20 July 2020

Huawei is only one weapon in China’s unconventional armoury

By Emily Barley

As the British government officially bans Chinese tech giant Huawei from involvement in the UK’s 5G infrastructure, countries around the world need to look beyond China’s state-owned enterprises if they are to defend themselves against its ever-more aggressive foreign policy. The story of Bogac Ozdemir and ANZ Bank, is a warning that China has a lot more weapons in its unconventional armoury.

Mr Ozdemir was a star trader with the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ), one of the most significant Australian companies. As the Global Head of Rates and Credit, he reputedly became the bank’s most profitable individual trader and was crucial in reversing the fortunes of previously struggling departments. But while the Australian government has been shoring up its defences against cyber-attacks by a “state-based cyber actor” – widely thought to be China –  ANZ Bank has been offering up Mr Ozdemir as a sacrificial lamb to appease the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) lest they be shut out from lucrative Chinese clients.

But what, you might ask, was Mr Ozdemir’s crime? Back in March 2020, he had shared a post on LinkedIn about various governments dealing with Covid-19 which said: “I don’t want to say anything about China because we are all in this mess because of China and I don’t believe anything from there”. An uncontroversial statement you might think, but enough to trigger a firestorm of social media attacks by a small army of ‘wumao’ activists – trolls paid and directed by Beijing – putting out the familiar line that Mr Ozdemir was a “racist” and “prejudiced” for daring to criticise China in any way, and calling for his head.

Like clockwork, the Chinese financial regulator and the chiefs of ANZ’s Chinese clients began pressuring the bank to launch a full investigation. Following online articles in several Chinese-language outlets in Australia, ANZ sided with the CCP and threw its top performer to the wolves. It put out a statement decrying Mr Ozdemir’s “distinct lack of judgement”, promising a “full inquiry” and deploring his comments as “not in keeping with our standards” on respect and multiculturalism, thereby reinforcing the ‘wumao’ character assassination. Initially placed on ‘special leave’, Mr Ozdemir has reportedly been fired by ANZ.

ANZ has been keen to burnish its ‘woke’ credentials in Australia through a series of virtue-signalling ads on LGBTQ and feminist issues, and its CEO Shayne Elliott has pontificated regularly about equality and ethics in banking. That Elliott’s bank should be so quick to placate a totalitarian state known for repressing its minorities and free speech should be worrying enough. But China’s seeming ability to exploit the inherent weaknesses in Western economies by taking out key businesspeople at will, banking on risk-averse CEOs terrified of bad PR simply buckling to well-coordinated media and commercial pressure, is a major security threat.

As an Australian tabloid put it, “Don’t bank on ANZ resisting China’s threats”. But it’s not just ANZ; HSBC, Standard Chartered, and UBS are just some of the examples of companies bending to China’s will, or making sickening displays of fealty. In such a climate of fear and self-censorship, China doesn’t need to have its state-owned enterprises inserted into key infrastructure to achieve dominance. It simply needs to continue to threaten and cajole any individual or business in the West which opposes it. Western businesses just need to keep quietly raising the white flag of surrender, and China will have secured the hegemony it craves.

That’s why the senior executives, investors and, if necessary, the customers of such enterprises have to be called out. Caught on a knife edge between liberal values and totalitarian complicity, not only does the hypocrisy of their leaders have to be exposed for the cowardliness that it is, but they also must be encouraged to openly make strategic choices in the interests of security.

As China pushes its military might on the borders with India, incarcerates its Uighur minority and suffocates the law and liberty of Hong Kong, it’s time for countries and corporations around the world to wake up to the threat, and open their eyes to the unconventional methods Beijing is using to extend its power and influence. Which bankers and business leaders will bow down to pressure from the Chinese Communist Party and implement its policies abroad in pursuit of short-term gains – and who is prepared to make a stand in the interests of freedom and long-term prosperity?

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Emily Barley is the Chairman of Conservatives for Liberty.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.