Australia and China: what went wrong?
Relations between Australia and China appear to be at an all-time low. Obviously, it hasn’t always been like this and there do appear to be genuine reasons for the deterioration. But the reasons aren’t what we think they are. In fact, the real reasons might surprise a lot of people. They are more about perceptions than reality. Scanning the headlines shows serious problems but looking a little closer into some data, statistics and analysis will, as always, provide a much different picture.
Back in 2015 Australia and China finally signed a Free Trade Agreement, it had been several years in preparation but things were looking great, the number of Chinese tourists heading downunder was increasing the number of Chinese students was at an all time high. Trade was increasing and looked certain to continue upwards. China is, after all, one of the few countries in the world which seems to have an increasing amount of disposable income. It has the highest number of millionaires after the USA, with a total of 5.3 million and ranks second in billionaires too, with over 600 of them, the most famous being Jack Ma who, surprisingly, isn’t the richest, he ranks fifth on Forbes list.
China is also the only advanced country in the world with a growing economy at the moment, more money pours into China than into any other nation. And, at the same time, a lot of money flows out of China too, through their tourism, education costs and imports. 2021, despite being a pandemic year reached a record high trading surplus of $676.4 billion USD, exports grew at 29.9% and imports by 30%. A lot of these imports were and, despite media rhetoric to the contrary, still are Australian products and resources.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Australia’s imports from, and exports to China are substantial, so substantial that China is, by a long way, Australia’s best customer. With over $90 billion in exports from Australia, China dwarfs Japan at No2 with $19 billion and, while most Australians think of the US and the UK as being important trading partners, the facts are very different; exports to China are 7 times bigger than the USA’s $13.1billion and 9 times bigger than the UK’s $10 billion.
Quite simply put, Australia engaging in arguments with China are a complete folly yet they continue to happen at the diplomatic, political and media level, although, thank goodness, not at a business level.
Mark Twain said: “if you don’t read the newspapers, you are uninformed and if you do read the newspapers you are misinformed”. A quick look at real data provided by DFAT, indicates that the vast majority of Australians either read the news and are being misinformed or perhaps they don’t read the news but are still being misinformed by politicians and their friends because public opinion on China appears to be widely negative.
Some of the more widely held misperceptions about China are: that it’s buying up Australia — it isn’t; It’s a regional military power with a view to international hegemony and global tyranny — it isn’t; it’s a trading bully which makes unreasonable demands — it doesn’t and, it’s a gross violator of human rights — it isn’t one of those either. How these misperceptions came to be reality is very simply explained.
Rupert Murdoch, as most people know, or at least if they don’t know, they ought to inform themselves, owns a significant amount of print media (more than 100 newspapers in a country of only 26 million people) but in terms of circulation it’s very high. It’s quite safe to say that if you read an Australian newspaper, it’s almost 90% likely to be owned by one of the two dominant publishers: Murdoch’s Newscorp or Fairfax news. Rather disconcertingly, Murdoch’s ownership is twice that of Fairfax. He also owns Sky TV and has a significant share in Fox sports. His YouTube and Facebook channels outperform traditional TV channels. Put bluntly, any Australian who surfs, reads, watches or listens to news is almost certainly consuming news that one of Rupert Murdoch’s current or former employees contributed to. If this doesn’t worry an Australian news consumer, then it should, it certainly worries two former Prime Ministers, Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd, who have put aside their political differences to work together in bringing about changes to this insidious situation.
Knowledge of Murdoch’s ownership of, and influence in, news media is important to Australians, especially in light of the political, diplomatic and perceived trade tensions. It can be the greatest source of misinformation, not necessarily created by direct lies but often by interpretations of data and facts that can easily lead the consumer to incorrect conclusions. Just think to yourself: how often does a news headline finish with a question mark, doing this might provide a good indication on how your opinion is being manipulated and prevents the news media outlet from being sued — you can’t be sued for posing a question but it certainly drives the narrative.
It is well known that Murdoch is no fan of China. During the 1980s and 90s Murdoch made several forays into Hong Kong’s media with purchases of prominent outlets, during the period he attempted to buy TVB but failed when it became apparent that the Chinese government would not allow the expansion of foreign owned broadcasting into the mainland, after considerable costs, he pulled out of that deal. Shortly afterwards he acquired Star TV and, once again failed to gain the rights to broadcast into the mainland, he reorganised that and through it, became a media figure in both India and Indonesia but sold his interests in the HK broadcaster. He also was the owner for a period of time of the South China Morning Post but had divested himself of that once he took possession of Star TV. His efforts to gain entry into the world’s largest market, the Mainland of China had been thwarted. Many have questioned why Murdoch would have continued such an expensive gamble into Hong Kong television if he knew he was unable to enter the Chinese market through TVB or with print media.
One reason may have been the influence of one of the executives of Star TV, a Mainland Chinese graduate of Yale called Wendy Deng, or Deng Wen Di. She became Murdoch’s third wife and mother of two of his 6 children. However, the CIA apparently informed Murdoch that his wife may have been an agent of the Chinese Intelligence services. Whether this is true or not is questionable but, given his incurred costs and failures in an industry he is not known to have failed in previously or since, there are considerable reasons for him to leave the Hong Kong market, and his Chinese wife, with a strong dislike of the Chinese government. His global news outlets now regularly convey that dislike. It is almost impossible to find a single item of news from any aspect of the Newscorp stable related to China with any degree of positivity. Even headlines which demonstrate China’s achievements such as the war on Covid-19 or the incredible Poverty Alleviation Successes come with caveats that the successes will be short lived, are unsustainable or not cost effective.
Moving on to the question of who really owns Australia. If we ask many Australians the answer will be Chinese or, until a few years ago probably Japanese. If that’s what Australians are thinking, they are wrong. Entering the question into an online search provides some interesting and different answers; according to Murdoch’s News.com.au it’s the UK at No1 and then China at No2. According to the European owned and, some might say, less biased Business Insider it’s the UK, USA, Netherlands, Singapore and then China with a laughable 0.4% of, mostly agricultural, land owned by the Chinese, much of it in joint ventures with Australian companies, for example a Tasmanian company (VDL) with 19,000 Hectares of land is 70% owned by two Chinese companies and 30% owned by Victorian based Lempriere family, a similar situation exists with an even larger Queensland based cotton farm. Not only are they joint ventures partly owned by Australians but they are also agricultural leases which will revert back at the end of the term to Australia. It seems that News.com.au may have misinterpreted leases as ownership and calculated China’s investments as 100% when they are shared with Australians, in order to present a different picture to its readers that China is “buying up” Australia. Another interpretation is that China are simply investing into the country to the mutual benefit of both citizenships.
Moving away from the media misinterpretations to look at the political ramifications there are a couple of things to be considered: Politicians need to be popular, if they aren’t they don’t remain politicians. In order to be popular, they need favourable news coverage and, as we’ve seen, much of that news coverage is controlled by one man. One man with a low opinion, of China. Popular politicians need to read public opinion and to an extent follow, rather than drive it. So, it’s in the interests of most politicians seeing the news is mostly anti-China for them to also be anti-China, whatever their private views. They must ensure they don’t fall foul of the country’s leading purveyor of news who can make them suffer the inevitable consequences of “trial by media” if they don’t toe the same line.
Moreover, in the case of our Australian politicians there’s another factor. That factor is National Security.
Back in 2001, the then Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, oversaw the founding of an independent institute to analyse and provide information to the government concerning strategic threats as well as to advise on how to defend against those threats. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) was born. At the time, funding was 100% government and the leadership of the organisation was under a respected, well-published and world renowned academic, Professor Hugh White. In 2005 and until 2012 the institute was under the leadership of a disciplined retired military commander, Major General Peter Abigail. Since 2012 though, the direction of ASPI changed under the helm of Peter Jennings a career civil servant. Since taking charge the Institute has changed from being a government funded advisory body to a more widely funded “think tank” with Australian government funding dropping to 37% in 2021 and a significant amount of the body’s funding now coming from four sources: other Australian government departments; foreign governments, including Taiwan and most significantly the USA; Technology companies (a recent task was to remove thousands of pro-China accounts from Twitter) and Military contractors. One of the more interesting inclusions among many weapons manufacturers is the NAVAL Group, a French organisation that specialises in building submarines. Jennings, as Executive Director of ASPI, in February 2016, was awarded the French decoration of the Knight in the Order of Legion of Honour. Quite likely, given the recent cancellation of those French submarines and the fact the President of France now believes the Prime Minister of Australia to be a liar, coupled with the considerable deterioration of both military and diplomatic relations between France and Australia, the French may very well be looking closely at whether that order can be rescinded.
Recent announcements of the scrapping of those conventional submarines, required for the defence of Australia, were a big surprise, especially to the French which had the contract to build them. What was more of a surprise is that the nuclear submarines which will replace them are not defensive, they are aggressive, attack subs.
ASPI is also pushing the Australian government along the path of purchasing the American B-21 Raider through an article called B-21 could be Australia’s best strike option in May of 2021. This long-range bomber is manufactured by an ASPI corporate sponsor, Northrop Grumman. Another recent announcement by the Defence secretary is that the Australian government will purchase, hypersonic rockets, from Thales they also purchase F35s from Lockheed Martin… the list of government military purchases and ASPI sponsors seems to be very much the same list.
If ASPI are to be believed, China must be a threat in terms of military expansion — yet there’s no evidence anywhere in modern, or even ancient history to suggest this is true. The last time Chinese soldiers entered another country on a war footing was before ASPI existed and many of their employees weren’t even born, it was 1979 and they went to Vietnam and pulled out, having achieved their objective after only 27 days. Any evidence of aggressive military expansion seems somewhat exaggerated. It is however, a fact that China has increased not only the size of, but the capabilities of its military. China has always maintained they never want a repetition of their “100 years of humiliation”. Invasions by the British, the 8 nations alliance sacking cultural and historical artifacts in Beijing, the loss of HK, the invasion and occupation by Japan, the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the corruption and civil war during the years of the Republic and finally into the chaos of the early days of the People’s republic have all left a mark on China. The people do not want a repeat of this weakness in their history and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been strengthened in order to prevent one. This is not a military expansion, it’s a defence mechanism.
What then could be the motivation for ASPI’s constant threat assessments. One of them is the fact that, apart from all the military industries they benefit from supporting, one of their largest foreign donors is the US State Department, another is the Administration of Taiwan. Depending on your view, this is either a renegade province or a leadership in exile, one thing is certain, the island of Taiwan is Chinese, the people who live there, for the most part regard themselves as Chinese and a significant portion of both Mainlander and Taiwan residents have expressed a desire to see either reunification or keep the status quo. China, for its part has made no secret it would like a reunification that is peaceful and has reiterated this many times, their target is to unify the country prior to the 2049 anniversary of its founding. ASPI, sees it differently with a recent article written by Jennings, their executive director asserting Taiwan is under military pressure from Beijing.
One example the article cites is the PLA’s regular incursions into Taiwan’s airspace. What the article fails to point out is that these “incursions” are not into Taiwan’s airspace, they are crossing Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone, a very different region to actual airspace and one which covers a significant portion of three of China’s mainland provinces, cities such as Xiamen and Fuzhou as well as several islands which are not under any dispute as they are Chinese and always have been. This misleading but frequently seen headline is used by many military and political analysts to demonstrate China’s “aggressive military pressure”.
Completely without irony, the article goes on to suggest that a US aircraft carrier and other ships from a US strike force in the region are indicators of Beijing’s aggression! He does go on in a moment of honesty to comment that Xi’s ambitions to take Taiwan are his own opinion and not demonstrated facts. The article was written in January 2021 when Jennings felt the Covid pandemic and a change of president in the US would embolden President Xi to take Taiwan back — clearly, 14 months later, as it hasn’t yet happened, we can assume the Executive Director of ASPI, is not so good with his predictions. Particularly when those predictions are paid for by the Taiwanese administration and supported by some in the US Senate, they also meet the expectations many of his other major sponsors such as the State Department and the military industrial complex. A large and powerful group of governments, government departments and organisations whose interest is in stoking the fear of Australian citizens so that more money can be spent on keeping them safe from that fear.
For a more reasoned and, obviously, more accurate reflection on the Taiwan situation we should look to former Australian Ambassador to Japan, John Menadue, who publishes on a site called “Pearls and Irritations” (johnmenadue.com) and has contributions from unpaid experts with nothing to gain from military conflict. These are the kinds of places where we find the real expertise, where the writers have knowledge, experience and information that is valuable to the public but kept out of mainstream media.
We’re left with one more allegation that the vast majority of Australians believe to be true and with this one there is a strong link between mass media coverage and ASPI. And that is China’s alleged human rights abuses, particularly in Xinjiang, the Northwestern region of China. An area predominantly occupied by the Uyghur ethnic minority. There’s so much information related to the “concentration camps” the “forced labour” the “genocide” and the cultural destruction of Uyghur society that is must be true — except it isn’t.
In March 2020, ASPI created a stunning report in which they claimed that Uyghurs were being mistreated and used as forced labour, it was called Uyghurs for sale. The only problem with the report was that almost 100% of it has been proven to be either misinterpreted, based on misinformation or simply just wrong. Under close examination, not one item in the report could be proven and the best way to establish the veracity of that bold statement, is to read the COWESTPRO Papers. The writer is an international advocate who is entitled to practice law in Australia’s ACT, she holds two Masters degrees and is in the process of completing a third in International Law. She has experience of working in China and completely demolishes the ASPI report with an 80-page legal document. In doing so, demonstrates that not only does ASPI’s report not prove forced labour but that it was partially funded by US donors benefiting from forced labour. ASPI through their report also created the very situation it sought to highlight by encouraging foreign companies doing business in China to cease doing business in places where Uyghur employees were employed thus denying them employment opportunities, a clearly defined human rights abuse.
ASPI are also, quite famously, the suppliers of information related to satellite images of the “camps” in Xinjiang, camps in which potentially millions of Uyghurs have been incarcerated. Except that there are 11 million Uyghurs in total and any of the 150 plus million people who visit the region, including this writer, can ask them. They will deny it. There are literally hundreds of Douyin (Tik Tok) accounts opened by Uyghurs in the region and showing them to be healthy and thriving. China’s statistics demonstrate growth in Uyghur population and life expectancy has increased in the region. Much of the problem comes from misinterpretation of data rather than deliberate misinformation. Much has been written about oppression in Xinjiang but very little coverage is given to academics such as the Transnational report which examines the information in detail and finds fundamental flaws in it, nor a UN special Rapporteur who visited Xinjiang. Nor the hundreds of journalists or dozens or diplomats who have visited the region. In fact, without going too deep into the reasons, or even the details of the allegations it’s fair to say that both ASPI and Australia’s media encourage people to think there are problems in a region that has indeed experienced some terrorism and civil disobedience. The fact is, Xinjiang is now one of the safest places in China with the population increasing in numbers, life expectancy, education and income. According to all measurements Xinjiang is not the problem location Australian media and the so-called expert analysts would like people to think it is. Many of the so-called camps when visited were found to be schools, factories and farms. Chinese large-scale industrial farms, like most schools and factories have security fences, security guards and gatehouses, sadly the analyst who examined the satellite imagery had never been to China to see for himself, he just thought he was seeing prison complexes when he was viewing poverty alleviation schemes in real time. I know this because I’ve been there and seen for myself.
Before concluding it’s also worth noting the spiders web of links that exist between ASPI, Australian Politicians and media. Of course, the Defence Minister, Peter Dutton is highly active in communications with this partially government funded institute. When addressing the ASPI conference last year he indicated that he would be considering ASPI’s recommendation of housing more US troops in Australia and even offer a base for the US first fleet to operate out of the Ports of Darwin, a port which is managed by a Chinese company under a long-term lease. All initiatives first voiced by ASPI.
We’re also faced with some serious issues of independence in news and most readers are unable to establish the extent to which Australian news is tainted through ASPI’s military industrial complex funding.
Here’s how it works: The ABC is Australia’s state media, Stan Grant, one of Australia’s most respected journalists and a senior anchor for many ABC productions is a contributing author and Senior Fellow of ASPI. Jack Norton, was a Sky News reporter in the Canberra Press gallery who is now employed by ASPI, the Executive Editor and Defence editor is a former veteran journalist, press gallery analyst and employee of Newscorp and Will Glasgow, who is currently the China correspondent for the Australian Newspaper, a Newscorp publication, is, at the same time a contributor to ASPI. In fact, the entire list of hundreds of contributors reads like a who’s who of mainstream media, TV and newspaper journalists
Informed and intelligent readers know there isn’t a military threat but there is a highly enhanced perception of a threat in order to keep fear stoked, which in turn keeps money flowing through government contracts and military suppliers.
We also now know that there isn’t any possibility that Chinese owners are going to buy up so much land that they could become all-powerful overlords. It’s been proven that there is no genocide, yet that rumour persists, it’s been proven that there is no forced labour as reported by ASPI, yet rumours of forced labour persist. We’re aware there are some trade tensions but those tensions are isolated and exaggerated to make it appear that China is “punishing” Australia when DFAT’s own figures contradict this. So, if all these issues between our two countries aren’t real; what do we actually know?
We actually know that the reason these rumours persist is that they are driven to persist by differing yet coinciding agendas. There is much media information that is either misinterpreted or deliberately misinforming us. The misinformation, is as Goebbels famously said: “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” Unfortunately, the Australian public do believe it and Australian politicians also seem to accept it as truth. Politicians follow this media misinformation because they are afraid that to challenge or contradict it, would be political suicide. No one in their right mind would vote for a politician that supports such an evil regime. Except that anyone who visits China, as hundreds of athletes recently did for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, would see, it’s not an evil place filled with evil people
We can conclude by affirming that China is not only one of the safest places in relation to crime, the murder rate in China is 0.4 people per 100,000, the murder rate in the USA is 7.4 with some cities being as high as 35. It has fought and appears to have won a battle with Covid-19 losing nearly 5,000 of its citizens in the early stages but then none at all during the last 12 months, whilst thousands die in other countries. It’s one of the best places to be in relation to poverty which is decreasing, as opposed to the west where it increases, and in income growth which is increasing along with job stability and security. The living standards of Chinese have increased against every measurable metric and the people hold a very high degree of 95% satisfaction with their government. There is no evidence whatsoever that China has ambitions beyond its borders, only global evidence through initiatives like the Belt and Road, that China wants more mutually beneficial trade with as many countries as possible. That does include Australia and hopefully, once the people and their elected politicians there realise that they are being misled by international military corporations with very deep pockets and a media baron with a very deep grudge, China and Australia can start to mend some fences.