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China's President Xi Jinping waves after attending the inauguration ceremony of Chinese sponsored Vietnam-China Cultural Friendship Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam on Nov. 12, 2017.Kham/The Associated Press

Alarmed by creeping Chinese influence on Australian political life, Clive Hamilton set out to investigate.

Businesses and people connected to China had already become the biggest foreign financial contributors to the country's political parties. But "it seemed to me there was much more going on" said Prof. Hamilton, a scholar at Charles Sturt University.

He found much to write about – only to become, himself, the subject of China's efforts to promote its agenda around the world, after fears of retaliation by Beijing caused his publisher to back away from a book containing his findings.

Now, he is warning about the risks of China's rising power – including in Canada, which has become an important target for a Beijing-led campaign that relies on shadowy government-funded agencies to spread influence among Chinese people living overseas.

Such "united front" work has been called a "magic weapon" by President Xi Jinping, who echoed a formulation that dates all the way back to Mao Zedong. But Mr. Xi has overseen an effort to enhance China's international standing unparalleled in recent history, either in China or among countries such as Russia or Turkey, whose foreign-influence campaigns Beijing has eclipsed in scale and ambition.

China has cast its united front efforts both as a necessary corrective to negative images of the country and a bid to invite participation in its domestic development by the worldwide community of ethnic Chinese.

"We have expanded to the maximum extent the boundaries of unity and called on Chinese people from every corner of the world to secure the core interests of our country, and to contribute to our reform and development," Zhang Yijiong, administrative vice-minister of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party Central Committee, said in a rare public appearance in late October.

Critics, however, accuse Beijing of threatening the sovereignty of foreign political systems.

It was that risk Prof. Hamilton sought to document.

He tracked the rivers of money flowing into the Australian education system that "have made the universities beholden to China and extremely reluctant to do anything that might upset Beijing." He dug into work by Chinese emissaries "to turn the Chinese diaspora in Australia into a highly effective weapon for Beijing's diplomacy in this part of the world." He looked at opinion-makers espousing views favourable to China, some of whom "have been won over through financial ties to Chinese organizations." He looked at Chinese-language media in Australia, 90 per cent of which now "adopt a pro-Beijing political stance."

He assembled his findings into a book, Silent Invasion: How China is Turning Australia into a Puppet State, in which he named the people he identified as being at the forefront of China's influence campaign.

But months before the book's planned release, his long-time publisher, Allen & Unwin, told him it could no longer go forward as planned, saying in an e-mail it was worried about "potential threats to the book and the company from possible action by Beijing."

In the Nov. 8 e-mail, first published by Australian media last week, the publisher cited "Beijing's agents of influence" and said printing the book would raise "the very high chance of a vexatious defamation action against Allen & Unwin, and possibly against you personally as well."

"There have been, as far as I'm aware, no specific threats made to the publisher," Prof. Hamilton said. "But in a way that's more worrying, because it means the mere shadow of Beijing is enough to cause them to pull the plug on this book."

China's immense consumer market and economic power have made it a coveted business partner for countries around the world, not least Australia, which has benefited from its relative geographic proximity.

But in courting Beijing, Australia has allowed China to gain so much sway, Prof. Hamilton warns, that "it will take a decade of determined effort to unwind the program of influence that has been executed in this country."

And, he says, other countries would do well to heed what he has experienced — including Canada, where schools at all levels are increasingly reliant on tuition dollars from Chinese students while Ottawa has approved controversial investments in sensitive sectors as it holds talks toward a free-trade agreement with Beijing.

Canada is far less economically reliant on China than Australia. But its large population of Chinese immigrants has also made it a target for the United Front Work Department and other arms of the Communist Party and Chinese government tasked with exerting Beijing's influence abroad.

A 2016 book, United Front Theory and the Frontier of Its Practice, says groups of large, relatively new immigrants overseas are "one of the most heated topics" for Chinese study, which has led researchers to devote special attention to countries such as Canada.

The book then provides a description of networks of influence among the roughly one million Chinese immigrants who have arrived in Canada since 1980.

Everyday Chinese in Canada continue to show "a very limited degree" of political interest – but that, the authors suggest, provides fertile ground for united front influence.

"The positive effects of Chinese political organizations and the encouragement from Chinese political parties have not been fully exploited," says the book, whose primary authors are Chen Mingming, a retired Chinese foreign affairs official, and Xiao Cunliang, who was formerly in charge of united front work in a Chinese province.

"The huge increase in population has given Chinese people stronger political influence in Canada. The number of Chinese people running for all levels of government positions is increasing. Some Chinese elites have had very impressive performances in elections," the authors write in the book, which The Globe and Mail obtained in Beijing.

Both researchers declined interview requests; Mr. Xiao hung up on a reporter.

United front work internationally serves two primary purposes: to understand what is happening amongst overseas Chinese and to use them to further Beijing's objectives, said Gerry Groot, a Chinese studies scholar at The University of Adelaide who has extensively studied the trend.

Ethnic Chinese in positions of influence overseas are particularly valuable.

"They hope to be able to use those sort of representatives directly or indirectly to help promote positions which are useful to China or to the Communist Party," Prof. Groot said.

"They hope that ethnic Chinese will be much more sympathetic to Chinese positions and be able to persuade audiences in other countries of the validity of those positions."

Indeed, a United Front teaching manual specifically cites electoral candidates in the Greater Toronto Area as fertile ground.

The manual, first reported by the Financial Times, does not claim Chinese involvement in selecting or prodding candidates to stand for election. But it notes the electoral success of ethnically Chinese in the Toronto area between 2003 and 2010, suggesting that United Front operatives should be "broadly united, aggressively guiding and passionately serving" newly emigrated Chinese overseas, particularly those with high status or possibility for advancement.

For example, according to a Financial Times translation, the document says that in elections across "all the cities and towns in the Toronto area" in 2003, 25 "overseas Chinese" took part and six won.

By 2010, it says, there were 41 "overseas Chinese" candidates in local, regional and school trustee elections in Toronto, Richmond Hill, Markham, Vaughan and elsewhere, although it does not provide specifics or list how many won seats.

A scan of election results yielded numbers roughly in line with the United Front manual.

In 2010, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned that cabinet ministers in two provinces, as well as several municipal politicians in British Columbia, were suspected of operating under foreign influence.

Toronto's deputy mayor, Denzil Minnan-Wong, has been a city councillor in Toronto since the 1990s. A prominent Conservative and ally of Mayor John Tory, Mr. Minnan-Wong is the Canadian-born son of a Chinese immigrant father. He has met often with China's consular officials to discuss doing business with the city.

He denied having been approached by any organization seeking to extend China's "soft power." But, in an interview, he acknowledged being exposed to Chinese pressure.

He was once called into a meeting with Chinese consular officials and urged not to travel to Taiwan, which mainland China claims is a breakaway province.

"I have travelled to Taiwan before. And the Chinese government has expressed concern to me that they're not pleased," Mr. Minnan-Wong said.

He went anyway.

Still, critics say China's efforts are so wide-reaching that its "foreign influence activities have the potential to undermine the sovereignty and integrity of the political system of targeted states."

That was the conclusion of Anne-Marie Brady, a University of Canterbury professor who recently published a paper documenting extensive Chinese interference in New Zealand, which has included one local politician openly pledging to promote China's policies in Tibet and translating a local party campaign slogan into a Chinese language saying from China's President Xi.

"New Zealand, like many other states in the world, is becoming saturated with the PRC's political influence activities," Prof. Brady wrote, referring to the People's Republic of China.

Those Chinese efforts create profound questions for diverse, democratic countries, where free speech is cherished and the idea of casting suspicion on an ethnic group is considered repugnant. At the same time, China's united front efforts target a specific ethnic group.

"It's a very difficult problem. And it's one that the united front departments like because Western liberal democracies can tie themselves up in knots trying to figure out how best to cope with this," said Prof. Groot.

He added: "We need to be very clear-eyed about the fact that China as a party state has all sorts of reasons and means to try to influence ethnic Chinese overseas."

Prof. Hamilton has argued for tougher laws in response to "this new kind of influence that is being exerted on nations like Australia and Canada."

Australia, for example, is planning new rules to force the registration of foreign agents. Canada has no such legislation, although such a law has long existed in the U.S., where the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission recently recommended registering Chinese journalists as foreign agents.

Prof. Hamilton also called for Western countries to be vigilant in guarding their own values as China links its economic clout with a desire for global influence.

"Humans have a remarkable capacity to be blinded by money," he said. "And we are seeing that blindness exploited at all levels."

With reporting from Alexandra Li

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