up, funded and operated by a foreign power, a subject on which my co-author, Alex Joske, is a serious expert. Nowhere did they mention that Associate Professor Feng Chongyi from UTS was kidnapped by the Chinese authorities when he was doing research in China for a week and held because the CCP did not like what he was writing in Australia. Nowhere did they mention that there are researchers in Australian universities working hand in glove with scientists from People's Liberation Army universities on research directly related to China's military program.

These are really serious intrusions into academic freedom and free speech on Australian campuses and yet universities were just complaining about how these restrictions might affect their operations—and the main operation being receiving rivers of gold from international students, in large part from Chinese students. So I think Australian universities have really lost the plot over the last decade or so and really don't understand what academic freedom means and certainly they're not willing to jeopardise their rivers of gold in order to protect it.

CHAIR: Professor Hamilton, I refer to figure 1 in your submission where you set up the Confucius institutes as having a direct relationship with the Canberra embassy and consulates and also the ministry of education back in China.

Prof. Hamilton : Yes.

CHAIR: I made a note that the reference to Confucius institutes was curiously absent yesterday in the universities' submission. They referenced every other possible avenue of university collaboration except that one.

Prof. Hamilton : It's kind of an embarrassment for universities. I think there are 14 of them and six of the Group of Eight that have Confucius institutes. As I have detailed in the appendix to the submission, there are academic organisations in the United States and Canada that have written devastating critiques of the role of Confucius institutes in universities in North America and pointed out all of the evidence showing that they are essentially agencies of the Chinese Communist Party carrying out its role of cultural and intellectual influence in Australian universities and yet the universities are willing to take the money, despite all of the advice from major independent organisations that have looked at this.

As long as Australian universities host Confucius institutes then we really do have a problem because the agencies of the Chinese Communist Party, as I think we quote if not in the submission then certainly in the appendix, have made it quite clear that Confucius institutes are part of the CCP's overseas propaganda structure. They have said that and yet we welcome them onto the campuses in Australia. The universities who host them really don't want to talk about them. I should point out that there are some universities in Australia I know have decided not to host them because they understand that these organisations are placed there by Beijing to exert influence.

Mr LEESER: As a researcher you've put together some evidence of China's influence on universities. Have you seen anything firsthand in your career as an academic?

Prof. Hamilton : I've certainly spoken to academics in Australia who have told me of their experiences of coming under pressure, often quite subtle pressure, from universities to be careful about what they say and about what they research, because the university has flows of funds from China—both from students and research collaborations—that it needs to protect. In fact, I'm thinking that maybe the next task will be to really do a systematic study and compilation of evidence of what's been going on in our universities. I actually think, as I say in the appendix to the submission, that we really do need a thorough, independent inquiry into what is happening in our universities, because the kind of evidence that I've accumulated in the appendix to the submission is really only half or quarter of the story.

Mr LEESER: We heard today from the security agencies that the current threats in relation to foreign interference are a bigger threat than Australia faced during the Cold War. There are often figures on the political left who would say that security laws of this sort are not necessary. What would you say to them, as somebody who has been associated with the political left?

Prof. Hamilton : Indeed, and I take your point about the irony of someone like me writing a book and making a submission like this. As I said, 18 months ago I couldn't imagine me taking this position and defending the US alliance, but the evidence is overwhelming. To me, and I think what aligns me with people on the political right—some at least—is that, before everything else, we are loyal Australians and we value our freedom and we value our sovereignty. I must say, I've had some quite bizarre experiences as a result of 'coming out'. Going on the Andrew Bolt show was quite a challenge for me, I have to say! But there you have it. Here is one thing we can all agree on: there is nothing more precious than the democratic freedoms we enjoy in Australia, and that's why someone from the left and someone from the right can team up and say, 'No, we must resist this threat to those freedoms.'

Mr LEESER: So you would say to your colleagues on the left that they should support this legislation?

Prof. Hamilton : Absolutely, and I would say, 'You must really engage with the evidence.' We're all guilty of filtering evidence that makes us feel uncomfortable. It's known as cognitive dissonance; psychologists study it. But I think when a threat is big enough we all have to open ourselves and say, 'Okay, this is uncomfortable. I'm going to have to change a whole lot of opinions I have entertained for decades.' This is one of those instances. That's what happened to me, and the more I looked the more overwhelming the evidence became, and I've ended up where I am today, which is a very strange position, but necessary.

Mr BYRNE: Regarding the tool of defamation and initiating the proceedings, it has been put to me by some journalists who want to write about this particular issue that they feel inhibited because of the threat of legal action by very powerful individuals and/or what they class as agents of the government. Could you describe your experience with that?

Prof. Hamilton : I had experience of the defamation laws when I was at The Australia Institute. It's a frightening thing to be threatened by a major corporation—as it was in that case—with a defamation action because, as everyone knows, we are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars even if you win. So, to be threatened by someone with deep pockets for whom hundreds of thousands of dollars doesn't matter, to be dragged through the courts, always with a lack of certainty about whether you will win, even though you think your case is rock solid, is a very frightening thing. I think what we've seen in the case of my book is kind of a new category. I don't know how you describe it. We need a new word for it. It's vexatious litigation prompted by a foreign power. It's a bit like what's known as SLAPPs, strategic lawsuits against public participation, where developers often sue people protesting against them—the Gunns 20 is a classic case—using the defamation laws to terrify them and shut them up, to get them out of the public debate. Our defamation laws can be used for that purpose. I know that, in talking to journalists, the three major defamation actions that have been taken by China-related people, if I can put it that way, against major news organisations have had a really seriously chilling effect. For example, I know that an opinion piece, a feature article, I sent to The Australian has been held up because, although they want to publish it and they have had it legaled, they fear they will be slapped with a defamation action. I know the other media organisations have decided not to publish important material on this topic for exactly that reason.

Mr BYRNE: In a sense, that's pretty powerful information that you have provided. I wasn't here when the media organisations testified by phone yesterday. They were talking about the chilling effect of this proposed legislation. What's your response to that in light of what you've just told us about The Australian example?

Prof. Hamilton : I'd say they've already put themselves in the deep freeze in this issue, because of the chilling effect of these big defamation actions that have been launched by very rich people, possibly at the behest of agencies in Beijing. As I understand it, there are two reasons why we're here today. One is because there are a handful of extremely well-informed and excellent journalists who have been exposing some of the Chinese influence operations in Australia over the last two to three years. The second is that the government, perhaps prompted by those media reports, has commissioned its own highly classified report. Excellent reporting by a mere handful of journalists in Australia—perhaps four or five—who get China, mostly have spent time in China and speak Mandarin—

Mr BYRNE: Are they being sued?

Prof. Hamilton : Yes.

Mr BYRNE: So, just about everyone who has written an article that's been published is being sued. Would that be fair to say?

Prof. Hamilton : I'm aware of three that are being sued.

Mr BYRNE: Articles that might draw attention to the level of influence of individuals sponsored by Beijing?

Prof. Hamilton : Yes. In particular, Nick McKenzie and John Garnaut are subject to legal actions.

Mr BYRNE: Do you think that's Beijing inspired?

Prof. Hamilton : It's impossible to know with any certainty but it's a plausible hypothesis.

Mr BYRNE: So, in this exhibit that we have with us—you call it the manuscript of your book—without that element of foreign interference, do you think it would have been published in this country?

Prof. Hamilton : Absolutely. The day before Allen & Unwin pulled the plug, it was all systems go. We had a publication schedule. It was going to happen.

Mr BYRNE: So the committee has an exhibit.

Prof. Hamilton : Yes.

Mr BYRNE: You have the manuscript of a book but you are saying to this committee you can't publish this book because of the influence of a foreign power?

Prof. Hamilton : Well, that's—

Mr BYRNE: I'm not trying to put words in your mouth.

Prof. Hamilton : That's definitely happened to date. Three publishers that had expressed a very clear enthusiasm to publish the book have, on reflection, or on other advice, said to me, 'Sorry, Clive, we're not going to publish this book because we are afraid of retaliation from Beijing.'

Mr BYRNE: So if you're the Australian public and started off earlier on today asking questions of ASIO, how are they supposed to interpret this? Do you have a message for the Australian public? It seems it is hard to get that message through because people who put it out get sued. What would you be saying to them?

Prof. Hamilton : I'd say to the Australian public that a powerful authoritarian power is stopping you from reading a book that's very important to your future, and that publishers in Australia have been intimidated by that authoritarian foreign power from publishing a book that is, in my view, crucial to Australia's future.

Mr BYRNE: Thank you, Professor.

Dr MIKE KELLY: Looking through your manuscript, there are a lot of people named. Did the publishers ever raise with you the defamation issue?

Prof. Hamilton : It's been front and centre. The manuscript has been thoroughly reviewed twice by independent and top defamation layers and it's been rewritten as a result of that advice.

Dr MIKE KELLY: In relation to your support of the thrust of this legislation, presumably you're not coming at this from a legal perspective, so you would have no comment to make on issues that have been raised over the last couple of days in relation to drafting conundrums, I suppose. Is it really just the thrust of the legislation you're supporting?

Prof. Hamilton : I just make two comments. As I mentioned, I was impressed with the submission made by the Human Rights Law Centre. I thought they made some very good arguments about the blanket nature of the provisions and what they called a multimethod approach. To me, it was pretty compelling. So, on the face of it, and without having expertise in this area, those are perhaps amendments that the committee might consider.

I go to the second point. It might have puzzled committee members when they came across this in our submission. There is the last section of part 1. It is 1.7 from page 17. Particularly on pages 18 and 19, we set out some stylised examples of the kinds of influence operations that are typical and known about. Obviously, there are some based on very real cases, and they're not disguised particularly well, but there are others that we know about that have happened in Australia. Members might be saying, 'Tell us whether they are captured by the legislation or not.' I found that just too hard to assess. But it did make me think that the people who drafted the legislation must have known a lot and I wondered what kind of information they were working on when they thought about what it means to define foreign interference and new forms of espionage and influence. The notion of influence is a tricky one in this context. It seemed to me that these are the kinds of operations that have been happening in Australia, some of which are very obvious and will fall under the legislation; others are influence operations but are much more difficult to capture in a way that would allow prosecutors to say, 'These people have been engaged in foreign influence contrary to the law.' I would like to have been able to say, '1, 2 and 3 will look like they will, but 6, 7 and 8 won't,' but it seemed to me that members of the committee, particularly those with a legal background, might be able to make a better assessment than I could as to whether the provisions of the law, particularly in 92.2, would capture those forms of foreign interference.

Dr MIKE KELLY: Getting back to some more of your core expertise and the research that you've done in producing this, it's been suggested to me that there has been quite a significant increase in activity from China in recent months that may have been related to, I guess, the way that discussion and the politics have been playing out in Australia and the activity in relation to the South China Sea. From your research and contacts, do you support the view that there's been a dramatic increase in recent months or haven't you noticed that or do you have sources that back that up?

Prof. Hamilton : Thank you for that question. I think there has been a flurry of activity in recent months of a couple of different types. I think there was a very sustained intervention by United Front organisations in the Bennelong by-election. My colleague Alex Joske, as well as a couple of other journalists at the Fairfax press and News Limited, exposed some very worrying interventions in that regard. I have to say, this is speculation. I don't have any evidence for this, but it seems to me that the Chinese authorities in Australia are very worried about this legislation. They're very worried about the way in which it will curtail their influence operations in Australia.

Dr MIKE KELLY: On that point, one of the suggestions made to me was that part of the escalation of this activity in that context was to spook the political class in Australia in relation to this.

Prof. Hamilton : I think that was the objective in the Bennelong by-election. I think that was a manifest attempt to demonstrate how much influence pro-Beijing forces had in Australia. Fortunately, it didn't pay off, but you can imagine what the political fallout would have been had the previous member not been re-elected. It would have been quite devastating, in my view. People would have read into that, 'We mustn't do anything that appears to be anti-China.' It would have been a huge victory for the PRC.

Another thing is that I suspect that the Chinese ambassador is having a very rough time at the moment because things have kind of gotten out of hand and he will be asked some quite hard questions as to how it is that Australia got to such a position where it's now pushing back in the way that this legislation is pushing back, which is being watched very closely, as you know, by other nations as a model for what they might do. I know the embassies, Five Eyes, Singapore, Germany and so on around Canberra are watching proceedings quite closely.

The third thing I'd comment on is that we've noticed that certain prominent United Front operatives in organisations like the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China are ducking their heads; they are resigning from their positions; they're putting other unknown people up into those positions; they've been exposed too much; they've become liabilities. So there's a kind of shuffling around to try to keep those organisations out of the limelight.

Dr MIKE KELLY: In your research or more broadly, do you have any observations to make about activity in the Pacific more generally?

Prof. Hamilton : I've been watching this for 18 months quite closely because it's pretty apparent that United Front activities in Australia are also being replicated in the Pacific. The Pacific Islands are a very attractive proposition for the PRC because, if they can establish a firm grip on some of those island states, this gives them a strong influence in the western Pacific and allows them a strategic pushback against the United States. You might have seen the story in today's paper where one senior official in one of the Pacific island states from the PRC said very clearly that in investing all of these funds in infrastructure in this nation, 'We expect it to vote for us at the United Nations.' It was quite a clear transaction: 'We'll give you roads and a stadium; you vote for us at the UN.'

One other thing I'd note, which we refer to in our report, is that the ACPPRC, which is one of a network of some 80 similar organisations around the world, now has a counterpart in Oceania with a similar name which was set up by Mr Huang Xiangmo, who recently stepped down as the president of the ACPPRC. He still remains president of the Oceania branch of the peaceful reunification organisation, which I think is highly suggestive.

Dr MIKE KELLY: In relation to what you have in the manuscript about particular activities associated with one communications company and what you might describe as the duchessing of a number of individuals in promoting investment here or support for it, it wouldn't appear that that activity would be caught by this legislation in many ways. It's not direct donations or transfers of money; in many respects it's simply an attempt to exert influence, and there are travel and other costs associated with that.

Prof. Hamilton : Yes.

Dr MIKE KELLY: With that sort of activity, are there any other practical suggestions? It seems to me that one measure that might have helped in that situation is if individuals were more proactively engaged by security agencies in briefing and warning in relation to those things. Do you have any practical suggestions to make?

Prof. Hamilton : I think the United States does this much better than we do. I think Mr Jennings, yesterday, may have made this point, and that is that in the United States and, indeed, Canada the intelligence agencies are allowed a lot more latitude to make public comment about the kinds of threats and also to provide advice to organisations. I think, though, that there's a bigger issue here, and that is the lack of public understanding and awareness in Australia about the nature of the threat. I know, for example, that intelligence agencies (and I should point out that this has not been communicated to me by any intelligence agencies; if only they'd talk to me, that'd be terrific, but they won't) have provided advice to organisations like the CSIRO and universities about certain risks of dealing with China—major donors, research links, and so on—and the universities and CSIRO simply haven't taken it seriously. They don't understand. They think it's just collaboration. It's just: 'That's what we do. We collaborate with international researchers.' And the intelligence agencies are saying, 'Well, no, this is different. There are some serious risks to Australia's security here, quite apart from your intellectual property.'

So I think there is a much bigger issue, which is why I see this legislation and the debate around it as so critical. Although the legislation will allow legal actions, which will be important, I think there is a larger benefit from it, and that is informing the Australian public about the kinds of dangers and the kinds of influence, because it's not like the Cold War and Soviet espionage. It's nothing like that. It's new, and we're all grappling with it. It's a new kind of interference and influence, and I think that only a larger kind of social response, which includes engaging the Chinese-Australian community—that's absolutely crucial—will make this legislation work much more effectively in ways that specific prosecutions may not.

Dr MIKE KELLY: Lastly, on that point, it's been suggested to me too that part of the drive that we're seeing in this space is a reflection of some failed diplomatic approaches within the region—for example, the characterisation of the US pivot to the region. We're seeing more of a security rather than an engagement and relationship-building diplomatic effort, put in that context, creating paranoia or concerns about increasing threats or containment strategies in China rather than engagement strategies that may have produced enhanced efforts here, leaving aside the issues of industrial espionage; the incentives there are different. Would you agree with that? Is there a role here also in a better crafted diplomacy aspect that would probably tackle this without a lot of these practical challenges that we face?

Prof. Hamilton : No amount of engagement is going to tackle this problem. In fact, it's probably going to make it worse, because people have been convinced for a long time that, if only we discuss, form relationships and engage with the PRC, then we can overcome these blips in the relationship. I think we have to change our understanding of what the PRC, particularly under President Xi Jinping, is about. It's, as I said, a rising hegemonic power that will exercise its economic and other levers quite ruthlessly. So of course we need continued engagement and diplomacy, but we also need to go into it with our eyes wide open about what kind of a power it is. Unfortunately, the China lobby that has run the China debate for a very long time has invested enormous faith in the capacity of personal relationships and engagement, and the truth is that that is now exploited by the PRC for its own benefit.

Dr MIKE KELLY: Thank you very much.

Mr DREYFUS: When the government introduced this bunch of three bills to the parliament on 7 December, the Prime Minister gave a speech in which he said a few things about foreign agents interfering with media. Notably, he said:

Media reports have suggested that the Chinese Communist Party has been working to covertly interfere with our media …

He went on to say:

There are credible reports that Russia was actively undermining the integrity of the Brexit referendum, this year's presidential elections in France and last year's presidential election in the United States.

He referred to some evidence given in the US congress to the House and Senate intelligence committees about:

Russian agents seeking to sow discord in the United States reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to YouTube …

In the course of your research that is the basis for the submission that you've made to this committee, did you come across any use by Chinese agents or Chinese related organisations in a covert way of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube videos or, indeed, Weibo or WeChat? I want to make sure you have understood the purpose of my question. The examples given by the Prime Minister are of covert use of social media platforms by, in particular, Russian agents. They are the stats he gave because those stats emerged in US congressional hearings. But you don't mention in your submission anything to do with social media, so I'm just inquiring as to whether or not your research uncovered any such use of social media.

Prof. Hamilton : Thanks for that question. It is one I have reflected on a bit, noticing what's happening with Russia and the United States. Certainly the PRC exercises almost complete control—I think it is true to say—over Chinese language social media such as Weibo and WeChat. It has used it in very effective ways politically in Australia, not least in the Bennelong by-election.

Mr DREYFUS: What about the 2016 federal election?

Prof. Hamilton : Yes, indeed. In those electorates where there's a substantial portion of Chinese-Australian voters, that has happened. I know that certain members seeking re-election or election were really surprised at the way in which suddenly there was a highly effective campaign using Chinese language social media to mobilise Chinese-Australians in those electorates. That's definitely happening. The reason it can happen is because there are well over a million Chinese-Australians who are potential voters.

The kind of Russian influence operations through mainstream English language social media that you refer to, we see very little of that. We see quite a lot of trolling on Twitter from pro-Beijing people. I haven't seen much evidence that it is organised, although I did have one experience myself three or four years ago where it was really quite effective. If I can, I will just tell that short story. I wrote a piece for The Guardian Australia about the importance of Chinese investors in the Australian real estate market, and I used FIRB figures. The Guardian published it online. As soon as it did, a campaign started in the comments section—it was clearly an organised one—where large numbers of people wrote in saying, 'This is racist and it is outrageous that The Guardian would publish an article like this.' The Guardian buckled and said they wanted to take it down or to persuade me to change it. I said that, apart from two small things, I wouldn't change it. So The Guardian published underneath it a statement saying, 'This is nothing to do with us; The Guardian doesn't agree with it.' Two years later, when the newer FIRB figures came out, I was completely vindicated. It does show that organised campaigns by pro-Beijing people or organisations in Australia can have an influence in the mainstream media.

Mr DREYFUS: Thank you, Professor Hamilton.

CHAIR: Professor Hamilton, just noting the time, we will wrap up soon. I want to conclude by reflecting on the final paragraph in your manuscript, which I think summarises what you're suggesting. It simply says: 'Some of the China experts I have spoken to believe it is too late. In their assessment, the Chinese Communist Party and its offshoots have implanted themselves so deeply in the soil of Australia's institutions that we can no longer extract their roots. Others argue that we can do it but that the process would take 10 years. That seems about right to me, but it depends in the first instance on whether Australians want to rid our society of CCP influence. Today, if you understand the dangers sufficiently to feel we need to begin taking steps to regain our independence, keep at it, despite the inevitable retaliation. Our naivety and our complacency are Beijing's strongest assets—boy scouts up against Don Corleone. But, once Australians of all ethnic backgrounds understand the danger, we can begin to protect our freedoms from the new totalitarianism.'

Is that how you see this legislation and the debate around it at the moment? Is it a question of how we proceed forward to safeguard our national interests?

Prof. Hamilton : Indeed. I think that sums it up exactly as I see it. I see this package of legislation as absolutely vital to the beginning of the pushback so that we can protect our freedoms and our sovereignty.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for appearing today. We will give you the transcript to approve and correct before we publish.

Prof. Hamilton : Thank you very much.

Committee adjourned at 15 : 11