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A ‘No Trespassing’ law Down Under

Australia’s new foreign influence law was written with China in mind

A ‘No Trespassing’ law Down Under

The Australian Parliament in Canberra (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The Australian Parliament passed strict new legislation last week to prevent interference by foreign entities, a measure responding to rising concerns over Chinese interference in Australia. China sharply criticized the law and claimed a “Cold War mentality” was undermining Sino-Australian relations.

The legislation requires lobbyists for foreign governments to register on a public list, increases the penalty for leaking classified information, and criminalizes foreign interference in the democratic process and theft of trade secrets for a foreign power. The legislation also gives the attorney general the power to label individuals foreign agents without due process. Lawmakers are drafting a separate bill to ban foreign donations to politicians in Australia.

While the law doesn’t name any specific country, it is largely directed at China. Australia’s intelligence agency and media have accused China of influencing Australia’s academia and politics, as well as engaging in military and industrial espionage. China, in turn, has canceled visas for Australian business leaders and calls the new laws racist and xenophobic. 

“We hope that all countries could cast off Cold War mindset and strengthen exchanges and cooperation on the basis of mutual respect and equal treatment,” said Lu Kang, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. China is Australia’s largest trade partner, yet relations have soured in the past half-year.

Human rights groups were alarmed by earlier drafts of the law, which could have penalized journalists who receive classified information. Amendments allowed journalists to claim “public interest” for classified disclosures. Still, David Brophy of the University of Sydney told The New York Times that Australians who partner with democracy activists in China to organize rallies in Australia could be prosecuted for illegal foreign interference.

Others praised the new law. “Australia is now leading the world in measures to respond to foreign interference in democratic processes, and our response is being watched closely by other nations,” Clive Hamilton, a professor at Charles Sturt University, told the Times.

Hamilton’s recent book, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, offers examples of Australian politicians and academics who’ve been influenced by China and parrot the Chinese Communist Party line.

For instance, he quotes former Prime Minister Paul Keating defending China against claims of human rights violations: “We don’t endorse abuse of human rights [but] ... taking 600 million people out of poverty requires some means of central government and authority. ... Or are we just hung up about the fact that some detainees don’t get proper legal representation?”

Keating added: “That government of theirs has been the best government in the world in the last thirty years.”

International debt traps

This in-depth New York Times article looks at China’s practice of lending large amounts of money to the government of poor countries. When the country defaults on the loans, China swoops in to take control of strategic resources. In Sri Lanka’s case, China gained control of Hambantota port, a shipping hub only a few hundred miles away from the shores of rival India.