JOCELYN CHEY: Turbo Charge or Tough It Out? The New Board for the Foundation for Australia-China Relations

Mar 4, 2020

One important category of Chinese Australians is not represented, and some choices seem calculated to prejudice improving relations with the People’s Republic of China. 

Foreign Minister Marise Payne last week revealed the membership of the Advisory Board of the new National Foundation for Australia-China Relations (NFACR). Judging from their backgrounds, the selection seems biased. One important category of Chinese Australians is not represented, and some choices seem calculated to prejudice improving relations with the People’s Republic of China. 

 The NFACR was announced a year ago when relations with China were at their nadir, and funded in 2019 with the first tranche of a promised $44 million over five years. The length of time it has taken to establish the Foundation suggests that either it has not been a top priority for the Morrison government or the intricacies of domestic and international politics have made it difficult to invite and compose a representative and cohesive team that have the potential to make a step shift in bilateral relations – a consummation devoutly to be desired.

When announcing the Foundation, Payne said it would “turbo-charge” relations with China. She specifically mentioned that it would support collaboration in fields outside the scope of the activities of the former Australia China Council including agriculture, infrastructure, health and ageing and the environment and energy. The Advisory Board is however a mix of academics, journalists and business leaders predominantly with business and finance backgrounds. The only scientist is Chancellor of the ANU, Brian Schmidt, an astrophysicist. Will he be able to advise on agriculture, health or the environment?

There are no artists or writers, although there is one arts administrator, Douglas Gautier of the Adelaide Arts Centre and Jason Yeap is Chair of the National Gallery of Victoria Foundation. There is no Indigenous representative, which is a major handicap to the Foundation’s work since Indigenous culture is widely appreciated already by Chinese audiences. Did anyone consider inviting Zhou Xiaoping, Chinese Australian artist who has spent decades studying Indigenous culture? On the positive side, it is good to see that Board members come from a variety of regional backgrounds and include a good proportion of women.

Extensive planning consultations were made over the last year regarding the potential role of the NFACR. I myself put some suggestions to the planning team at a meeting that I attended by invitation. I urged more support for Chinese language education and China-related research in Australia so that this country could build up future generations of China-literate leaders. As the first Executive Director of the Australia-China Council, I also drew on my extensive experience to emphasise that cultural exchanges were more likely to be successful if they were well supported by the community and not simply imposed from above by governments. I now await news from the new Foundation as to how they will shape their activities, but I am not hopeful of any breakthrough in bilateral relations for the following reasons:

First, one notable change in Australia since the establishment of the Australia-China Council in 1979 has been the increase in the ethnic Chinese population, now around five percent of our total. Although in the 1980s there was a large movement from Hong Kong but over the last twenty years that has been greatly exceeded by immigration from mainland China. These people are a diverse group, northerners, southerners, city folk and ethnic minorities such as Mongolians and Uighurs are all represented, and they represent a broad spectrum of political and social attitudes and beliefs, as Wanning Sun has described in Pearls and Irritations.

It is a great pity that none of the new NFACR Board come from this cohort; rather, they have fairly strong links with Hong Kong and South-East Asia. What that means is that none of the Board have had any experience of living in contemporary mainland Chinese society or understand its tensions and pressures on daily life. Essentially therefore, the ethnic Chinese component of the Board is not representative of the whole Chinese Australian community.

Second, in 2018 a major debate about relations with China arose in academic circles, prompted by Canberra’s review of national security legislation, aimed at limiting or preventing meddling in Australian politics by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – even though that country was not named in the text). Concerned about the implications of this legislation for researchers in Chinese studies, 79 scholars published an open letter to the government on 19 March, pointing out the difficulties the legislation could impose and how they could be suspected of being foreign agents if they expressed any positive opinions on developments in the PRC. Their letter was immediately countered by another open letter signed by 47 scholars who supported the proposed legislation on security grounds and who cited cases of undue influence already being exerted on campuses across Australia.

One would have expected that DFAT would have remained neutral in this debate but appointments to the NFACR Board show that it is on the side of the second open letter. Professor John Fitzgerald, President of the Academy of the Humanities, and Dr Wai-ling Yeung, retired from Curtin University, were both signatories to this. None of the Board members signed the first letter. Two other Board members, Helene Chung, former ABC Correspondent in China, and Maree Ma, manager of the virulently anti-China free Chinese language newspaper Vision China Times, have been vocal critics of PRC policies and activities.

I have no confidence that the NFACR will be able to “turbo-charge” relations with the PRC, as envisaged by Foreign Minister Marise Payne. The Board seems to be set up to register with Beijing and with our allies that we will continue a tough line against our powerful neighbout. Certainly, there is much to criticise about PRC domestic and international policies, but dialogue and breakthroughs that may lead to resolution of differences always start with a basis of trust and respect. Can this Board build such a foundation?

Jocelyn Chey was the Executive Director of the Australia-China Council 1979-84.

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