It was impressive timing: no sooner had the Chinese government banned Liberal MP Andrew Hastie and Victorian Liberal senator James Paterson from visiting China as part of a study tour and demanded they “repent and redress their mistakes” and “unwarranted attacks” on China’s human rights record, than we learnt in forensic detail that responsibility for Beijing’s horrific oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang goes to the very top.
President-for-life Xi Jinping has, we now know, personally demanded “absolutely no mercy” in the suppression of Uyghurs, transforming Xinjiang into, in effect, one colossal prison camp.
And for a local angle, it was only a couple of days after the Financial Review had revealed that the Chinese consulate in Sydney had been involved in mustering Chinese community support for a Labor-linked mayor with his own Communist Party links. It’s another demonstration of the extent to which Beijing directly interferes in Australian politics, and the willingness of many within NSW Labor to be co-opted by and apologise for Chinese interests.
Which brings us to China Matters, the group that had organised the study tour for Hastie, Paterson and, according to reports, Labor’s Matt Keogh.
Study tours can be a highly effective way for foreign governments to exercise influence over political debate in Australia. The Israel lobby in Australia has for many years organised study tours designed to educate politicians and media representatives about Israel’s security needs and the necessity of its ever-expanding, illegal annexation of Palestinian land. The Taiwanese government has also used tours to demonstrate to MPs that a vibrant Chinese democracy is perfectly possible.
China Matters has no apparent links to the Chinese government — indeed, it lists the Australian government as an official supporter, and former head of Prime Minister and Cabinet Martin Parkinson endorsed their study tours. It “strives to advance sound China policy … We generate public debate about Australia’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China, which aims to inject nuance and realism into discussions … with the goal of formulating recommendations and providing analysis on how these policy challenges are viewed in Beijing.”
The Hastie/Paterson/Keogh trip would have been the third study tour; one was held last year, with Chris Bowen and Liberal MP Julian Leeser; another in September with Tanya Plibersek, Richard Marles, Ted O’Brien and business and peak-body representatives, including the National Farmers Federation’s Fiona Simson.
So who’s behind China Matters? The presence of Hugh White on the body’s advisory council, and Geoff Raby as an “associate”, should give an indication of China Matters’ perspective.
Both are enthusiastic apologists for Beijing: Raby called for then-foreign minister Julie Bishop to be sacked for criticising China and replaced with someone “who has a grasp of the profound challenges Australia faces in the rapidly evolving new world order being shaped, in large measure by China”. The board of directors includes Stephen Fitzgerald, a vocal opponent of the Turnbull government’s approach to China relations, who has argued that “we live in a Chinese world” and that Chinese influence “is not bad, threatening or malign. Most is in fact benign, beneficial to us …”
But the presence of numerous business figures in China Matters is the key to understanding it. This is no China front group or Beijing-funded “study centre”, nor is it funded by Beijing-aligned billionaires. It is backed by Rio Tinto, PWC, minerals hauler Aurizon, Star Casino and ANU — all of whom have a strong financial interest in maintaining good relations with China.
The group is chaired by business doyen and long-time China booster Kevin McCann and includes mining industry veteran Andrew Michelmore. Star’s John O’Neill is on the advisory council, as is Australia China Business Council member Laurie Smith and CHAMP Ventures’ Su-Ming Wong and Vantage Asia’s Jason Yat-sen Li.
China Matters thus represents the concerns of Australian business about how Australian political debate, and commentary about China, “are viewed in Beijing”, and the capacity for such debate and commentary to destabilise and endanger lucrative commercial opportunities for Australian business.
It would prefer strident criticism to be kept out of public, behind closed doors, where there is less risk of it upsetting Beijing and endangering business opportunities across minerals exports, education services, gambling and finance.
Ironically, Beijing’s froth-mouthed reaction to Hastie and Paterson has only served to draw attention to its human rights abuses and thin-skinned reaction to any criticism.