Media in the Asian Century

Jul 17, 2020

Australian media lead the anti-China campaign.

Eyes and ears closing

This week the China Matters institute, dedicated to second-track contact by political and business leaders, learned that its funding from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has ended, following an earlier decision by the Defence Department and a “review” by Attorney-Generals. A small trickle continues from the Industry portfolio. In addition, the institute has been denied tax deductible status for donations. Effectively, says director Michael Clifton, this means the option of philanthropical and business funding has been taken off the table.

As was the way of Canberra these days, advance notice of this was given to News Corp, whose Sunday tabloids wrote on June 14 how China Matters was “deeply problematic” and seen as working against Australia’s interests. The sniping at its expert figures like Peter Varghese and Dennis Richardson has continued. No apology has been forthcoming for the original article, though the journalist concerned has mentioned that China Matters sees her original article as wrong and defamatory.

But this is a government that can find $270 billion for defence and sees military tools as the way to “shape” our strategic environment, and can’t get anyone in China to pick up the phone. In response to renewed calls to address the “diplomatic deficit”, including from its own backbencher Dave Sharma, by announcing DFAT was cutting 60 jobs, including 10 from its already lean overseas postings.

Not that China isn’t doing its bit too. New York Times journalist Chris Buckley, an Australian, has just been told by Hong Kong’s immigration authority that his work permit would not be renewed. Buckley had worked in Beijing for two decades, for Reuters and then the NYT, becoming a world-leading reporter on Chinese affairs. Then China expelled some reporters for the Wall Street Journal over an oped written by someone else that called China the “sick man” of Asia because of Covid-19. The Trump administration withdrew visas for some 80 Chinese media people in the US. And in response to that, Beijing refused to extend the credentials of the main reporters for the NYT, the WSJ, and the Washington Post, including Buckley. Now they’re being shut out of Hong Kong, the next best reporting post on China.

Hearts and minds

Meanwhile, the battle for the hearts and minds of Australia’s 600,000 Mandarin speakers is heating up, drawing the support of Washington. In the South China Morning Post, reporter John Power broke the news that a new Chinese language website called Decode China was starting in Australia, funded by a London-based outfit called the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, described as a non-profit that “works with the US Department of State to disseminate and manage grants around the world.”

The report said Feng Chongyi, an associate professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, and Wai Ling Yeung, former head of Chinese Studies at Curtin University, were listed as directors of Sydney-based Decode China Pty Ltd. Maree Ma, general manager of Falun Gong-connected media group Vision Times, is listed as company secretary. These are all critical of Beijing.

Ma herself is an increasingly influential player, as is Yeung. Both are on the advisory board of the federal government’s new National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, which replaced the longstanding Australia-China Council in February and comes under DFAT. China scholar John Fitzgerald and the Indophile head of the ANU National Security College Rory Medcalf are two other advocates of a tougher line with China. The Chinese-Australians on the board are drawn from an older Cantonese or Southeast Asian diaspora rather than from more recent northern Chinese groups. Leavening comes from two experienced journalists (Peter Cai and Rowan Callick), scientist and ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt, Cochlear chief Dig Howitt.

Overall, a China-sceptical line-up. Appointment of a figure from Falun Gong, dedicated to the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party, seems additionally barbed. The former Liberal minister and banker Warwick Smith, who is active in trade and investment with China, was chair of the Australia-China Council previously but quickly resigned from the foundation after being appointed its inaugural chairman. It’s not hard to see why.

Give us your wealthy masses

Following the imposition of the new national security law in Hong Kong, Canberra’s press gallery hailed Scott Morrison for offering a “safe haven” for Hongkongers fleeing the reduction in their freedoms. When Morrison actually detailed his plans, it turned out to be a rather predatory exercise in reaping expertise and money from Hong Kong’s turmoil, with no special intake for political refugees. Should a bunch of democracy activists, fleeing extradition to the mainland’s gulags, get a boat and make it to Darwin, they would be sent to Nauru under current policy. Instead, they should just apply at the consulate and hope no-one notices while they wait. Morrison has also suspended Australia’s extradition arrangement with Hong Kong, which was always run in a fickle way such as in the 2004 refusal to hand over two fugitive Australians charged in a construction scandal. Travel warnings were then issued by Canberra and Beijing in a diplomatic exchange of verbal fire.

The Australian, meanwhile, was worried that hidden in the new flow of migrants from Hong Kong could be secret agents of Beijing. Canberra reporter Ben Packham told us on July 13 that “Hong Kong nationals living in Australia are urging the Morrison government to undertake strict political vetting of those fleeing the territory, fearing Chinese Communist Party supporters could take advantage of Scott Morrison’s resettlement offer. Security experts warn Beijing could use the opportunity to plant sleeper agents in Australia, while the sons and daughters of senior CCP officials studying in Australia could also seek a path to permanent residency.”

Only one source was named, one Jane Poon, from a pro-democracy group called Australia-Hong Kong Link. Fortunately, as the newspaper intoned in an editorial the next day, acting immigration minister Alan Tudge had given assurances that ASIO was on the case, applying security vetting to all intending migrants. And while Hong Kong refugees and migrants would be targets of the Chinese Communist Party’s global influence arm, the United Front Work Department, “this vast network of subversion — influencing politicians, meddling in Chinese communities and stealing technologies — has been well documented by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.”

Our security is in the best of all possible hands.

Counting the cost

What next? Former trade minister Craig Emerson warned in the Australian Financial Review that China would be looking to reduce its dependency on Australian supplies. On Tuesday, National Farmers Federation president Fiona Simson said her members were deeply worried about losing more of their markets. So far, News Corp has spared her from accusations of selling out principles.

Surely this is one for Sharri Markson, newly elevated from Sydney’s Daily Telegraph to The Australian to lead investigations. In one of her farewell pieces for the Tele on July 11, she commended the PM for his moves on Hong Kong: “Morrison’s approach puts sovereignty and national security ahead of economic prosperity… Behind the scenes, Morrison, like Tony Abbott before him, is clear-eyed about China’s ultimate intention – which is, to put it bluntly, to control the world, including Australia.”

She contrasted this with Julie Bishop’s efforts to get an extradition treaty concluded with China itself only three years ago. “DFAT’s advice supported this move – indicating major problems within the public service – and there was pressure from Beijing to make it happen,” she noted. Turnbull had fallen for it too. Thankfully, Markson tells us, stiff opposition by three backbenchers now in the “Wolverine” group had thwarted it.

Meanwhile Andrew Tillett in the AFR was quick to point out that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration this week that China’s Nine Dash Line and claims over underwater features in the South China Sea had no legal standing would lead to more pressure to join US naval operations there.

The latest Australian Foreign Affairs edition had the staggering revelation that China had large intelligence services, which The Sydney Morning Herald said would make “uncomfortable reading for some.”

But in case this prompts ASIO to out the spooks in China’s embassy and consulates, a strangely-downplayed Global Times story on June 28 suggests Beijing is ready for tit-for-tat expulsion of our diplomats.

A “source within a Chinese law-enforcement agency” had told the Beijing tabloid that

“Australian security intelligence agencies set up a Beijing intelligence station in the Australian Embassy in China, and this station is the most senior level one in East Asia, which also serves as a junction center to manage Australia’s espionage activities in other countries in the region such as Japan, South Korea and Mongolia. Australian security intelligence agencies have deployed multiple intelligence officers in the station and they have status as Australian diplomats in China (which means they have diplomatic immunity), and their missions in China also include inciting defections, intelligence gathering and cross-linking.”

Pulling the plug on Huawei

Boris Johnson’s capitulation to US pressure by banning Huawei from even the minor part previous allowed in Britain’s 5G mobile network drew we-told-you-so responses that the British had last seen common sense like Canberra. In the Sydney Morning Herald, London-based reporter Latika Bourke said DFAT had previously been behind the game by advising MPs and officials that efforts to persuade London against Huawei had been “counter-productive” and a “lost cause.”

“DFAT was proved wrong,” Bourke declared. “As were the countless critics of the rebels – the fight had been far from over and was still to be won; a salient reminder that values, and not economics are the new organising principle of politics.”

As Boris said himself, in the earlier context of business objections to Brexit, “F**k business.”

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