The extraordinary ambush of China Matters.

We have been caught in the slipstream of Donald Trump’s increasingly erratic struggle against overwhelming adversity . 

On Sunday 14 June the Sunday Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph carried a sensational two page article with the large headline “Pushing Back On China’s Grip.” A sub-heading explained: “Government cuts taxpayer cash to Beijing think tank courting our rich and powerful.” It was an extraordinary way to describe China Matters—“a Beijing think tank in China’s grip”. But explanatory text went even further. The funding pipeline ‘had been cut off after concerns it was lobbying against Australia’s national interests.’ And what might be an ever more serious blow the government planned to reverse a decision to grant China Matters what is known as deductible gift registration making it harder to raise funds from donors.

Responding to the article Kevin McCann, Chair of the Board of Directors, protested that the offending piece contained demonstrable falsehoods and defamatory insinuations about the work of his organisation and the’ supporter circle of the organisation.’ The papers neither answered the letter nor published it.

Numerous questions beg for answers. How was the ambush organised and why? Why did the government announce its intention by way of a sensational article in the Murdoch press? And who leaked the information in the first place? There is no attribution in the article apart from an aside referring to Attorney-General Christian Porter. So no-one took responsibility for the main thrust of the piece. But more significantly no-one has subsequently disowned it let alone come to the defence of China Matters. Did no-one care that a large group of highly respectable and expert Australians were accused of working against our national interest, of behaviour tantamount to treason? Of being in China’s grip? How to explain the wildly irresponsible and shameless character assassination? And why has China Matters fallen so far from grace. The intention of the present government it would seem is not to publicly disagree with the organisation but to destroy it. But why?

China Matters has worked comfortably with Australian governments since its foundation in 2014. It represents a coalition of China experts more impressive than any comparable collective within government or academia. Its stated goals are quite unexceptional. It was established to ‘ stimulate a realistic and nuanced discussion of the PRC among Australian business, government and the security establishment’, and advance sound policy on ‘the complexities, opportunities, and challenges’ of the relationship with China. As Kevin McCann observed in his letter of protest:

 Advocacy of ongoing engagement with the PRC does not make one a stooge of the     Communist Party or an agent of influence. One can call out the government in Beijing and at the same time strongly support – in the national interest—engagement with the PRC . What is detrimental to Australia’s national interest is the labelling of such people as pro-Beijing.

The attack on China Matters assumes greater significance because it is symptomatic of a dramatic and sudden sea-change in Australian defence and foreign policies. Nine months ago Prime Minister Morrison was still declaring that Australia did not have to choose between America and China. Now all uncertainty has vanished. We have decided China is an enemy. It is now commonplace to declare we are standing up to China. We court the country’s enmity and do so proudly. On reflection that seems to be the obvious explanation for the call of both Morrison and Marise Payne for an international investigation team to probe into the origins of the Carona virus.It was a fight of choice.

So without any debate or public consultation we have begun a journey with no clear time line, no declared destination and one fraught with danger. Why has this happened? What has so suddenly shifted in our environment? The assertion that China’s behaviour has changed dramatically is of little cogency. Nor is the argument that Covid 19 has upended everything. Clearly we have been caught in the slipstream of Donald Trump’s increasingly erratic struggle against overwhelming adversity. Before the sudden upsurge of protest about racism and inequality he had clearly decided to centre his whole re-election strategy on hostility to China which was to take the place of the refugees from Mexico and Central America .He has returned to the anti-Chinese script in recent days. As his support falters his rhetoric becomes increasingly irresponsible. Such policy shifts in Washington are hard for our governments to resist at the best of times. The dangerous vagaries of the Trump campaign strategy aside it is clearly in America’s interest to disrupt Australia’s relations with China, the mutually beneficial economic synergy notwithstanding. Whether that is in Australia’s long term interest is another matter all- together.

But the sudden plunge into a new cold war has vivified Australia’s own home grown troupe of sinophobes. They clearly believe their time has come. Their prints are all over the ambush of China Matters. Word is that it was initiated by a cabal of far right activists on the coalition backbench and in strategic positons in key ministerial offices. They obviously have close relations with the Murdoch media. Clearly there is no tolerance for anyone not willing to march with them on their hot headed crusade to stand up to China.

Two conclusions follow. China Matters was chosen for punishment as way to signal to anyone involved with China that there will be consequences for seeking constructive engagement. The fact that the organisation had the support of prominent figures in business, academia and government made it the perfect target to illustrate where power now resides and that the capture of foreign policy by the defence and security establishment is now complete, a putsch well illustrated by today’s announcement of cuts the DFAT’s budget.

But more general concerns confront us. We see re-emerging the worst aspects of the cold war from among a generation which has no memories reaching back to the 1950’s and 1960’s. So here we go again. Anyone showing interest in China let alone measured admiration is assumed to be under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party or at best a fellow traveller. The threat to Australian intellectual life is manifest. It is even more dire for the local Chinese diaspora. If like any other of our migrant communities they express warm feelings for their homeland, their culture and traditions they run the danger of being called un-Australian and in the thrall of the communist party.

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Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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