Does China matter any more?

Jul 4, 2024
Closeup shot of male finger pointing at China on globe

China Matters has gone, and that is a tragedy. Australia lost a valuable think tank that could provide policy advice at a critical juncture of Australia-China relations. The implementation of the government hatchet job is set out in detail in Margaret Simon’s extended article, Red Flags, in the latest Monthly, and in Hamish McDonald’s article in Inside Story on 22 April.

For those of us who care about relations with China, and who have been engaged in China Studies, it has felt like a knife turning in a wound. What is lacking in these two accounts is an exposure of the viciousness and vindictiveness of the episode.

How did this country turn from one that valued relations with China to one where the very topic, the word, the concept of China was practically banned from public discourse? China Matters is a prominent casualty. There are others: the ANU’s China In the World Centre, founded by Kevin Rudd in 2010 with great fanfare, is now a shadow of its former glory; the BHP-Billiton Chair in Australian Studies at Peking University is no more; the fate of several centres of Chinese Studies at Australian universities is hanging by a thread. Companies, university vice-chancellors and government agencies, all try to avoid involvement with China. Where now can we look for China expertise?

Margaret Simons makes it clear in her article that China Matters was not at fault. The Board of Directors included the late Allan Gyngell, Heather Smith and Michael Wesley, and was chaired by Kevin McCann, former chair of Macquarie Bank. The Deputy Chair, Linda Jakobson, founded China Matters in 2014 after more than 20 years in China including work for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and several years as East Asia program director for the Lowy Institute. Financial support for the new body came from the government and from businesses with interests in China including Rio Tinto and PwC. Linda Jakobson’s general approach can be gauged from a paper that she wrote for Lowy in 2012 where she argued that relations with China demanded engagement, understanding, nuance and complexity. The policy briefs commissioned by the think tank are still available from their website. As promised in Linda’s paper, they reflect a diversity of views, from experts including Michael Wesley, Peter Varghese and James Curran. 

Why then were these voices silenced? Margaret Simons quotes Justin Bassi, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), claiming that China Matters papers were “not consistently high quality” and “rarely at the standard to be provided… to senior decision-makers.” She says that versions of this criticism come from both sides of politics. Surely such an accusation could hardly be levelled at Allan Gyngell, generally regarded as Australia’s pre-eminent strategic thinker. He was a consistent supporter of China Matters, and scathing in his comments on the anti-China Wolverines of the Morrison government. In one email sent to Linda Jakobson he described them as having “so trivialised one of the most important issues in Australian foreign policy by self-describing themselves as if they were a gang and this was a video game or movie”. This hardly fits with the suggestion made to Margaret Simons from some of those “in the know” in Canberra that he had become a China Matters sceptic. It is a low blow to insinuate that he radically changed his position when he is no longer around to defend himself.

Other reasons for closing down China Matters asserted to Margaret Simons are summarised as “security concerns” raised by “various agencies”. No details are provided, but their “business model” is cited. Since no funds were accepted from outside Australia, this is hard to accept. China Matters had arranged some study tours to China, and these are described as problematic, because they involved meetings with Chinese Communist Party representatives, raising the “possibility of cultivation and longer-term inappropriate influence”. If Pearls and Irritations style guide accepted emojis, here I would insert the one for hysterical laughter – how could anyone get to understand China without interfacing with Party representatives? Finally, Margaret Simons is told that there were security concerns about China Matters Inaugural Fellow Yun Jiang, who took up that position after a career in the public service and whose status cannot have had any impact on the decision to defund the think tank since the appointment came after that decision. To me, this is simply another example of attempts by Liberal Party parliamentarians such as Eric Abetz to insinuate that Chinese Australians are innately disloyal to this country.

This is a sorry tale of slander and innuendo. Its impact in recent years has been sharpened by a continuing press campaign to highlight negative aspects of China and suggest that it has aggressive ambitions towards Australia. Here are some markers laid down over the last eight years: ABC Four Corners Power and Influence (2017); Clive Hamilton’s book Silent Invasion (2018); Nine Network 60 Minutes What the Five Eyes See (2023); Nine Newspapers Red Alert (2023). There have been some strident voices warning of war and worse. Few of them have language, in-country experience, or deep understanding of China, the land or its people, even relying on highly suspect sources such as the Falun Gong-linked Vision Times. I know who I would rather rely on.

(Jocelyn Chey is a former Associate of China Matters.)

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