Alex Joske was still young when the Olympic Torch Relay passed through Australia on its way to Beijing in 2008, but he still vividly remembers the scuffles and fights that accompanied it on its path. Pro-Tibet and pro-Beijing supporters clashed; the Chinese embassy was accused of bussing in heavies; and supporters from both sides were arrested. Joske, who’s now an Australian Strategic Policy Institute researcher, found this a particularly memorable moment. His feelings crystallised and led him down the path that eventually resulted in last week’s publication of a groundbreaking investigation of the massive research collaboration currently taking place between Australian Universities and the Chinese military.

Joske is something more than your normal, thinking Australian. He’s of Chinese heritage and lived in Beijing for seven years, as a child and a teenager, and so he understands nuance. This is vital because it’s an important part of the detail and thoroughness of his argument.

Joske is quick to emphasise that this report is not about broader so-called ‘influence campaigns’ that emanate from Beijing and are intended to have a political effect. Instead his report, Picking Flowers, Making Honey, provides a detailed overview of the strenuous effort China is making to obscure the military affiliations of researchers working on strategically significant technologies. The point here isn’t that Beijing is “stealing” knowledge – it’s that Western (especially Australian) universities aren’t even considering what’s occurring.

Joske details, for example, how 17 Chinese military researchers have visited Australia while claiming to belong to institutions that either don’t exist or have changed names. This poses some real questions for Australian universities to answer. It’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean collaboration and exchanges should stop: the issue is transparency.

China and Australia are very different countries. Democracy is not the inevitable outcome of progress. The ruling Communist Party is today informed and directed by Xi Jinping’s unique interpretation of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. This 14-point detailed policy blueprint emphasises the foundational and critical role of the Party; the real issue is how this will develop in future.

China is sparing no effort in its drive to become one of the most effective surveillance states in history. It’s hardly surprising that this is accompanied by a desire to detain and re-educate those who don’t share the party’s ideology. We don’t, but that’s the whole point of the Treaty of Westphalia.

Back in 1648 this brought about the peace which finally resolved a 30-year war between Catholics and Protestants and which had traumatised and devastated Europe, leaving millions dead. It was, in effect, an agreement to allow each country to rule itself as it (or its rulers) wished. Since then, and despite the occasional vogue of concepts like “Responsibility to Protect”, this has been the foundation of the international system.

Joske’s report is informed by that clarity. It concerns what’s happening here, in Australia, today, rather than peddling some type of conspiracy theory, wishful thinking about the future, or concerns about things we can’t change.

Another recent ASPI report, this time into re-education camps in Western China, demonstrates the vital importance of thinking clearly and understanding these boundaries.

What’s occurring in Xinjiang is concerning and, from a Western moral perspective, is outrageous. Beijing appears to be arbitrarily detaining members of the Muslim minority in this region and insisting they conform to Chinese values. That’s why organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are so agitated about this issue. They insist on the universal application of such over-riding humanitarian principles. That’s why they’ve taken a similarly uncompromising stand on the ongoing, devastating war and humanitarian crisis currently being perpetuated in Yemen.

The Saudi military has proved itself very good at bombing rebel-held areas and civilians and yet, at least until this week, utterly incapable of actually taking and holding areas the Houthi rebels are defending. It’s been reported that former Australian troops have been involved in this fighting and it’s also worth noting that the ex-commander of our special forces, Major General Mike Hindmarsh, is a senior commander in the United Arab Emirates military.

It would be interesting to hear more from ASPI about this actual conflict rather than involving itself with issues that, while strategic, simply give credence to accusations that it’s research is ideologically driven rather than, like Joske’s work, rigorous and relevant.

The problem is that much of our current political narrative is contested and confused. Both Malcolm Turnbull and now Scott Morrison have taken action and given speeches sending highly conflicting messages to China – it’s time now to spell out exactly what our principles are.

The head of the Australian Signals Directorate, Mike Burgess, has explained the security issues that have resulted in Huawei being prevented from participating in the 5G network. A clear explanation is a marvellous thing and, as a result, it’s now clear why the directorate is concerned about the Chinese companies participation in both the central hubs and the branch nodes of the network. But how about a similar statement of where we stand on the algorithms Facebook uses to control what “news stories” come to the top of the feeds that so many Australians use on a daily basis to understand the world.

China hasn’t determined the information flow that will be informing America’s vote – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram will. Is that any better?

By Nicholas Stuart
SMH

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