An Aussie Foundation that is an US Handmaiden

Echo Hui, ABC Investigations, and Hagar Cohen

The Federal Government’s foundation that was meant to “turbocharge” relations with China is beset by dysfunction, a lack of purpose and possible conflicts of interest, say senior insiders.

Key points:

  • A new National Foundation for Australia-China Relations was announced by the Federal Government in 2019
  • Former consul-general to Hong Kong says two recent appointees may have conflicts of interest
  • One of the directors runs a newspaper that has links to Falun Gong, an anti-communist party religious movement

The National Foundation for Australia-China Relations is meant to strengthen engagement between the two countries and is currently undertaking its first multi-million-dollar competitive grant tender process for projects to boost relations.

The ABC has discovered it was not disclosed publicly that two board members from the foundation have the financial backing of a foreign government until two months after their appointments and one has hidden ties to a new religious group deeply hostile to Beijing.

Resignation letter sent to the Prime Minister

In March 2019, relations with Australia’s biggest trading partner were growing ever more turbulent and Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced a five-year $44m funding upgrade for the new National Foundation for Australia-China Relations. But in the months that followed, the former Howard government minister appointed to chair the foundation’s advisory board, Warwick Smith, grew sceptical of the Government’s approach.

Warwick Smith resigned from the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations.(Supplied: Australia-China Council)

Barely one year after the restructure was announced, Mr Smith resigned. In a searing resignation letter sent to Prime Minister Scott Morrison last April, Mr Smith described the foundation’s start as “tortured and unspectacular”, raising a litany of concerns over the structure, independence and effectiveness of the foundation. “I do not believe that I have the inclination to reshape the foundation which is now, broadly speaking, just an agency of DFAT [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade],” he wrote.

Another concern Mr Smith expressed to the PM was how little involvement he had in the selection of the new foundation board members, all of whom were appointed directly by Ms Payne. “A board has been recently appointed, eminent in many regards, but certainly not focused on the broader issues that I thought it might be.”

Mr Smith wrote to the Prime Minister saying the board and its operations are now fully controlled by DFAT. “It is not a board. It is only an advisory board, with the activities generally run by the secretary of the department … The chair effectively has no operating role.”

The role of the board has been effectively demoted under the new structure, board member Peter Cai told the ABC. “Unlike the Australia-China Council, the advisory board [of the foundation] is not the governing board,” he said. “The Foreign Minister will make the final call.”

Marise Payne, left, wears a black and white jacket with pearls at her neck as she shakes the hand of Wang Yi, in a suit.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne was warned by former chair Warwick Smith that the foundation may not be relevant to the current relationship between China and Australia.(Reuters: Athit Perawongmetha)

In a letter to Ms Payne, Mr Smith raised further doubts as to whether the organisation even remained relevant. “I also have my doubts whether the foundation, given the dramatic changes in issues globally and indeed with regard to Australia-China relations, is a most appropriate vehicle,” he wrote.

Concern over board member’s hidden connection

Mr Smith joins a growing chorus of insiders who are concerned about the shift in Australia’s engagement in China and the new direction of the foundation.

They include one of the founders of the Australia-China Council — the institution established in 1978 to bolster bilateral relations — which was abruptly replaced by the foundation last year.

Jocelyn Chey, Australia’s former consul-general to Hong Kong, is concerned that two board members recently appointed by Senator Payne receive financial backing by the US Government.

One, Maree Ma, also runs a Chinese-language newspaper called Vision China Times with a strong editorial leaning against the Chinese Communist Party.

“It’s very strange,” Professor Chey told the ABC.

“I think there are questions to be answered there.”

The ABC also spoke to two current board members who expressed reservations about Ms Ma’s appointment, and about whether her views are antithetical to the foundation’s objectives.

Professor Jocelyn Chey speaks to an audience about Australia-China relations.
Jocelyn Chey was a member if the Australia-China Council, which has been replaced by the new foundation.(Supplied: University Of Technology Sydney)

Ms Ma is the secretary of Decode China, a Chinese language news website which was established under a funding arrangement by the US State Department via the Institute of War and Peace Reporting.

Another board member, Wai Ling Yeung, was also an office holder until last July.

The pair were appointed to the advisory committee of the Foundation by Minister Payne last February.

The ABC asked the Department whether it was aware of these links at the time they were hired.

“We expect board members to be transparent about their views and interests relevant to the Foundation’s mission,” a spokesperson replied.

Business records show that Decode China shares a business address with Vision China Times, which was established by Ma Zhendong, a Sydney businessman who is also its majority shareholder.

The other officeholders include Mr Ma’s daughter Maree who is the newspaper’s general manager.

After probing by the ABC, an email from a private address, titled Decode China — Media Statement, was sent to the ABC stating that the Decode China project was recently terminated by the US Department of State.

The email also states that “the project will no longer go ahead”.

The Australian Government’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme continues to list the contract as on-going.

Vision China Times pushes ‘extremely right-wing viewpoint’

The Vision China Times prides itself on being one of Australia’s most influential and widely distributed independent Chinese publications. But some China experts, like David Brophy from Sydney University, have their doubts. “[It’s] pushing an extremely conservative right-wing viewpoint on global politics, a very black and white view of the world in which China represents evil, America represents all that is good and essentially the source of human freedom,” he said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if the presence of Vision Times representatives on that board would be enough for China to simply boycott a body like that.”

A Background Briefing and ABC Investigations collaboration has found evidence that the publication is closely affiliated with the religious group Falun Gong, a new religious movement that seeks to bring an end to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The ABC is not suggesting that Dr Yeung has anything to do with Falun Gong

Falun Gong practitioners marching in Melbourne Chinatown with crowd looking at them from both sides.
Falun Gong practitioners parade in Melbourne Chinatown.(Supplied: Falun Gong Website)

The Falun Gong movement is officially banned in China and the CCP has labelled the group “an evil cult”. Thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been locked up in China’s re-education camps and many have died in police custody.

What is the Vision China Times?

Here in Australia, Vision China Times publishes periodicals in Sydney, Melbourne, Gold Coast and Perth. It operates under an annual financial contract with the global Vision Times network, published in 17 countries and headquartered in the US. But on the local paper’s website, the distinction between the two companies is often blurred.

It continues to state the “Vision Times … was first launched in 2001,” referring to the global website,

The Australian edition also shares the same global logo, very similar business names and some content with this global platform. Nevertheless, the Australian Vision China Times denies operational or financial links with the global Vision Times. “Vision Times Australia and the FLG [Falun Gong] group and does not have any operational or financial deals apart from payment for yearly news sources,” it told the ABC in a statement.

“We are not a FLG media.”

Falun Gong links to Vision Times

Falun Gong’s founder Li Hongzhi refers to Vision Times as “our media” and its president is also the spokesperson for the Falun Dafa Association in New York, and the chair of another Falun Gong organisation called Quit the CCP.

Li Hongzhi.
Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong, has been connected to several other media outlets around the world.(Supplied)

Dr Brophy questions how transparent the editorial values of the Vision Times really are. For example, last May, the global Vision Times reported that doctors have recovered from coronavirus by reciting the nine sacred words of Falun Gong. “This is presented as a factual account of someone curing themselves of COVID by participating in a Falun Gong ritual,” Dr Brophy said.

Last July, the Vision Times’ global Chinese-language website published an unsourced article describing how Zhou Enlai, a former Chinese premier, and Jiang Zemin, a former Chinese president, were “interested” in eating human brains.

Earlier this year, the Australian edition of the paper carried a one-page spread dedicated to promoting the Wuhan lab conspiracy theory, reporting that a Chinese researcher may have stolen the coronavirus from Canada, and then weaponised it. “There’s clearly a question as to the nature of this publication, its independence, its relationship to a religious and political organisation,” Dr Brophy told the ABC.

Vision China Times was founded by the Ma family in 2006, who had started a Falun Gong school called ‘Minghui Education’ the year before. The ABC understands that both of Ms Ma’s parents are Falun Gong practitioners.

A Falun Gong practitioner wears a yellow jumper.
Many Falun Gong practitioners have fled China and now live around the world in exile.(Foreign Correspondent/Background Briefing)

Ms Ma declined to be interviewed for this story but arranged for the Vision China Times’ chief editor Xia Yan to respond instead. Mr Xia declined to respond to questioning by the ABC about the extent of his work for the Falun Gong affiliated media, accusing the ABC of collaborating with the Chinese Government. “You will provide this information to the CCP”, he said.

Asked if the Vision China Times has a political agenda to get rid of the CCP, Mr Xia said: “I will tell other people what the CCP is, just like telling others who Hitler is.” The ABC has found at least 12 other current and former staff members who’ve worked across both Vision China Times and the Falun Gong affiliated Epoch Media group.

Professor Chey doesn’t believe the Vision China Times statements about their independence. “If your employer, the Vision Times, has a political agenda which conflicts with the agenda of the advisory body to which you’re appointed, that’s definitely a conflict of interest.”

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AN EXTENDED COMMENT from Fair Dinkum 4 August 2020:

This ABC article shows the Australian Government is incompetent and apathetic in managing Australia’s relationship with China.  This is a major blunder, and a total failure.
It was absurd to appoint a person with links to the Falun Gong as a Director of the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations.  The Falun Gong, once a quasi- religious entity, has become a political organisation with strong links to the government’s of Taiwan and the US. It has interfered into Australia’s democracy many times such as its role in sabotaging education ties between China and NSW. It has now penetrated into the heart of the Austraian government by this appointment,  as well Payne’s appointing two people to the Board who receive financial backing from the US government,  one of whom runs an anti-China government newspaper.
None of these three appointment’s ties to foreign governments were disclosed in making these appointments, and China is right to condemn Australia as a US puppet. As a result, the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations is morally bankrupt, totally useless, and Warrick Smith was correct to resign. It should be wound up as a waste of space and money.  Australia would do better to negotiate our relationship with China via Iran, than through the Falun Gong.
Given that the Australian government has decided to join the US alliance against China, it is no longer possible for Australia to have a relationship with China, and China knows it.  The Australian government have lied all the way through this relationship and from the outset, they have deliberately sabotaged our relationship with China to satisfy the US.  
I have no confidence in Australia’s Foreign Affairs Department, nor its Minister who have repeatedly demonstrated a total lack of ability and understanding in forming a relationship with China. Scott Morrison cannot even talk directly to President Xi.  That’s pathetic.
Australia is now working intimately with Taiwan which means our relationship with  China is no longer tenable.  Australia cannot justify diplomatic ties with China while at the same time colluding with Taiwan and the US against China.
Warrick Smith is correct to say the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations has little relevance. This organisation was formed to be hostile against China.  It is another attempt by the Australian government to sabotage Australia-China relations.


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2 responses to “An Aussie Foundation that is an US Handmaiden

  1. Fair Dikum

    The intention of the National Foundation for Australia-China Relation was to not reboot relations with China. Its unstated objectives were deceptive and disingenuous from the start. Being penetrated by agents connected to the Falun Gong and US government reveals its DNA was rotten to the core from the outset. It should be shut down as it has no credibility with China.

    Australian buisnesses can best manage their relationships with China without the Australian government or DFAT constantly meddling and stuffing it up. The best thing the government can do is get out of the way as their constant meddling, their anti-China rhetoric, and their bedfellowing with elements hostile to China is sabotaging Australia-China relations towards death.

    • Fair Dikum

      Most (if not all) so-called “China experts” appointed to academic positions at Australian universities are pro-Taiwan. The more anti-China a person is, the more likely they will be appointed to a university position as a “Chinese expert.” I have yet to meet a single “expert” on China who actually wanted to understand China. In Australia, a “China expert” means the person is hostile towards China.

      I have never come across a single case Chinese government influencing universities in Australia. Any connections that are developed are sabotaged by hostile elements working for Taiwan and the Falun Gong. The cases reported in the media of so called influence from China seem to be manufactured for political reasons.

      Those genuinely interested to understand China should go to China and learn there, and avoid Australian universities, except to learn the language. There is much more to be learnt about China in China, than in Australia.

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