This month, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute — a Canberra-based think tank focusing on defense issues — published groundbreaking reports on Chinese genomic surveillance, disinformation on Twitter, and united-front influence operations in Western democracies. Just in June, ASPI’s work has boosted public understanding of the mechanisms by which the Chinese Communist Party clings to power at home and seeks influence abroad.
Impactful as these studies may already seem, they’re actually far more important than you’d expect. Why? Well, the Chinese government is bringing its weight to bear on discrediting ASPI’s work — the research center has struck a nerve in Beijing.
Take this piece published by Xinhua News Agency yesterday. Citing a pro-Beijing former Australian foreign minister, the director of an institute with which that former foreign minister is associated, a Chinese foreign-ministry spokeswoman, and others, the state-owned media outlet paints the picture of a hopelessly pro-American puppet organization manipulated by the defense contractors that fund it.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said earlier this month that with such strong ideological bias, the institute is actually spearheading anti-China forces and its academic credibility has been seriously questioned . . .
The institute has fabricated reports on policies in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which the Chinese government has repeatedly refuted.
This month was not the first time that Beijing has trained its fire on ASPI, which has previously published work on how foreign universities cooperate with the Chinese military and, as Hua mentioned, the Xinjiang concentration camps. The truth is that ASPI does receive funding from the U.S. Department of State and American defense contractors. But the critics usually exaggerate the degree to which this is the case. And crucially, they never provide compelling arguments to debunk ASPI’s research.
Relations between Beijing and Canberra have deteriorated for a few years, a trend accelerated by the coronavirus crisis. Following China’s bungled coverup of its initial failures to contain the virus, Australia has called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, backing the United States. More recently, the Australian government provoked the Wolf Warrior–ire of Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, when it lobbied against a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution that scrutinized the United States.
As Chinese officials have spoken out against Australia from the foreign-ministry podium, they have matched that rhetoric with action in recent weeks. The two countries are on the brink of a trade war, with China curbing Australian beef imports and imposing higher tariffs on barley. Last week, the Australian government all but accused China of launching a massive cyberattack against multiple sectors of society (ASPI’s executive director named China as the culprit). And this is to say nothing of the CCP’s reach into civil society and higher education.
ASPI is a lightning rod in Australia’s conversations about relations with China and a frequent target of those sympathetic to Beijing, or at least skeptical of the United States. But in a sign of the times, a Lowy Institute poll released yesterday found that trust in China’s ability to act responsibly fell by half among Australians since last year. It sits today at 23 percent.
The institute’s boosters would be correct to claim vindication. But Chinese officials and their apologists in Australia chalk this up to American money, a convenient way to smear solid research. But with these new tensions in Sino-Australian relations, including that trade spat, the country’s most important export might well originate, as Xinhua put it, in “a yellow three-storey building in the capital Canberra, so inconspicuous that one could easily miss it.”