Australia says and does most of the right things to please its US and Japanese allies and friends in Southeast Asia when it comes to South China Sea issues. But Chinese money and a new version of Australia’s long-noted “cringe” mentality are replacing past cringes to the US and before that the UK, making huge roads not only into ownership of assets but, more significantly, the mentality of institutions.
The latest asset sale is of Australia’s largest cattle ranch, the 77,000 Kidman property in the Northern Territory. Hunan Dakang Pasture Farming, a company majority owned by Shanghai Pengxin, is buying 80 percent with the remaining 20 percent to Australian Rural Capital. The total deal is worth A$370 million.
The deal has yet to be approved by Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board, which earlier blocked the original Chinese offer on the grounds that one of the properties was close to a secretive weapons testing site. However, Kidman appears confident that it has now met this and any other FIRB objections, and promises that the deal will bring new investment and jobs, especially now that Australia’s free trade deal with China promises a reduction in in beef import tariffs. It now expects FIRB consent.
The amount of money involved is not huge but shows how the lure of Chinese investment and the prospect of the China market can trounce nationalist objections even at a time when there increasing unease in Australia about foreign and especially Chinese ownership. Free market advocates can scarcely object given the existing foreign ownership of Australian resources and indeed many Australians will be happy that China is paying top dollar for land in the same way as it paid top dollar for mineral assets at the time of the late mining boom.
Far more dangerous than Chinese investment appears the kowtowing of the publicly funded overseas broadcast voice of Australia. Under an agreement, curiously dated June 4 in 2014, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a once hallowed example of free and responsible media, signed an agreement with the Shanghai Media group to establish a version for China of the ABC’s Australia Plus website. Almost simultaneously, according to John Fitzgerald, director of the Asia-Pacific Program at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, while ABC’s English-language media continued to make reference to the June 4 1989 massacre, the Chinese language version fell silent.
The ABC ended its own Chinese language on-line news service to make way for the China version of AustraliaPlus. This was launched a year ago, operating within the China firewall and covers almost anything which is not current affairs and politics. So instead of providing Chinese readers with an alternative news channel to the state media, it offers nothing but items deemed harmless by China.
Clearly by agreeing to the exclusion of news, the ABC is in breach of its promise at the time of the Shanghai June 4 agreement to “put the full range of Australia Network programming and content from other Australian media into China.” Worse still, notes Fitzgerald, the China site is uniquely censored while Australia Plus versions for other Asian nations – Indonesian, Burmese, Vietnamese, etc. – carry the full range of news and current affairs.
The reasons for the ABC kowtow appear twofold. First, a cringe towards China has developed within the bureaucracy and quasi-government entities, much of an academia dependent on the fees of Chinese students and miners and Sydney real estate salesmen reliant on Chinese buyers. Second, the China site can get advertising revenue which would otherwise be unavailable. That helps a time when the ABC budget has been shrinking.
But critics can reasonably ask: what is the point of a public service broadcaster of a nation supposedly dedicated to free media, if it behaves like Rupert Murdoch and other media proprietors interested only in money?
As it is, Chinese language media in Australia, as in many other countries, are now largely controlled by people who likewise prefer to avoid mentioning the likes of the Tiananmen massacre and are more interested in appearing more patriotic towards Beijing than patriotic towards Australia’s liberal principles. It is a small step from here to public questioning of whether Australia’s Chinese migrants are now patriotic new Australians, or a Beijing Fifth Column.