West holds its tongue for fear the Chinese snake might strike

West holds its tongue for fear the Chinese snake might strike, by Andrew Browne.

To those it seeks to influence, the Chinese Communist Party can be an intimidating presence.

The China scholar Perry Link once called the party “the anaconda in the chandelier”.

Just by hovering, it induces self-censorship and subtle behavioural changes. This has long been the case within China. Increasingly, as China projects outward, prominent figures in the West — politicians, executives, academics — are making nervous adjustments, too.

David Cameron should know. The former British prime minister faced the party’s reproach after meeting the Dalai Lama in 2012, then spent the rest of his term straining to get back into its good graces, including declaring a “Golden Era” in British relations with Beijing.

Put this down as another win for the party’s psychological pressure tactics.

The mere fear of retaliation suggested by Chinese displeasure was enough to trigger a shift in government attitudes. No British leader is likely to receive the Tibetan spiritual leader again. London has adopted a more deferential — critics would say sycophantic — diplomatic tone towards Beijing. Officials soft-pedal human rights. …

Beijing seeks to co-opt credible Western voices to speak on its behalf.

For years, democracies have been naively complacent about these activities, confident of the inevitable triumph of the liberal order in the post-Cold War era. …

Beijing’s intimidation tactics are paying off. Western governments hesitate to speak out on issues sensitive to Beijing, such as Tibet. Hollywood movies that portray China in a negative light don’t get made. Academics may choose not to research topics that could threaten their visa status. Media organisations are tempted to pull their punches.

With the Chinese economy on track to become the world’s largest, the cost of standing up to China in defence of freedoms increases. It took Norway six years to end an economic and diplomatic freeze after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010.

“Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to,” Link wrote in a 2002 essay in the New York Review of Books.

“Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide’.”


In Australia, party-affiliated Chinese tycoons have helped bankroll the two major political parties. Chinese state media now largely dictate coverage at virtually all of the country’s Chinese-language news outlets. Beijing’s diplomats keep tabs on Chinese students.

Combined, these efforts challenge Australian sovereignty, an acute irony given how China warns against foreign interference in its own domestic affairs.

Yet, only now is Canberra waking up to the party’s infiltration. What is most surprising about Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s pushback — a new bill will limit the flow of Chinese money into politics — is the acknowledgment that for so long the system was so wide open to manipulation.

hat-tip Stephen Neil