The US State Department is quietly funding a Chinese-language news service in Australia, a move more typically associated with China’s state media propagandists.
And two of the three office bearers of the news service, Decode China, are members of a taxpayer-funded independent board advising the Australian government on engagement with China.
Corporate records show Dr Wai Ling Yeung and Maree Ma became secretary and director, respectively, of Decode China Pty Ltd just eight weeks before Foreign Minister Marise Payne appointed them to the board of the National Foundation for Australia China Relations. The NFACR replaced the Australia China Council (ACC), which was set up by the Fraser government in 1978 and later chaired by former prime minister Gough Whitlam.
The retired Curtin University academic Dr Yeung is a vocal critic of the Chinese government, while Ma is the general manager of the Falun Gong-aligned, largely anti-Chinese government Vision Times newspaper. According to journalist and former Australian Falun Gong practitioner Ben Hurley, Vision Times is part of the apparatus of Falun Gong media in Australia, led by The Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty Television.
The spiritual group Falun Gong is banned in China and there is substantial evidence that its mainland Chinese followers are harshly persecuted by the Chinese government.
However, former practitioners say it’s a dangerous cult, whose leaders claim to have the power of levitation and tell followers that aliens from other planets are responsible for interracial marriage and mixed-race children.
Falun Gong-aligned media affiliates in the US have been accused of pouring millions of dollars into fake social media accounts and Facebook advertising, since banned, supporting Donald Trump. A recent investigation by the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent and Background Briefing programs revealed Falun Gong-affiliated media in the US have spent more than US$11.5 million in social media advertising to promote Trump.
ASPI lurking in the background
The US State Department funding of Decode China comes via a murky not-for-profit group the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), which was founded in the former Yugoslavia and is headquartered in London.
In 2018-19 the US State Department funnelled $88,964.37 into the coffers of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) through the IWPR, a payment that was never publicly declared. Though ASPI calls itself an independent think tank, its constant anti-China rhetoric has led one former cabinet minister to call it “the centre of Sinophobia” in Australia.
Another omission from ASPI’s public disclosures is a $203,000 payment this year from the US State Department, directed through the US Embassy in Canberra.
In July, a joint APAC News/Michael West Media investigation revealed that ASPI had received millions of dollars in undeclared Defence Department contracts.
Among some of the generous contracts, in October 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s department “sponsored” a free talk and light refreshments function for ASPI, which cost taxpayers almost $1000 per head.
ASPI’s cluster of cash
In 2018-19 ASPI picked up a $50,000 payment from Raytheon, which used to be one of the biggest manufacturers of cluster-bombs. Until 2016, the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund, Norway’s GPFG, blacklisted investment in Raytheon because of its involvement in cluster munitions.
Before becoming Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds worked as a project director at Raytheon. Her first speech in Australia after becoming minister was to an ASPI conference called “War in 2025.” A number of Defence Department personnel attended that conference for which they handed ASPI $30,723 of taxpayers’ money for the privilege of hearing their boss speak.
Last financial year Reynolds’ department gifted ASPI $1.7 million in contracts, over and above an annual grant of $4 million.
Trouble on the NFACR board
In March last year, when the Morrison government announced it would replace the Australia China Council with the National Foundation for Australia China Relations, it was to be chaired by incumbent ACC chairman Warwick Smith. A former Howard government minister, highly respected for his three decades of political and business experience with China, Smith was seen a sensible choice.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced the full membership of the board in February this year, and Smith quit NFACR a few weeks later.
A board of China sceptics
Along with Maree Ma, three other NFACR board members are linked to ASPI. Journalist Stan Grant is a Senior Fellow at ASPI, academic John Fitzgerald is an Emeritus Professor at ASPI and Rory Medcalf is a contributor to ASPI magazine The Strategist.
A number of NFACR board members have either been openly antagonistic towards the Chinese government or have little or no experience in northern China, from where the majority of Chinese-Australians trace their ancestry.
Long-time China observer and former Sydney Morning Herald foreign editor Hamish McDonald recently described the board as “Overall, a China-sceptical line-up”. Meanwhile, academic and former executive director of the Australia China Council, Jocelyn Chey, has criticised the NFACR as being unrepresentative, saying she has “no confidence” it can repair China-Australia relations.
Note: While articles by Marcus Reubenstein have been republished by some Chinese media outlets, he has no editorial or commercial arrangements with such media.