One of the most persistent questions surrounding the think tanks is who funds them.
In the unending hunt for research funding, think tanks that keep their sources of money secret are often suspected of becoming vehicles for the donors’ agenda.
These lingering suspicions have threatened to overshadow the work of the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI), even after it publicised its sources of donations.
To get to know some of the behind-the-scenes advisers to Australia’s influential policymakers, The New Daily has spoken to some of our most influential think tanks about their work, aims and achievements.
Founded in 2014, ACRI is based at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and until 2016 stated its aim as promoting “a positive and optimistic view of Australia-China relations”.
Part of its revised mission is “to inform Australia’s engagement with China through research, analysis and dialogue grounded in scholarly rigour”.
ACRI acting director Professor James Laurenceson said the body was credited by former trade minister Andrew Robb for playing a key role in setting out the facts of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA).
Since the federal government struck the free trade deal with the world’s second biggest economy more than three years ago, Professor Laurenceson said Australia has had fewer Chinese workers and more Australians in jobs.
“I said in 2015 that the claim thousands of jobs would go to Chinese workers rather than Australians as a result of ChAFTA wasn’t supported by the facts. That assessment has proven correct,” he said.
“I advocated for the enabling legislation to be passed based on my assessment of the facts… Yet some critics have pointed to my support of ChAFTA as evidence that I am pro-Beijing.”
One of those critics, Dr James Leibold, a China expert at La Trobe University, believes ACRI presents a great reputational risk to UTS, telling The New Daily it has shattered its credibility beyond repair.
Dr Leibold levelled much of the blame on ACRI’s founding chairman Huang Xiangmo, a Communist Party-linked billionaire businessman barred from entering Australia over foreign influence concerns.
To get ACRI off the ground, Mr Huang, who founded the Chinese property development company Yuhu, donated $1.8 million in three annual instalments of $588,000, beginning in 2014.
After migrating to Australia in 2011, Mr Huang became a prominent political donor, contributing around $3 million to major parties.
In 2015, he attracted notoriety by paying a $5000 legal bill for Sam Dastyari after the former Labor senator was sued by an advertising firm over his conduct when he was general secretary with NSW Labor.
A year later, the Global Times, a Communist Party-owned Chinese newspaper, quoted Mr Huang as saying “political demands and political donations” should be “more organically and effectively linked”.
Dozens of high-profile Australian journalists have been flown to China on all-expenses-paid trips at the invitation of Mr Huang’s then-director, ex-foreign minister Bob Carr and the All-China Journalists Association, according to local Chinese-language media.
One group in 2016 collectively published 15 articles upon their return, objectively conveying China’s voice and detailing how Australia could benefit from China’s economic growth.
Professor Laurenceson asserted he is no “CCP stooge”, pointing to multiple examples of where he has been critical of China’s ruling Communist Party.
“Could a critic cherry-pick some of my other quotes to imply I am a [Communist Party] stooge? Of course, but that would reflect their dishonesty and political agenda, not the quality and independence of my work,” he said.
Professor John Fitzgerald, a China expert at Swinburne University, said ACRI is “damaging to rational public debate about an important bilateral relationship – one that Australia urgently needs to get right”.
“[Bob] Carr set the agenda and tone for the institute. Whatever the topic under discussion in Australia … Carr invariably reverted to the same script in denying problems on the Chinese side while simultaneously criticising Australians who saw any problems on the other,” Professor Fitzgerald told TND.
“That kind of biased commentary and name calling belongs in party politics, not universities.”
Six authors of commissioned research papers published on the ACRI website, two of whom are employed by ACRI, told TND there was no undue interference from the think tank in compiling their report and they were able to undertake research without influence from the Chinese government.
Professor Brendan Taylor from the Australian National University, who co-authored a paper about the East China Sea, said many of the report’s findings and recommendations would have been objectionable to China, but Mr Carr “wanted a completely independent piece of research”.
Local Chinese-language media have reported that Mr Carr regularly met visiting Communist Party officials during his tenure.
For example, in 2016, Mr Carr attended a symposium with China’s Propaganda Minister Liu Qibao, according to Xinhua, China’s official news agency.
There, Mr Carr reportedly said he would fly an Australian journalist to China to witness the country’s economic transformation and better understand the Communist Party’s 13th five-year plan.
Mr Carr did not respond to TND‘s request for comment.
This is the last story in our Think Tank series.
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