Book review: Silent Invasion
A review of Clive Hamilton’s controversial book examining the influence of the Chinese government in Australia.
When I first spotted Silent Invasion in the book shop, I was apprehensive about buying it. It certainly looked interesting and was very topical, but I was also concerned that it may in fact be a treatise in intolerance written by the sort of person who’d be happy watching “Sky After Dark”. The provocative cover art didn’t help allay my concerns either, so month after month I would pick it up, glance at its pages, then put it down again.
In fact, when it comes to the credibility of this book nothing could be further from the truth. Silent Invasion‘s author is Clive Hamilton AM, a respected professor in Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra and his book is a serious investigation into an important matter of public interest in Australia: China’s growing influence over politics, journalism, education and economics. With the comforting knowledge that the book was researched by a respected and qualified academic, I finally bought a copy of Silent Invasion and started what can really only be described as an eye-opening journey.
The relationship between Australia and China has been a difficult one. Back in 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was visiting Australia and asked then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott about what drives Australia’s China policy, to which he frankly responded “fear and greed“. It was a startling admission made in a leaked private conversation, but the honestly encapsulated what many dare not say: Australia seems determined to extract as much economic wealth out of China without becoming entangled in a broader Communist Party agenda. Silent Invasion offers us a glimpse of what that agenda may be.
Hamilton is very clear to distinguish the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from the Chinese people. Concerned that he would be labelled a racist or xenophobe, Hamilton has provided comprehensive references and evidence to back up his various assertions – many of which are highly controversial. It’s hard to read this book and not ask oneself “Is this for real?”
Silent Invasion is Hamilton’s warning to Australia to protect the integrity of its institutions before it is too late. Silent Invasion starts with a look at the CCP’s methodology for asserting greater influence in the West by slowly infiltrating its institutions and using a largely co-operative expatriate community to achieve this. Later chapters in the book provide the specifics, including very detailed accounts of networks between Australian institutions (especially universities) and agencies of the CCP (especially the United Front Work Department) or the People’s Liberation Army. It’s a highly complicated web of networks and relationships that Hamilton reveals and seems to illustrate a pattern of divided loyalties.
Australia may be a flourishing multicultural country now, but it has not always been so. The White Australia Policy, which was enacted to limit Asian migration to Australia between 1901 and the 1970’s, has left a dark stain on our collective conscience. Chinese migration was particularly targeted during that period and Chinese often referred-to as the “Yellow Peril”. Whilst immigration policy has thankfully changed, Hamilton shows us how pro-Beijing forces (both Australian and Chinese) use this history to their advantage. In essence, any assertion that the CCP is trying to influence Australian society and undermine its institutions is met with charges of racism, xenophobia or Sinophobia. It’s a powerful defence to cloak what Hamilton alleges should be a very serious concern indeed. For as Hamilton sees it, “xenophobia-phobia” is a powerful tool in itself to deflect attention away from serious allegations of espionage, intellectual property theft and undermining.
In a situation that would be described as ironic if it were not so concerning, publishers Allen & Unwin who were to release Silent Invasion suddenly abandoned the book at the eleventh hour following threats from the Chinese government. In the end, a braver Australian publisher took it on, but the episode highlights how Beijing is seeking to influence public debate and avoid scrutiny in Australia by censoring critical voices.
Given the controversial and sensitive subject matter in Silent Invasion, it’s not surprising that the book has been widely condemned by those with a vested interest in ignoring the issues raised or those who need to signal to Beijing that they don’t agree with the book’s assertions. Dr. Kevin Carrico (Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Monash University) wrote an article for the Asia & Pacific Policy Society in which he details a common methodology for attacking Hamilton’s book:
There is a standard list of ingredients for a Silent Invasion rant-as-review. Firstly, be unabashedly negative. Secondly, in your negativity, don’t bother specifying where Hamilton is wrong: keep criticism on the abstract level of denouncing the book as a whole as “Yellow Peril and Sinophobia to the extreme”. And thirdly, make the review more about your own political positioning rather than the actual contents of the book.Kevin Carrico: In defence of ‘Silent Invasion’
Indeed, my own searching has revealed a plethora of these sorts of hostile reviews.
For what it’s worth, I have found Silent Invasion to be a thoughtful, considered and compelling account of official and unofficial Chinese government attempts to influence Australian public debate, gather intelligence, silence critics, introduce taboos around “sensitive topics” and otherwise marginalise the anti-CCP diaspora.
In recent times, there have been some reassuring developments (an “awakening”?) in Australian politics as to what might be happening. Australia abandoned a proposed extradition treaty with China after a significant public backlash and passed tough new foreign interference laws. Australia has also blocked Chinese investment in key infrastructure. Beijing has made its displeasure known.
Hamilton’s book was published in 2018. In it he wrote:
Australia has given way many times to Chinese threats of ill-defined economic retaliation. In 2016 the CCP’s top leaders thought hard about punishing Australia for our stance on The Hague’s ruling on China’s illegal occupation of islands in the South China Sea. They held off, but it’s only a matter of time…
Punishments could include penalising Australian exporters with bogus quarantine or health claims, arresting staff of Australian firms on false charges, refusing visas to businesspeople, and launching cyber attacks…
Some industries have become too dependent on markets in China…. these could all be stopped on the wharves tomorrow.Clive Hamilton, Silent Invasion, p. 149
How precient these words turned out to be.
In 2020, China suddenly introduced crippling tariffs on Australian coal, barley, copper ore and concentre, sugar, wine and lobster after Australian prime minister Scott Morrison called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Almost immediately after that, China banned four Australian abattoirs, ostensibly for quarantine reasons. In October, timber shipments from Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania were blocked for biosecurity reasons and then in November, $2 million worth of live rock lobsters ended up stranded on the tarmac in Shanghai, with China’s Customs agency alleging the lobsters may be “contaminated”. In March 2021, a cyber attack was launched on the Parliament of Western Australia during a state election. It was not the last.
Throughout the book, Hamilton has suggested that China sees Australia as the West’s “weakest link” and is using us as a testing ground to see what it can get away with as well as attempting to drive a wedge between Australia and the United States. Australia certainly tolerates a lot more than some of our close allies including the United States and Canada who have successfully prosecuted Chinese spies. Australia has prosecuted no-one. Ever.
At times, the tone in Silent Invasion has been alarmist, even borderline hysterical and it’s easy for the mind to start questioning whether something else is at play. According to Hamilton, that’s exactly what the CCP wants you to think. After all, some of the claims are just so fantastic and brazen that it’s natural for a degree of skepticism to creep in. But it’s worth persisting because Hamilton employs a calmer tone later in the book when all of the pieces start to come together. It is at this point that the scale and magnitude of the situation become apparent and suddenly the tone in the earlier parts of the book seems appropriate.
I am not hostile to China. In fact, I recently read a book of Chinese history to gain a better appreciation for the country. China is important and deserves our attention and respect. But Australia must also look out for our own sovereign interest just as we do with our other historic allies such as Britain, New Zealand and the United States.
Silent Invasion is brave, insightful and considered. It is not a relaxing read to enjoy in bed before sleep, but if nothing else it will generate a healthy scepticism about the many claims made by both sides in this fraught relationship. This is a book for anyone who sincerely appreciates Western social and political values and Australian independence.
The century ahead will be a challenging one for Australia. In many respects we’re seen as a “branch office” of Western civilisation in Asia. China’s power in its many forms will rise whilst that of the United States will likely diminish somewhat. Hamilton says that Australians need to consider long and hard how they want to shape their country: by preserving the liberties and freedoms that we’ve always enjoyed and that have made our lives comfortable and affluent, or trade these away for short-term economic benefit that will ultimately be to our collective detriment.
Hamilton says that we need to beware of those amongst us who would sell-out for a short-term economic benefit. But he also reminds us of the other democracies in our region that also face pressure: South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand and even India. Forging stronger ties with these nations may be to the collective benefit of us all.
Most of all, Silent Invasion challenges us to consider the sort of country that we want to live in.
Silent Invasion: China’s influence in Australia (ISBN 9781743794807), by Clive Hamilton, is published by Hardie Grant. A Chinese-language version (Silent Invasion: The China Factor in Australia [無聲的入侵：中國因素在澳洲], ISBN 9789865727833) is published by Zuoan Wenhua Publishing and a Japanese-language version is published by Asuka Shinsha Publishing as Invisible Invasion: China’s Campaign to Control Australia (目に見えぬ侵略 中国のオーストラリア支配計画; ISBN 9784864107471).