What links an Australian member of parliament from the Liberal Party and the former director of the German domestic intelligence service? In a word China, or two rapid-fire indicators of the extent of its global reach in the 21st century.
The two incidents are recounted below and analyzed for their relevance to understanding the soft power conflicts occurring globally between the ascendant power of Communist China and the status quo. China’s activities are manifold and nearly as a matter of principle occur covertly. Once an activity emerges or action receives negative publicity, counter-narratives are propagated and the entire affair is ‘managed’ often making usage of state-run, or owned media companies, friendly influence groups, or as is demonstrated below, the susceptibility of Western mentality to obfuscation of Chinese ideological aims.
On 07.08.2019, a column under the heading “We must see China – the opportunities and the threats – with clear eyes” authored by Andrew Hastie MP (Liberal Party) appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. Hastie highlights the need for Australia to balance between the US and China as its two most important global partners while remaining vigilant about the inherent threat posed by the latter.
As Hastie argues China is an authoritarian and ideologically-driven nation:
“We must be intellectually honest and take the Chinese leadership at its word. We are dealing with a fundamentally different vision for the world. Xi Jinping has made his vision of the future abundantly clear since becoming President in 2013. His speeches show that the tough choices ahead will be shaped, at least on the PRC side, by ideology – communist ideology, or in his words, by ‘Marxist-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought’. ”
According to Hastie, neglecting to account for Communist ideology in Chinese planning, overtures and policy is as foolhardy as the French construction of fixed fortifications at the dawning of the era of mobile warfare to stem a possible German invasion.
Despite its content Hastie’s opinion piece is less notable for what it said than the reaction to it. Following its release Australian politicians split into camps supporting and utterly denouncing Hastie while the Chinese Government has decried his “Cold War mentality” and “Ideological bias”. His alleged comparison of China to Nazi Germany has dominated headlines since with noting his insensitivity, ignorance and lack of care. Noteworthy here is that in January 2018, Steve Bannon’s comparison of the PRC to Nazi Germany (quoted in a published book) was met with nearly identical condemnation.
What is missing from nearly all follow-on reporting regarding Hastie’s remarks is an actual rebuke of the claim made and what should be seen as the actual message of his writing:
“Right now our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure, but in our thinking. That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak. If we don’t understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities — our little platoons — then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished.”
Hastie’s critique is in actuality a warning to the Australian (and by extension Western) public about the soft-power conflicts and narratives which are the actual battlegrounds where Chinese prowess is exerted.
Four days after Hastie’s article, the first excerpt from an interview conducted by The Epoch Times with the former director of the German domestic intelligence service (BfV) Hans-Georg Maaßen was released (hyper-link is to DAFZ’s original English translation).
The excerpt focuses on the linked-issues of 5G and Huawei subsequently transitioning into the intelligence-gathering and espionage activities of the PRC in Germany. As Maaßen is able to speak freely as he no longer holds public office, his response continues where Hastie’s ends, revealing how Europe is shaped by a post-modern mentality highly susceptible to ideology espoused by China.
As Maaßen highlights the insidious role of China in Germany the interviewer offers typical retorts (in good journalistic fashion) asking for the difference with US practices and later offering the revelations from Edward Snowden’s defection as proof of US capabilities and nefarious intentions. Maaßen does not deflect but instead highlights the crucial ideological component, namely:
“China is not a Western democracy. China is a communist totalitarian state governed by the Communist Party of China. That is, in my view, the big if not essential difference between it and Germany, France, Great Britain and the United States.”
“If I may add, you may personally think of Mr. Trump whatever you wish, but the US is our [Germany’s/Europe’s] partner and is a liberal democracy, no matter who governs there. And they are subject to the local law.“
The exchange between Maaßen and his interviewer encapsulates precisely the sort of “intellectual honesty” absent from debates surrounding the role of ideology in Chinese initiatives, as well as the shaping of narratives not only in Europe but across the Western world. The interviewer falls back on moral equivalency, a sort of European tradition stemming back to the ‘hearts and minds’ struggles of the Cold War.
Popularly referred to as ‘whataboutism’, moral equivalency was a classic tool of Soviet propagandists, meant to deflect criticism while highlighting the dirty laundry of the West.
Inadvertently, the interviewer follows this tradition more or less stating that one should not fear Huawei or 5G in Germany in 2019 because Edward Snowden showed us that the Americans already have the same capabilities.
Both deflection (refocusing attention on the issue of comparing the PRC to Nazi Germany) as well as moral equivalency/’whataboutism’ are potent tools for shaping public opinion in the modern era. Wielded by the PRC, they provide a sort of shield which only concerted and persistent efforts can best. Whether the West is capable of doing so remains to be seen. Maaßen lost his post for speaking out of turn emphasizing the prevalence of leftist and pro-migration forces in the German government while Hastie has been rebuked by a member of his own party calling on him to question whether or not “national interests are best served” by his statements.
Nevertheless, the underlying message is that ideology is essential. The Chinese response shows that its obfuscation is paramount by both means shown above as well as a plethora of others. Simple logic continues that one does not vehemently deflect away from inconsequential allegations.