MELBOURNE, Australia — News broke last week that a Chinese company with links to China’s Ministry of State Security has been secretly data-profiling at least 35,000 prominent Australians.
A leak revealed that the company, Zhenhua Data, has compiled records on at least 2.4 million people of “special interest” to China worldwide. The operation has “scraped” open-source material from social media as well as used confidential “bank records, job applications and psychological profiles” probably obtained from the dark web. Defense experts warn of a likely intention to “exploit and manipulate” individuals with the information.
The conspicuous Australian response to this gross violation of national privacy has been … “meh.”
Rather than righteous horror, the novelist John Birmingham expressed aloud on Twitter the silent anxiety of many Australians: not being considered prominent enough for profiling. The newspaper The Australian Financial Review correctly read the national room with the headline “If you’re not on the Zhenhua database, don’t be offended.” Frustrating reports offered mere handfuls of names: company directors, politicians, judges, defense and technology people. Academics. Some local criminals. And, uh, ’90s pop star Natalie Imbruglia.
Australians aren’t entirely blasé about the implications of the leak. The national broadcaster, the ABC, reported that Zhenhua Data’s chief executive, Wang Xuefeng, has used the Chinese social media app WeChat “to endorse waging ‘hybrid warfare’ through manipulation of public opinion” and other “psychological” operations.
Concern is warranted that Zhenhua Data has profiled the children of prominent citizens, as well as their partners and relatives, with photographs, news articles and criminal histories. Risk of online impersonations, deep fakes and other distressing forms of disinformation attack is real.
But one must suggest, politely, that if the intent of authoritarian China is to exert some kind of kompromat-style influence over Australians to blackmail them with their personal information, their investment may reap more returns elsewhere.
It’s not that we Australians are too holy to engage in wrongdoing, tell lies or make moral catastrophes of our private lives. It’s just that we struggle, as a people, to shame one another for it.
An important difference between Australia and many other countries is that we hardly expect our political leaders and public figures to be morally superior to ourselves. And it’s left us profoundly — and politically — uninterested in their private lives.
In the 1960s, a prime minister literally vanished into the sea when he went swimming with his suspected mistress, and her presence there barely rates a historical note. Back in 1972, we had a state premier noted for “flamboyance” at a time when the word was still a euphemism. At least two prime ministers struggled with known addiction. In 2018, the deputy prime minister got a girlfriend pregnant and it was mostly news because the woman was in his taxpayer-funded employ. He was handsomely re-elected; new mother, baby and ex-wife doing well.
License to privacy is not restricted to political leadership. Twenty years before marriage equality, political smears against a gay judge on Australia’s highest court resulted in “uproar” from the legal profession, our Senate and a society unwilling to validate a “culture of prejudice.” The Australian pop star Kylie Minogue had an affair with a very married Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Australians were more curious about his ballet routines for her butt.
There have been decades of conscious social destigmatization — of divorce, abortion, sex work, mental illness, sexual expression and addiction — in campaigns and legislation. Here, a leader admitting to private struggle is more likely to provoke the sudden appearance of a sympathetic documentary crew than any permanent loss of status. It takes publicly urinating into your own mouth or simulating sex acts with dogs to end a football career.
Our forgiving egalitarianism is something that more hierarchical societies may not grasp. Generations of migrants and refugees arrived here enthusiastic for sanctuary and opportunity. Combined, you get what the Australian intellectual Donald Horne described in his seminal 1964 book, “The Lucky Country”: an overwhelming cultural belief that “everyone has the right to a good time.”
When that “good time” is threatened by crime — sexual misconduct, say, or malfeasance — popular disinterest transforms into bloodthirsty public hunger for justice. Of late, exposed corruption ends a political career within a day.
So maybe the Chinese profilers are trying to build leverage over people by gathering evidence of criminality? If so, it’s worth reminding them that democracies like Australia create transparent systems of monitoring and accountability — and retain a free press — so we can root out criminals for ourselves. Whatever can be scraped and gathered by a Chinese company online can — should, must — be done by journalists and investigators with access to resources. Foreign agencies can’t manipulate criminals when communities maintain the tools to expose them.
If there’s a relaxed, how-to-deal tone in the Australian response to the Chinese profiling, it’s because weaponizing shame doesn’t work on the shameless. The data of secrets doesn’t work if everyone knows what they are. In a new world of “information war,” liberal democracies have built-in defenses to manipulation by authoritarian states.
Nonjudgmental social policy. An independent press. Transparent, rigorous systems of oversight. You know — the defining traditions of liberal democracy.
Van Badham (@vanbadham) is a columnist for The Guardian Australia.
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