Universities warned on ‘pressure’ from Chinese donors

Australian universities have been hyperactive in tying up collaborations and research cooperation deals with universities and other organisations in China, including Chinese state-backed companies.

But in the wake of a major political scandal in Australia involving Chinese donors who have also funded local institutions, universities have been advised to be alert about undue influence by donor organisations on research, including pressure to produce research for Chinese propaganda purposes.

Government documents on political donations revealed recently that Top Education Institute, a private Sydney-based institution, predominantly enrolling students from overseas, paid a A$1,650 (US$1,240) travel bill run up by Labor Party Senator Sam Dastyari.

Top Education Institute is run by a Chinese businessman, Zhu Minshen, who has close links to China’s Communist Party – he was a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a Communist Party advisory body, in Beijing in 2014.

Amid a wider furore over political donations – Top Education Institute also donated A$65,000 (US$48,700) to the ruling Liberal Party – Dastyari earlier this month resigned from his position as shadow minister, though he still remains a senator.

“I made a mistake and I am paying a price for that mistake,” Dastyari admitted to the Australian broadcaster ABC News, but he said no donors had asked for anything in exchange for the funds. However, he was unable to explain why the private institute, Australia’s first non-university provider of law degrees, was asked to cover his bill.

Yuhu Group

Dastyari has also declared that Yuhu Group, a property company, provided “support for a settlement of [an] outstanding legal matter”, reportedly A$5,000 (US$3,750). Yuhu Group’s founder and Chairman Huang Xiangmo helped fund the Australia-China Relations Institute or ACRI at the University of Technology Sydney or UTS, donating A$1.8 million (US$1.35 million) and is the chairman of ACRI.

In December 2015 Yuhu Group also donated A$3.5 million (US$2.6 million) to Western Sydney University for a new Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture , the biggest single philanthropic donation in that university’s history.

But the focus has been on ACRI, which replaced an existing China Research Centre at UTS that did not shy away from a critical stance on China.

The ACRI website states “ACRI has a fully independent, academically rigorous and transparent research agenda”, but it also describes itself as taking a "positive and optimistic view" of the Australia-China relationship, which has raised eyebrows in the academic community.

“Some are arguing that universities should be more strategic and more cautious about accepting money in general, and in the UTS case, from Chinese interests who may have an agenda,” said Anthony Welch, a professor specialising in higher education internationalisation at the University of Sydney.

“Universities need to exercise the same due diligence with China donors as with others – Is the money clean? Is the donor seeking undue influence over appointments and outcomes? What are the reputational risks? [It is] common sense really,” said John Fitzgerald, a professor at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne and an expert on China and philanthropy in Asia.

Eroding academic independence

Some academics believe Huang’s role as ACRI chairman erodes the institute’s claims of academic independence because of his Communist Party links.

Eagle-eyed commentators and investigative journalists, combing records on Dastyari’s dealings with Huang, claim Dastyari had supported China’s stance on the disputed South China Sea, a position at odds with his own party’s policy on the issue.

According to reports in the Australian Financial Review, Dastyari made the comments while attending an event with Huang, organised by the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, described by some academics as a ‘hypernationalist’ Chinese organisation engaged in United Front activities.

The United Front Work Department engages with commercial, academic and interest groups in China and abroad to support the Communist Party’s aims. For example, the council, chaired by Huang, often lambasts independence movements in Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan.

At a press conference Dastyari declined to clarify whether he had made the comments or not, The Guardian reported.

“I support the Labor Party position on the issue of the South China sea and if there is an instance in which I have misspoken or been misquoted, then that is wrong,” Dastyari said in response to direct questions about what he’d said during the campaign media event, according to The Guardian.

Some ACRI research, particularly on sensitive geopolitical issues like disputed claims over atolls in the South China Sea and East China Sea, “simply spouts Party propaganda”, said one UTS staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity.

ACRI scholars are divided, he said, with some wanting to express a more critical view of China’s policies “but we cannot be independent”.

He even suggested ACRI’s more rigorous research may be “window dressing” to counter criticism of its pro-Beijing output.

James Leibold, an associate professor at Melbourne’s La Trobe University and an expert on China, said donations were important for universities “but they need to protect their independence”.

UTS’s biggest mistake was to allow Huang to become the chair of ACRI’s advisory board, Leibold told University World News. “They clearly did not ask the tough questions of who these people are, where the money is coming from and what it might be doing to our country’s relations.”

’Propaganda vehicle’

Huang appears to be using ACRI as a platform “to develop his own prestige within the Chinese community in Australia as well as with party leaders back in Beijing. This does not belong in a tertiary institution like the University of Technology Sydney,” Leibold said.

ACRI has become a “propaganda vehicle” to feed the growing Chinese language media in Australia which tends to be sympathetic to the Communist Party, he alleged.

“ACRI does do some pretty good research on the Australia-China relationship that is academically rigorous and there is space for this kind of research,” Leibold said. “The problem is what happens behind closed doors.”

“ACRI hosts many meetings at Mr Huang’s initiation with senior Communist Party officials, ostensibly for symposia at UTS that are reported in the Chinese language media,” Liebold said. “It becomes a backdoor propaganda vehicle for the Chinese Communist Party among the Chinese Australian community.”

Wider Chinese presence

But academics say questions are being asked not just against the backdrop of the fallout from the Dastyari case but also recent events that have changed the public mood on China’s growing economic influence in Australia, no longer seen as benign by many.

In 2012 Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, barred from sensitive projects in the United States, was ruled out of bidding for Australia’s National Broadband Network on security grounds. It has since been funding travel scholarships to its headquarters in Shenzhen in China for students at a number of top Australian universities.

Huawei has also signed research collaboration agreements with Griffith University, Macquarie University, the University of Melbourne and RMIT University, and technology sources suggest this has enabled Huawei to launch a new attempt to make major investments in possibly sensitive areas of the Australian economy.

More recently diplomatic relations between China and Australia have been strained over Australia’s support of the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in July against China over the South China Sea with the Chinese government expressing unhappiness over Australia’s perceived ‘interference’.

A number of big investments by Chinese companies in major Australian privatisations have been blocked by the government this year including a bid by two Chinese companies for a A$10 billion (US$7.5 billion) controlling stake in the country’s biggest electricity distribution network Ausgrid on national security grounds. The government also blocked a Chinese consortium bid for a huge cattle farm owned by S Kidman and Co.

Overblown suspicions

UTS leaders, including ACRI Director Bob Carr, a former Australian foreign minister and premier of New South Wales, who was appointed to the post by Huang, believe suspicions over research independence are “completely overblown”, an academic source said.

Carr’s office told University World News he was not available for comment due to travel commitments, but he suggested in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald published on 11 September that critics of UTS were supporters of a “heavily ideological foreign policy, bristling with Cold War instincts”.

Carr, who has been vocal on the need for Australia to pivot away from traditional allies such as the US and UK towards China, said ACRI had published “six substantial policy reports” commissioned from outside academics including a recent report on how to sell more Australian beef and cattle to China – at the time of the Chinese bid for the Kidman cattle land – written by experts at the University of Queensland.

He added: “In 2014 tension between China and Japan in the East China Sea raised the question whether ANZUS might drag Australia into a war. ACRI did not go to Beijing think tankers for analysis. We commissioned two experts in the US alliance, Professor Nick Bisley of La Trobe University and Dr Brendan Taylor of Australian National University. They produced the report East China Sea: Does ANZUS apply?

“Not a sentence reflects a pro-Beijing leaning,” Carr said.

“There is a bit of paranoia in Chinese relationships feeding into the discourse at the moment,” said Chris Ziguras, deputy dean, international, at RMIT University, Melbourne. But academic independence or lack of it would impact on an institution’s reputation, he said.

Veracity of research is measured by the academic community globally, as well as users of the research, including governments and other institutions. “They will really be the judge of how credible that research is. Scholarly reputation is a really powerful thing and is probably the most important counterbalance to the efforts of governments to try to influence the research that people do,” Ziguras said.

More widely, he did not think the current furore unleashed by Dastyari or wider investigations into Chinese interests in Australia would damage broader university collaborations with China. “For a long time Australian universities have been very keen to cooperate with China in a whole lot of areas; I don’t think that’s changed,” Ziguras said.