Uncle Sam grabs CCP playbook

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs caught up in US State Department’s ham-fisted Chinese propaganda play

INVESTIGATION with Michael West Media  

3 August 2020 | Marcus Reubenstein

The US State Department is quietly funding a Chinese-language news service in Australia, in a move more typically associated with China’s state media propaganda.

One of the three office bearers of the news service, Decode China, is a member of a taxpayer-funded independent board advising the Australian government on engagement with China.

Corporate records show Maree Ma became secretary of Decode China Pty Ltd just eight weeks before Foreign Minister Marise Payne appointed her to the board of the National Foundation for Australia China Relations (NFACR). A former director of Decode China Pty Ltd is listed as Wai Ling Yeung, it has been reported that she is the same Wai Ling Yeung who sits on the board NFACR. Despite a number of requests, both Minister Payne’s office and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade declined to comment of outside directorships of its advisory board members.

Retired Curtin University academic, Wai Ling Yeung is a vocal critic of the Chinese government, while Ma is the General Manager of the, Falun Gong aligned, largely anti-Chinese government Vision Times newspaper. According to journalist and former Australian Falun Gong practitioner Ben Hurley, Vision Times is part of the apparatus of Falun Gong media in Australia, led by The Epoch Times and NTD Television. 

Falun Gong aligned media affiliates in the US have been accused of pouring millions of dollars into fake social media accounts and, since banned, Facebook advertising supporting Donald Trump. A recent investigation by the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent and Background Briefing programs estimates more than US$11.5 million has been spent promoting Trump.

Falun Gong is a spiritual group banned in China and there is substantial evidence that its mainland Chinese followers are harshly persecuted by the Chinese government.

However, former practitioners say it’s a dangerous cult, whose leaders claim to have the power of levitation and tell followers that aliens from other planets are responsible for interracial marriage and mixed-race children.

ASPI lurking in the background

Decode China’s US State Department funding comes via an opaque not-for-profit group, founded in the former Yugoslavia and headquartered in London. That group, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), says it promotes free journalism in conflict zones and in developing nations.

Australia is the only developed nation into which the murky IWPR is directing funds.

In 2018-19 the IWPR funneled $88,964.37 of US State Department funds into the coffers of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), that payment was never publicly declared. Though ASPI calls itself an independent think tank, its constant anti-China rhetoric has led one former cabinet minister to call it “the centre of Sinophobia” in Australia.

Another ASPI omission from its public disclosures is a $203,000 payment this year from the US State Department, that one directed through the US Embassy in Canberra.

In July, a joint APAC News/Michael West Media investigation revealed that ASPI had received millions of dollars in undeclared Commonwealth Defence Department contracts.

Among some of its alarmingly generous contracts, in October 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s department “sponsored” a free talk and light refreshments function for ASPI which ended up costing taxpayers almost $1,000 per head.

ASPI’s cluster of cash

In 2018-19 ASPI picked up a $50,000 payment from Raytheon; which used to be one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of cluster-bombs. Until 2016, the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund, Norway’s GPFG, blacklisted investment in Raytheon because of its involvement in cluster munitions.

Prior to becoming Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds worked as a Project Director at Raytheon.

The first speech she delivered in Australia after becoming Minister was to an ASPI conference called War in 2025. A number of Defence personnel attended that conference for which they handed ASPI $30,723 of taxpayers’ money for the privilege of hearing their boss speak.

ASPI pockets $30K from Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’s department (Image: ASPI Annual Report & AusTender)

Last financial year Reynolds’s department gifted ASPI $1.7 million in contracts, over and above an annual grant of $4 million.  

Links to Falun Gong and Trump allies

Aside from their generous US State Department funding, ASPI and Decode China also share a close relationship with National Foundation for Australia China Relations (NFACR) board member, and Vision Times General Manager, Maree Ma.

The latest issue of Vision Times features a front-page story which gives space to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, covering a speech in which he is beating up on mainland China.

Falun Gong, which calls itself a spiritual group, is banned in China. In Australia its followers are most noticeable quietly engaging in seemingly centuries old meditation practices in public places.

However, Falun Gong was founded in 1992 by the reclusive Master Li Hongxi, who abandoned his Chinese followers and moved to the United States just six years later. There he established the movement’s global headquarters in a heavily protected compound in rural New York state.

Critics have pointed to numerous parallels between Falun Gong and the controversial Church of Scientology; it has been described as an “eastern version of Scientology.”

The Decode China/ASPI link

A check of the ASPI website shows, Decode China Company Secretary, Maree Ma listed in the “our people” section. In June she was a panelist for an ASPI webinar about the threat China poses to Australia and last year she was a speaker at a $700 per head ASPI “China Materclass” in Melbourne.

(Source: YouTube/ASPI website)

In July the South China Morning Post (SCMP) published an article about Decode China. ASPI analysts are regularly interviewed by its reporter John Power and an unchallenged quote from one of his ASPI contacts reported, “by the sound of it the outlet [Decode China] has much potential.”

That same month, another Decode China Pty Ltd board member, Feng Chongyi was interviewed by Power about the Federal Police/ASIO raid on the home of NSW Labor politician Shaoquett Moselmane. Dr. Feng opined that there was likely “solid evidence” that Moselmane had colluded with Chinese Communist Party operatives, even though no criminal charges have been laid.

SCMP made no mention that Dr. Feng had been financially backed by the US State Department, even though Power specifically referred to the ASIC documents naming Dr. Feng as a Decode China office bearer in another one of his reports.

Trouble on the NFACR board

In March 2019 the Morrison government announced it would replace the Australia China Council (ACC) with the NFACR, it was to chaired by incumbent ACC Chairman Warwick Smith.  A former Howard Government minister, highly respected for his three decades of political and business experience with China, Smith was seen a sensible choice.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne finally announced the full membership of the board in February and Smith quit NFACR a few weeks later.  

An ASPI-linked board of China skeptics

Along with Maree Ma, three other NFACR board members are linked to ASPI. Journalist Stan Grant is a Senior Fellow at ASPI, academic John Fitzgerald is an Emeritus Professor at ASPI and Rory Medcalf is a contributor to ASPI magazine The Strategist. 

A number of NFACR board members have either been openly antagonistic towards the Chinese government or have little or no experience in northern China, from where the majority of Chinese-Australians trace their ancestry.

Long time China observer, and former Sydney Morning Herald Foreign Editor, Hamish McDonald recently described the board as, “Overall, a China-sceptical line-up.” Academic and former executive director of the Australia China Council, Jocelyn Chey has criticised the NFACR as being unrepresentative saying she has “no confidence” it can repair China-Australia relations.

Whilst China’s state-owned English language media narrative is anything but transparent it is hard to imagine people will not see straight through Decode China as a feeble US government attempt at Chinese-language propaganda. 

Note: stories written by Marcus Reubenstein and published on APAC News have been republished by some Chinese media outlets, he has no editorial or commercial arrangements with such media. View Editorial Policy.

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