Authoritarian China has turned its sights on the intellectuals in the West who are shedding light on what the regime and its proxies are doing to our liberal-democratic way of life. Our institutions must step in to ensure journalists and academics can continue to do their work without fear of legal repercussions.
The pressure that authoritarian China and its proxies abroad have exerted on media organizations and academic institutions in the West, and the corroding impact that such activities have had on freedom of expression, were brought to the public’s attention recently thanks to exposés in countries like Australia and New Zealand.
Exploiting fears of lost business opportunities in the Chinese market or the drying up of Chinese students, several Western institutions in recent months have broken with proud Western traditions of openness by agreeing to self-censor. Publishers have pulled thousands of journal articles from electronic services in China, or stopped the publication of “controversial” books about Chinese influence. And professors have been reluctant to address, or have downright avoided, topics such as Taiwan, Tibet or the Cultural Revolution in the classroom, for fear of becoming targets of angry Chinese students — or the local Chinese consulate.
Besides economic considerations or outright moral cowardice, the assault on academic and journalistic freedom in the West has also been compounded by China’s turning to Western legal institutions to threaten — and if necessary to sue — anyone who seeks to expose, in books or articles, the kind of activities that China has engaged in to corrupt our democratic institutions, from political warfare to united front activities, intelligence collection to the co-optation of officials. Thus, if greed isn’t enough to distort one’s moral compass, China has now added “lawfare” to its toolshed. And with increasing frequency it has been deploying this tactic beyond its borders to silence, threaten, and sue journalists and academics, regardless of where they are.
As a result, the Western legal system has now become complicit in China’s assault on freedom of expression, an ally in its efforts to silence investigative journalists and daring academics who are deeply alarmed by what authoritarian China is doing to us. Given the state of China’s legal system, it is no surprise that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials have succeeded in silencing journalists in their country, either by imprisoning them or shutting down publications altogether. It is something else entirely for authoritarian China to turn the Western legal system again its own. And ironically, the very information that would conceivably dissuade Western courts from hearing such cases — that is, the extent to which China threatens our liberal-democratic way of life — is that which the Chinese and their proxies are doing their utmost to block from being made public. Knowledge is our best defense, and knowledge is exactly what the CCP and its local proxies are now attacking in the West.
Ironically, the very information that would conceivably dissuade Western courts from hearing such cases — that is, the extent to which China threatens our liberal-democratic way of life — is that which the Chinese and their proxies are doing their utmost to block from being made public.
The expectation that courts will agree to hear, say, a libel case filed by the CCP, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-linked multibillion-dollar company or local agents of influence against an author or publisher is the reason why, for example, Allen & Unwin decided to cancel plans to publish Silent Invasion, a book on Chinese influence in Australia by Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University in Sydney. In this case, the Chinese didn’t even have to file a defamation lawsuit against the publisher or Hamilton: the mere threat that publication could result in legal action was sufficient for Allen & Unwin to get cold feet and to cancel its contract at the 11th hour.
In recent years, organizations with ties to the CCP, the PLA or various United Front units have resorted to similar means to deter and intimidate journalists and academics working on similar subjects in countries including Australia, the U.S., Canada, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Taiwan. In a few cases, China actually took legal action against its targets. In some cases, CCP threats (and their influence with a local government) have cost intellectuals the ability to publish their work; in all cases, the drawn-out legal action has had a draining effect on the targets’ limited finances (this usually isn’t the case for the plaintiff, which could afford to hire the largest law firm in the country in question). In most instances the Chinese side didn’t actually have a valid legal argument, and legal threats or action were little more than harassment meant to inflict pain on an intellectual and dissuade him or her — or a publisher or academic institution — from doing further research into that particular subject or entity. The psychological and financial trauma caused a victim can indeed lead one to think twice about looking into that particular entity again, and when this happens, the aggressor wins.
Addressing the threat
There is an urgent need for Western institutions to respond to this growing challenge, as failure will only embolden the CCP and further erode the ability of our thinkers to do their work and cloud the public’s ability to know what’s going on at a time when China ascendant becomes part of our daily lives. So what can be done?
Among other things, countries where libel/defamation laws are skewed in the plaintiff’s favor should adjust the laws in a way that better protects academic and journalistic freedom. More rigorous guidelines should also be implemented to address instances when the plaintiff is a representative of a country or political institution that is authoritarian and anti-democratic. The Chinese have made the choice to be repressive, and there has been enough publicity about how the CCP treats its dissidents and intellectuals to know that we are not dealing with an ordinary, freedom-loving country. Therefore, there is absolutely no reason we should allow China to impose such choices on our own societies. Consequently, the threshold for a court to hear a complaint by the CCP or a CCP-affiliated entity against Western intellectuals should be higher, and the burden of evidence much greater. Courts should not have to hear a case if it is frivolous or recognized as harassment by an authoritarian entity.
For their part, victims of Chinese harassment should break their silence and reveal the identity of their oppressors, the institutions and local agents who lead the charge against them. They should make public the names of the lawyers and law firms in the West that have agreed to represent CCP/PLA-linked clients filing against journalists and academics. And they should expose judges who rule in favor of the plaintiff.
Governments and NGOs should provide assistance to the victims by helping publicize instances of Chinese aggression and by extending financial assistance to cover legal expenses.
Intelligence agencies and the media in liberal-democracies must also start to scrutinize much more closely the CCP/PLA/UFW-linked firms, institutions, NGOs, think tanks, business leaders and pseudo-academics that are involved in influence operations, political warfare, and united front work against us. Although we must continue to protect freedom of expression in the West and should be as permissive as possible even when Chinese intellectuals express opinions that differ from ours, the game should stop when agents of authoritarian China enter our backyard and tell us what to think, to say, or to print, and threaten us if we refuse to back down. The message should be loud and clear: Not on our turf.