- Thomson Reuters
- An Australian publisher has shelved a book on China’s influence in Australia, out of fear of reprisal from Beijing.
- The publisher wanted to avoid “Beijing’s agents of influence” commencing complex and legal action.
- There has been an uptick in warnings on China’s influence in Australian business, politics, security, and universities.
- The author, a public ethics professor, says the “shadow Beijing casts” could put Western democracy at risk.
A large independent publisher has shelved a book on China’s soft power in Australia, because it is concerned about reprisals from Beijing or its “agents of influence.”
Allen & Unwin told Clive Hamilton, the author of the upcoming “Silent Invasion: How China is Turning Australia into a Puppet State,” that his book was an “extremely significant” title but could open the company to “possible action by Beijing,” which could take a range of forms, including complex and expensive legal action.
The publishing company, in a statement to Business Insider, said it had chosen to delay publication.
“After extensive legal advice we decided to delay publication of Clive’s book “Silent Invasion” until certain matters currently before the courts have been decided,” a spokesperson said. “Clive was unwilling to delay publication and requested the return of his rights, as he is entitled to do. We continue to wish him the best of luck with the book.”
Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University, said the decision was worrying and “if it spreads, and other publishers are afraid of publishing criticism of Chinese government then Western democracy is in trouble.”
“I think the key message is that the shadow Beijing casts is now enough to spook even a reputable publisher in Australia. They didn’t have to do anything, just the fear of what they might do was enough for the publisher to pull the plug from the book,” Hamilton told Business Insider.
Hamilton has published eight previous titles with Allen & Unwin and said “Silent Invasion” looked in detail at the level of China’s influence in Australian institutions, including politics, media, universities, and social and cultural organizations. Hamilton said the book also explores how public thinking and the attitudes of opinion makers have been subtly influenced to shift the country “more and more into China’s orbit.”
In an email seen by Business Insider, Allen & Unwin CEO Robert Gorman told Hamilton the company had been advised to delay the scheduled publication, but did not specify when exactly this decision would be revisited.
Instead, Gorman said there was a “very high chance of a vexatious defamation action” from “a ‘whale’ or a small Beijing agent mentioned in the book.”
Hamilton, who received the email on November 8, said the irony of the situation “did my head in for a few days.”
“How can Beijing suppress a book that exposes Beijing’s influence in Australia? It kind of adds a new layer of meaning and significance to the book,” Hamilton said.
There was fear of a defamation case from “agents of influence”
In Gorman’s email to Hamilton, Allen & Unwin outlined how two ongoing defamation court cases – thought to be those brought by Australian citizen Chau Chak Wing against Fairfax Media and ABC over media reports from earlier this year – impacted their decision to delay the book’s release.
“The advice we received was that the risk of such an attack was likely to lessen considerably once the current defamation cases by the ‘whales’ against media companies had been through the courts,” wrote Gorman.
Allen & Unwin also said it was an “obvious target” for legal action by “Beijing’s agents of influence.” According to Hamilton, agents of influence work in a variety of areas in Australia.
“There are wealthy businesspeople; they’re talking about political donors, they’re worried about opinion-makers and political leaders – usually ex-political leaders – who basically argue strongly in favor of Beijing’s view,” Hamilton said.
Publishers have controversially censored material in China this year
Other notable publishers have recently censored material to avoid running afoul of Chinese authorities.
In August, Cambridge University Press (CUP) came under fire for blocking access to more than 300 articles at the request of Beijing authorities. Some of the articles touched on locally controversial topics including Tibet, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre.
An international outcry forced CUP to reverse its decision.
And earlier this month, the Financial Times discovered Springer Nature, publisher of Nature and Scientific American magazines, had withdrawn more than 1,000 sensitive articles.
Self-censorship of books in China is common, but the decision by Allen & Unwin appears to be the first time a publisher has self-censored material about the Chinese Communist Party in its home country.
Warnings of China’s influence have been growing
In 2012, Huawei was blocked from tendering for Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) due to cybersecurity concerns. The Attorney General’s department made the decision based on advice from the national security agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).
Then, in 2015, the federal government blocked the sale of a giant landholder, S. Kidman and Co., to a Chinese company, Shanghai Pengxin, on national-interest grounds. Some of the land owned by the cattle-rearing company was defense-sensitive, being close to the Woomera weapons testing range in South Australia.
The company was later sold to a consortium led by Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart, with a one-third minority stake controlled by another Chinese company, Shanghai CRED, but the defense-sensitive assets were excluded from the sale.
Last year, an Australian senator was found to have financial ties to a Chinese business that had close links to the country’s Communist Party and earlier this year, Australia’s top spy warned universities to be wary of foreign interference.
And on Tuesday, Attorney General George Brandis confirmed the completion of a review examining new laws that will ban foreign political donations and include a register for foreign agents, who will have to declare whether they are working for a foreign power.
Hamilton said the Communist Party has used its secretive United Front Work Department to influence and control organizations and thinking in other countries.
“Those groups have been mobilized as a highly effective way of influencing our perceptions of China in the political domain, the business community, and more broadly in the media in Australia,” said Hamilton. “It really is a very extensive influence campaign that’s been highly effective.”
Hamilton is now looking for another publisher.