Academic engagement with China is not a security risk: it is an investment in a shared more liberal world

The Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020 currently before the Parliament would require State and Territory entities to seek the approval of the Minister for Foreign Affairs for any proposed ‘arrangement’ with a ‘core foreign entity’; existing ‘arrangements’ would also be subject to approval. The bill may be presented as ‘country agnostic’ but there is little doubt that its intent is to constrain ‘arrangements’ State and Territory entities have with China in particular. Included in the definition of ‘entities’ are universities.

The Go8 has rightly attacked the bill as ‘unnecessary and duplicative’ in its inclusion of universities and has highlighted how broad the definition of ‘arrangements’ is in the bill – ‘any written arrangement, agreement, contract, understanding or undertaking’.

More importantly, the bill represents over-reach and a misunderstanding of the role of academic engagement internationally. Rather than representing a security risk, academic engagement with China should be considered a valuable investment towards a shared appreciation of the value of liberalism and enlightenment.

I am not naïve about China under President Xi Jinping. He has strengthened the CCP’s authoritarian control and retreated from earlier moves towards political as well as economic reform. In doing so, I believe he is jeopardising China’s continued economic growth and rising living standards, albeit that might not become apparent for some years.

But China is a far more open society today than it was under Mao, a consequence of the market reforms and decentralisation policies pioneered by Deng Xiaoping. It is still a one-party state, and there are controls (some increasing) over access to information and travel, but huge numbers of people move around the country and travel overseas (pre-COVID), have access to the internet and international information and entertainment, and use mobile phones constantly. The expansion of academic exchanges is an important part of this ‘opening up’ which is changing China, offering opportunities to recognise shared interests and to reduce differences and misunderstandings.

Even within the CCP, there are differences of view amongst its 80 million members. Some join the Party because of genuine enthusiasm for its ideology (though the ideology behind China’s ‘socialist market economy’ is rather confused), some genuinely see membership as the means to better serve the public, some join for pure self-interest in power, promotion and money, and some simply because it is easier for them in their positions than not joining.

For ten years now I have helped to manage the Greater China Australia Dialogue on Public Administration holding workshops each year attended by academics from across Greater China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) and Australia (ANU and ANZSOG taking the lead here). Most workshops have also involved senior Australian practitioners from the Commonwealth and/or State and local governments and have included a session dedicated to engagement with Chinese local government practitioners. Papers arising from the workshops have been published in ANU Press books and in symposia in various academic journals; they can be accessed via the ANZSOG website.

Articles published in the latest issue of the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Administration from our 2019 workshop demonstrate the value of this engagement with China, including with government officials who are almost certainly CCP members. The workshop theme was ‘Taking advantage of new technology in the public sector’. From the Chinese side, two fascinating papers were published. One describes how the Guangzhou People’s Congress is using new technology to improve its capacity to oversee the city’s proposed budget and budget performance. It acknowledges that the city legislature has a long way to go to provide a proper check on government and to ensure accountability, but it demonstrates serious interest in moving in that direction.

A second article describes the evolution of the way Chinese governments work with the private sector to make best use of technology for the delivery of public services. It highlights the improvements being achieved through collaborative partnerships, but it also acknowledges the challenges involved – many familiar to Australians such as managing conflicts of interest, addressing privacy, ensuring accountability and value for money, and maintaining competitive neutrality.

The Australian articles are no less interesting both for Australians and for illustrating the issues our Chinese colleagues are interested in. Paul Henman from UQU provides an overview of the opportunities and challenges in using AI – if only Commonwealth officials had considered his messages before embarking on Robodebt. Dennis Trewin, former Australia Statistician, presents a detailed guide to those managing agencies that are heavy users of big data on how best to manage new technology. Richard Bartlett, then with the APS Commission, describes the professions model the APSC is introducing including for a digital profession. Rob Bray, Matthew Gray, and David Stanton from ANU examine performance management and evaluation including the opportunities offered by big data. They highlight the tension between politics and evidence-based performance management and evaluation, identifying cases where politics seem to have been given too much priority.

Now I am sure the bill before the Parliament is not intended to prohibit the sort of engagement with China that I am involved in. Equally, however, I doubt its proponents appreciate or are concerned about, how it might be perceived both in China and in Australia. We should be making more effort to engage, not less, and to recognise the extent of genuine interest amongst academics in China in collaboration and shared learning that might promote a more liberal world. The problem is not only on the Chinese side.

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Andrew Stuart Podger, AO is a retired Australian senior public servant. He is currently Professor of Public Policy at the Australian National University.

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