For another perspective on the Australia-China relationship, especially the way state governments are tightening their relationship with China, despite not having the skills or the constitutional capacity to do so, read Canberra alone must control our China ties in The Australian by Peter Jennings. Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary for strategy in the Department of Defence.

It isn’t good to play the man and not the ball.

This is also true when considering organisations. Ideas should be judged on their merits, tough though that can be.

The US Studies Centres, for example, as Gerard Henderson correctly observes, failed to have any of its ‘experts’ predict a Trump win in 2016. Despite it only being a two-horse race, and an unconventional one at that.

But that doesn’t mean they everything that comes from the USSC is wrong, just that you need to understand where it is coming from when it makes its public pronouncements. Even experts can make mistakes (see also IPCC).

Keep this in mind when thinking about the new ACRI report Do the claims stack up? Australia talks China.

Yes, you’re right, you haven’t heard about it. It hasn’t really made any splash. But you should think about it. It’s symbolically important because the report comes out of UTS:ACRI, the Australia-China Relations Institute.

Who the what? UTS:ACRI?

What is UTS:ACRI?

You might have heard about UTS:ACRI but you’ve likely forgotten. What you should know is that Professor the Hon Bob Carr runs it.

ACRI owes its existence to China.

Writing in The Conversation in June 2017, James Leibold, Associate Professor of Politics and Asian Studies, La Trobe University, gave this history lesson:

ACRI was founded with A$2.8 million in donations from two wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs who recently migrated to Australia. One of these individuals, Mr Huang Xiangmo was named chairman of ACRI and would later reportedly claim that he personally selected the former Foreign Minister Bob Carr as the director of the new institute.

Despite claims that it is “an independent, nonpartisan, research think tank,” ACRI has been plagued by controversy since its establishment. In my opinion, the quality of ACRI’s research output is patchy at best, with far more examples of political advocacy than rigorous, independent research.

While it has produced a handful of quality research reports by respected Australian academics, far more effort has gone into the production of often one-sided, decontextualised fact sheets and opinion pieces aimed at promoting what ACRI’s own website asserts is “a positive and optimistic view of Australia-China relations”.

Leibold has identified a lot of problems in its output. The source of some of the foundation funds should not escape scrutiny. Enter Huang Xiangmo.

You know the name

You might remember Huang Xiangmo. He’s a property developer. Still not ringing any bells? How about this? He’s the man on the left. He paid the legal bills of the man on the right, Sam Dastyari. He used to be a senator, until the tape of the press conference below emerged. Datyari completely and perfectly echoed the line of the Chinese Government on territorial claims in the South China Sea. It was the end of Senator Sam.

Money = access. And sometimes a lot more.

Huang Xiangmo loves Labor. But he’s bipartisan. He loves everyone.

Huang also makes considerable donations across the political aisle, as the ABC has reported.

Money = access.

In this story, political donations are actually irrelevant. They’re just interesting footnotes for future reference and consideration. But it matters in the overall scheme of things.

Huang Xiangmo is pro China. And funds accordingly. This also is an interesting sidenote worthy of reference. A Chinese expat being pro China is not the absurd statement it might at first seem.

Not all Chinese are pro China

The reality is that not all Chinese are pro China, a revelation which has put Clive Hamilton in the spotlight and opened him to claims of racism.

As you can imagine, a lot of Chinese living in Australia are not huge fans of the Chinese Government. Also, people are individuals and should be judged as such.

If you’ve ever been to a conference on China you would likely have seen this fact in action.

If there’s an ardently pro-Chinese spokesperson on stage there is a good chance they will either be asked why they condone human rights abuses or, when it gets really firey, the speaker will just be abused. When English becomes Mandarin the gloves are off and it’s popcorn time.

So Chinese-Australians fall into two very distinct categories:

  • Pro China: people like Huang who have very strong ties to China and actively promote China, often due to financial considerations.
  • Anti China: people who have escaped China and want to see democratic reforms and a hands-off Hong Kong policy.

Why is this relevant? Because researchers don’t bite the private hands that feed them.

In the case of UTS:ACRI this historical fact is highly relevant.

Bob Carr, you may know, has become something of a ‘China expert’. Which is fascinating. Because he really loves China. The way Cartman loved Jesus.

Carr has form

Professor the Hon Bob Carr has a troubled history in his support for China.

On 30 May, the AFR published a story with remarkable intro:

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has suggested her immediate predecessor Bob Carr is acting against the national interest following claims he used Labor senators to quiz bureaucrats over a top secret report on China’s attempts to interfere and influence Australia politics.

Fairfax Media reported this week Mr Carr, who remains influential within Labor circles and heads up the Australia China Relations Institute, asked his fellow former NSW premier and now Senator Kristina Keneally to press the government over a report former Malcolm Turnbull adviser John Garnaut prepared in conjunction with ASIO.

The inquiry has never been released but reportedly found China had attempted to compromise Australia’s political parties for a decade and helped spur the government to introduce its foreign interference laws.

Carr’s main point of rebuttal was that:

… the public was entitled to know if “someone running an extreme anti-China campaign and hurting Australia’s national interest is on the payroll of the Prime Minister’s staff as a consultant”.

Carr is saying that we should be thankful that someone like Carr is on the lookout to protect Australia’s national interest when dealing with China.

Carr wanted to know whether John Garnaut, then a consultant to then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, was saying nasty things about China, and what role he night have influencing the Australian Government’s policy approaches to China.

The real point to be made to Carr at the time was that it’s none of Carr’s business if he was; we have a government to handle these things.

And, by the way, despite no longer being foreign minister, Carr has a responsibility as having represented Australia as a cabinet minister, to be loyal first to Australia, no matter his later positions. It goes to the reputation of Australia – not just Carr. It is a fair expectation of holding the position of foreign minister.

Carr was acting not for Australia in this instance. It is fair to assume that his purpose was to support a pro-Chinese policy. He was seeking to protect China. And ACRI.

As Carr has raised the Garnaut, it’s important also to learn about him. Let’s take another detour.

Who is John Garnaut?

John Garnaut was a Fairfax correspondent based in China.

It was a tragedy for Australia when Garnaut ceased to be Fairfax’s reporter in China. His reports were incisive, balanced and always readable. Today he is a consultant.

Get to the Googleator and check out his reports. Or just read this work published in Foreign Affairs in March: How China Interferes in Australia … And How Democracies Can Push Back. Garnaut’s thesis is that:

Australia is the canary in the coal mine of Chinese Communist Party interference.

Over the past 18 months, the country has been shaken by allegations of the Chinese party-state working to covertly manipulate the Australian political system and curate the wider political landscape.

There are claims of Beijing-linked political donors buying access and influence, universities being co-opted as “propaganda vehicles,” and Australian-funded scientific research being diverted to aid the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Most notoriously, an ambitious young senator, Sam Dastyari, was exposed for parroting Communist Party talking points and giving counter surveillance advice to a Chinese political donor before being hounded into premature retirement.

Give Foreign Affairs your details and read the while thing.

For the record, some of Garnaut’s reports are questioned by the ACRI report. The Foreign Affairs article is not.

Garnaut isn’t alone in worrying about China

What Garnaut warned of in March was restated in mid-October by ASIO chief Duncan Lewis. The AFR, wrote:

As ASIO’s director-general Duncan Lewis expressed strong concerns in his agency’s annual report about a growing and “insidious threat” of espionage and foreign interference over the past year, it was understood there had been several high-level discussions in recent weeks between the agency and the university sector about how to combat the threat.

In the ASIO annual report, Mr Lewis said there were two major, growing threats.

There was terrorism that “shows no sign of diminishing” and there was an unprecedented level of hostile foreign interference “expanding in its scope and complexity”.

“Espionage and foreign interference is an insidious threat,” he said. “Activities that may appear relatively harmless today can have significant future consequences.”

Mr Lewis said that, over the past financial year, “we identified foreign powers clandestinely seeking to shape the opinion of members of the Australian public, media organisations and government officials in order to advance their country’s own political objectives”.

“These activities, undertaken covertly to obscure the role of foreign governments, represent a threat to our sovereignty, the integrity of our national institutions, and the exercise of our citizens’ rights.”

Lewis is saying there are two threats to Australia: terrorism and China.

Two weeks before that report, DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson, a former ambassador in China, was speaking at Adelaide University. She was quoted in the same AFR article saying:

The silencing of anyone in our society, from students to lecturers to politicians, is an affront to our values …

Enforced silence runs counter to academic freedom. It is only by discussion … which is courteous that falsehoods can be corrected.

That means China.

This speech is not available on the DFAT website. Adamson is right when she says “enforced silence runs counter to academic freedom”. Academics have shown the worst silence is voluntary.

What ACRI says

So there are constant lines of evidence showing that China is an influencer in Australia. Of politicians, of academics, of expats.

Carr’s ACRI runs a different line.

Its report Do the claims stack up? Australia talks China seeks to dissect claims of:

  • allegiance of Australia’s Chinese diaspora to a foreign power
  • aggressive behaviour by Chinese students at Australian universities
  • China’s intention to place a military base on Australia’s doorstep
  • spying at an Australian maritime port made possible by Chinese investment, and
  • a Free Trade Agreement that favours Chinese, not Australian interests.

According to ACRI:

… in each case, the evidence base is shown to be divorced from the claims found in headlines, news reports and opinion pieces, revealing just how widespread has become the discourse of China Threat, China Angst and China Panic.

This is an undeniably pro-China report, as can be expected from an organisation headed by Carr and funded with generous contributions from Chinese donors. Almost all of its near 100 pages are devoted to taking reports to task which are unflattering to China.

Carr is a brilliant communicator and knows every trick there is, including the age-old chicanery of straw men.

He is said to offer:

… a policy practitioner’s perspective. In a 2018 book Carr coins the phrase China Panic. He describes China Panic as a ‘campaign designed to establish that the Chinese Communist Party was embarked on a campaign to swallow Australian sovereignty’.

No evidence was provided for this claim, first aired in Carr’s 2018 book Run for your life.

There’s more to life than money

The strongest case ACRI puts for playing nice with China is the economics of the bilateral relationship:

Trade is voluntary. This means that every dollar of this $184 billion exchange [between Australia and China] represents an assessment by an Australian household or business that engagement with China makes them better off.

Milton Friedman would be proud of this neoliberal analysis but it is giving weight to a voluntary exchange in which no thought is given.

Unless the product is blueberries or components for the NBN or 5G networks, no one (at this stage) cares who makes the thing being bought. Price nort origin is the key consumer concern. In this case, the voluntary exchange signifies nothing about the China relationship and it is a stretch to think it does.

[The speech by John Lord, Chairman of Huawei Australia on 27 June 2018, to the National press Club is also worth reading.]

It should also be remembered that trade is a two-way street. China benefits, too. The lights will remain on in China without Australian gas and coal, but it would be more expensive without them.

Without Australian iron ore, on the other hand, Chinese growth over the past few years would have been severely hampered. We are not the dominant player in the Australia-China relationship, nor are we equal with China, but we are not without leverage either. Especially in iron ore.

Moreover, putting economics at the forefront of the relationship is a clear attempt to remove the morality from the argument.

It is right that when thinking about China to consider the politics of China, human rights and its increasing influence throughout the world, especially Australia’s sphere of influence, the South Pacific (such as our sphere is).

This will be evident during the forthcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Port Moresby where China will soon finish construction of a six-lane road and boulevards in the capital, Port Moresby.

Leaders will be driven on the new Chinese road in one of 40 Maseratis and three Bentleys purchased by the PNG Government for the occasion. Think about that next time aid is mentioned – as it will forever be.

(This is working out quite well for PNG which has been able to play Australia off against China. Last week Australia announced we would fund a navy base in PNG. We’re funding it so China won’t.)

What to make of the UTS:ACRI report

There are many elements to the UTS:ACRI report which are troubling, including its full-throated support of Huang. In fact, Huang is referred to 21 times in the report, cited as an example of how someone of Chinese descent has been targeted unfairly by Australian media and security agencies for his influence (perceived or real).

The report does not mention that Huang donated money to the foundation of ACRI.

That could have been a small inclusion that would have helped remove concern about the report.

In this way, the report is more powerful for what it doesn’t say than what it does, which is an overview of reports in the Australian media (an extension of politics) which might be seen as a slight against China.

In light of one of the report’s conclusions, this might in fact be unnecessary:

On June 20 2018 the Lowy Institute released its annual poll which surveys Australian attitudes towards other countries. In view of the claims documented in this report it might have been expected to reveal a negative turn in Australian views on China.

Yet the survey showed that 82 per cent of Australians considered China was ‘more of an economic partner’ than a ‘military threat’. This was three points percentage higher than in 2017 and five points higher than 2015.

The poll also showed continued high levels of support for Australia’s alliance relationship with the US, notwithstanding major reservations about the election of Donald Trump.

The public appears to have a view of the country’s longer-term national interest and an understanding that an alliance relationship with the US, the prevailing power, and a pragmatic engagement with China, the most conspicuous rising power, should be within Australia’s reach.

That being the case, this report reads like an examination of Australia’s most important and potentially fractious international relationship, and more like a 100-page application for further funding from pro-China Australians.

One last thought …

The real problem the West has dealing with China is that China knows us better than we know China, and better than we know ourselves.

China knows that everything in the West has a price; they know that everything is for sale.

But we tell ourselves that we are honourable and upright, that we have loyalty, that we make decisions based on rational consideration of competing facts.

China doesn’t believe that because they can see there’s no evidence of it. ACRI is a good example.