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Tasmania must resist influence and reduce reliance on China

Cassy O'Connor MP

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Friday, 12 June 2020

Tags: Democracy, Trade, China, Chinese Communist Party, Education, UTAS, COVID-19, Foreign Influence

Mercury Talking Point, 12 June 2020

Two news items in the past week should be a wake-up call to any remaining doubters that, as an island economy, Tasmania is far too heavily dependent on China and a totalitarian regime conducting itself like a global backyard bully. 

The University of Sydney went public with data showing Tasmania received nearly half of total Chinese investment in Australia last year, the largest portion of any State or Territory.  Meanwhile, universities - including UTAS - who built a business model on enticing students from mainland China, report a $21 billion black hole caused by the pandemic.

In response to questions from the Australian Government over its early role in the spread of COVID-19 to every continent, the Chinese Communist Government is now urging its students to stay away from this country and, it’s punishing Australian exporters.  As small to medium states the world over are discovering, when it feels slighted, the Chinese Government gets nasty.

Tasmania’s exports to China have grown from an annual value of $487m in 2014-15 to $1.15b in 2018-19. The total proportion of our exports going to China over the same period has grown from 19% to 31%.  We are heavily trade exposed to the whims of a vindictive regime.

Pre-COVID, the number of tourists travelling from China to Tasmania had almost doubled in the same period, and the share of international travellers rose from 12% to 15%.

Foreign investment in Tasmania is more difficult to quantify. It is clear, however, that the share of agricultural land, residential and commercial property owned by Chinese investors has grown substantially since Chairman Xi Jinping’s November 2014 visit. There are also some prominent, large value investments being pursued by mainland Chinese business people including the grotesque Cambria Green proposal and the Kangaroo Bay foreshore development being underwritten by a Chinese petrochemical company.

Perhaps most troubling is the joint-ownership of Entura energy, Hydro Tasmania’s consulting wing, that has since been involved in the controversial Chinese-backed Karuma Dam construction in Uganda, linked to killings and other human rights violations.

Since the Liberals began their aggressive pursuit of Chinese money, the Tasmanian Greens have warned them, and Labor, of the dangers of over-reliance on China and its government’s soft power work in Tasmania. The response to this has been at best mockery, and at worst, accusations of racism and xenophobia.  We weather these ignorant, untrue statements because we regard it as our solemn duty to stand up for Tasmania and its people at every turn.

China under Xi Jinping has a well-documented strategy of wielding investment for soft and hard power, to sway politics in other countries and smaller states, like Tasmania, to get around more wary national governments. Mainland Chinese investment often comes with strings attached that can undermine democracy, sovereignty, food security and the safety of those who fled the oppressive regime for the chance of a good life in Australia.  Too often our political leaders can’t see past the Yuan signs.  They ignore the Chinese Government’s bad behaviour, jailing of dissidents, racism towards foreigners and cultural genocide of the Uyghurs, all in the name of attracting more Chinese cash.

Well, it’s coming back to bite them, hard.

News sources linked to the Chinese Communist Party, as well as analysis from Australian experts, confirm the sanctions being slapped on Australian exports are driven by public calls for an inquiry in to the Chinese regime’s handling of COVID-19. There have been veiled threats that other sanctions may follow.

Australian is left in a lose-lose position. Either we silence our official critique of China on a legitimate issue, or Australia and every State and Territory in the Federation, suffers financially. This is why we should not have become so beholden to, and increasingly supplicant towards, an irrational regime’s good favour in the first place.

The Tasmanian Liberal and Labor parties have been dismissive of concerns over the influence of soft power and dark money from China. They trot out lines the Communist Party’s propaganda specialists would be proud of. In doing so, they demonstrate this influence at work. Either they are knowingly compromised, wilfully ignorant or woefully lacking self-awareness.  Whichever it is, political parties bidding to govern in a sovereign democracy need to do better.

The take-home lesson from the Chinese Communist Government’s overt threats and punitive actions should be that Tasmania needs to seriously reduce its economic dependence on China. We cannot afford to have our economic security and moral compass held hostage to a totalitarian state with such a miserable human rights track-record and so little respect for the democratic states it relies on to feed its people.

A government sponsored trade mission for the first time in more than a decade to our second biggest trading partner, Taiwan, should be top of the Premier’s export recovery agenda.