China debate ‘chills collaboration’ with Australia

Public discussion bears little resemblance to the productive relationship hidden ‘beneath the water line’

November 22, 2019
Parasol on iceberg, Disko Bay, Greenland
Source: Getty/iStock

Sino-Australian academic ties have been misrepresented in a “toxic” public debate over the broader bilateral relationship, a conference has heard.

Sydney investment advisor Kevin Hobgood-Brown said the “noise” about higher education dealings between the two countries bore little resemblance to academics’ daily reality.

“We see and hear things that appear to be ill-considered, poorly informed, sometimes malicious,” Mr Hobgood-Brown told the Foundation for Australian Studies in China (Fasic) conference in Suzhou, near Shanghai.

“Our bilateral relationship is like an iceberg. The discord is the 10 per cent that’s visible. Ninety per cent is concealed beneath the water line.”

Academic links with China are a hotly debated topic in Australia, amid concerns that teaching and research collaborations could be contributing to China’s broader political and military aspirations.

Mr Hobgood-Brown, who is chairman of Fasic and a former lecturer at Peking University Law School, said this was a recent phenomenon. “The discussion about China only turned toxic about five years ago and it’s gotten progressively worse over that period,” he said.

“Until recently, nobody used China as a political issue to bludgeon the opposition – either the other side of politics or the opposition within their own party. It just didn’t happen.

“But in a free and open society such as ours, anyone’s got a platform. Apparently, all you need to do is say there’s a threat, and a pox on anyone who disagrees because it’s national security. Nobody wants to be seen to be in any way compromising national security.”

Mr Hobgood-Brown cited the recent decision to end the Confucius Institute contract with government schools in New South Wales. “Someone pointed out that there were Chinese officials seconded as part of this programme, and that theoretically those people might be able to access department computers,” he said.

“Was there any allegation that they used those computers in a malicious way? Absolutely not. We’ve lost perspective in our ability to take a balanced analysis of our relationship with China.”

Mr Hobgood-Brown said most Australians obtained their information about China from third or fourth-hand sources. “Even well-intentioned people can be misinformed, and it’s hard to be properly informed about China,” he warned.

He welcomed new guidelines to prevent collaborative university research being used to harm Australia’s interests, but said universities were already cautious. “Every Australian university has [taken] a hard look at their engagement with China,” he said.

“They want to make sure that their engagements are proper; that no Australian interest is being damaged; and that they’re doing the best for their students and stakeholders. Have they changed their policies? I don’t know that any policies have needed to change.”

Australian entrepreneur Andrea Myles, who runs a bilateral leadership programme accredited by the University of Sydney, told the conference that the “frosty” political relationship had forced her to suspend normal operations. Normally, 100 or so postgraduate students spend time in both countries exploring innovation, entrepreneurship and intercultural leadership.

This year, the programme was wound back because of a lack of sponsors. “This political difference – it has impacts,” Ms Myles told the conference. “When there is confidence and optimism, anything goes. When it gets really chilly, it’s much more difficult.”

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