Kevin Rudd
(Image: AAP/Dan Peled)

Kevin Rudd has landed back in Australia with a splash to set up a Melbourne outpost of the US-based Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI).

Rudd, as ASPI’s president, managed to nab the services of former senior Australian diplomats Richard Maude and Patrick Suckling as senior fellows.

The funding of the ASPI has been connected to senior Chinese government-linked figures and apologists, as well as firms with Chinese interests. This has long raised questions with critics over the institute’s ability to be balanced on China.

Rudd’s more recent connections to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department — responsible for cultivating Chinese influence overseas — and his published musings on the country’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak only add to those concerns.

Changing his tune

Rudd became persona non-grata in Beijing in May 2008, early in his prime ministership, when he took Beijing to task over its record in Tibet.

He was frozen out by Beijing during the reminder of his term and shunned during his subsequent stint as foreign minister.

In an April 2009 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, it was revealed Rudd called himself “a brutal realist on China”, looking towards “integrating China effectively into the international community and allowing it to demonstrate greater responsibility”.

Since taking the reins of ASPI in 2015, a post for which he was allegedly not the first choice, he has sharply changed tack, working overtime to regain access to the top tables in Beijing.

He has attacked scholars who challenge China, such as well-respected US academic David Shambaugh, as well as politicians including Malcolm Turnbull and Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie.

He has soft-peddled any criticism of China’s authoritarian regime and studiously avoided its appalling human rights record.

Critics of Rudd point to his serial historical inaccuracies — his often lazy repetition of rote China 101 commentary mistakes in line with another CCP narrative of China’s “humiliation” by western powers.

They also accuse Rudd of apparent self-censorship on key issues like Hong Kong and misguided praise of Xi Jinping’s economic management.

The funding

A look at ASPI’s funding and Rudd’s own salary provide many clues as to why he has performed such a complete backflip on China and its leadership.

The policy institute’s website lists 12 personnel and two corporate donors as founding contributors, including Asia Society global chair emeritus Ronnie Chan, Blackstone Group founder Stephen A. Schwarzman, and Chinese-American businessman Chen Guoqing.

The Asia Society — of which ASPI is a policy arm — is extremely well funded, receiving more than US$27 million in 2018 according to its own declarations.

Chan has clear Beijing sympathies, being at the centre of a storm in 2018 when he blocked the appearance of Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong at an Asia Society Hong Kong function.

Schwarzman found himself in Beijing’s bad books when Blackstone was an investment manager for China’s sovereign wealth fund, losing money during the global financial crisis. Following this he poured $100 million of his own money into the China-friendly Schwarzman Scholars program.

The fund was widely seen as recompense for his company’s investment failures.

But the involvement of Chen Guoqing in founding and funding ASPI is perhaps the most problematic.

Chen is the co-founder and North American chairman of the HNA Group, a US$100 billion conglomerate based in Hainan province and chaired by his brother Chen Feng. The company is linked to Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan and spends substantial sums in targeted donations.

The salary

Rudd is one of the highest paid employees of any US think tank, according to charity watchdog Charity Watch. He earned US$922,253 (AU$1,369,105) in 2018.

His pay is higher than his Asia Society president Josette Sheeran, who earned an estimated US$908,552 in 2018.

Rudd’s latest pronouncements on China, delivered at the annual Munich Security Conference in February, fit perfectly with the Communist Party’s narrative about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak — stating that, “the crisis, once resolved, will not change how China is governed in the future”.

This stands in contrast to range of views that the pandemic has exposed systematic flaws in the centralised system promoted by Xi.

Rudd also completely omitted any mention of the unprecedented, widespread public anger at the Chinese government over its handling of the crisis (which some have likened to Soviet Russia’s Chernobyl cover up).

There is irony in Rudd’s outfit sharing an acronym with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute — a Canberra-based defence think tank funded by taxpayers, global arms dealers and Australian corporates. That institute is decidedly hawkish on China.

So maybe, in toto, the combined output of both ASPIs will in fact provide some kind of balanced view on China.