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Are we being paranoid, or is China really up to no good?


The Federal Government wants to review Queensland’s agreements with China.  Robert MacDonald asks, is it pragmatism, politics or paranoia?


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Why has the Federal Government only now decided to review state-level agreements with foreign governments to make sure they’re in the national interest?

Wasn’t someone already doing this?

Australia’s state and local governments and universities have been signing agreements with other countries for decades – covering everything from education and culture and trade to tourism and research.

More than 130 existing deals with 30 countries could be examined – and some possibly scuttled – under the Government’s proposed new regime, announced last week.

“Where any of these agreements undermine how the Federal Government is protecting and promoting our national interests they can be cancelled,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned.

Three Queensland Government agreements with Chinese organisations are on the list.

The oldest is a 2008 memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, which supports cooperation in a range of fields, from agriculture to climate change.

There’s also a 2009 agreement with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which, to date, has allocated more than $1 million in projects – from research into Alzheimer’s disease to analysing Chinese traditional medicines.

The most recent is a 2014 agreement with the Science and Technology Commission of  Shanghai to “advance collaborative research and commercialisation opportunities”.

These, and other such agreements have ticked along over the years and been periodically renewed, typically on the occasion of a visiting state minister.

And so, why the sudden need to review these and other such long-standing arrangements?

Is it sensible pragmatism at a time of growing concern about foreign influence – specifically from China?

Or politics and a chance to stick it to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and his Belt and Road infrastructure initiative with Beijing?

Or paranoia?

It’s easy to be paranoid about China if you set your mind to it.

I visited China a couple of years ago as a tourist and was walking through Beijing’s huge Olympic Park when a man on a bicycle pulled up beside me.

“German?” he asked, in German.

“No, Australian,” I replied in English. The bicyclist launched into a speech, now  in English, along the following lines:

“Your premier’s a bad man. Australia’s too friendly with America.

“We’re your friends. Tell your premier Australia need to sell us more iron ore, and coal.”

I told him I didn’t know our prime minister and that I was just a tourist but that didn’t stop him banging on in similar and well-informed vein for several more minutes before riding off.

Did the Government hire people to lurk around the tourist spots to badger visitors with the official line?

Or had they singled me out specially?  I had visited China a decade earlier on a journalist’s visa on a story about Chinese investment in the Queensland mining industry.

I had also once worked for a (Queensland) premier, if not a prime minister

And there’d been the strange incident at breakfast when my wife and I  returned to our booth in the corner of a half-empty dining room after visiting the buffet to find a man sitting at one of the spare spaces.

He’d looked up from his food and smiled politely but said nothing. Neither did we. Another country, different habits, different ideas of personal space and all that I’d decided.

As soon as he finished eating, the man pulled out his phone and, with hand signs, indicated he’d like my wife to take a picture of him and me together.

Not wanting to offend, we agreed. The fellow seemed so happy with the photos he immediately started tapping away on his phone – uploading them to his version of Facebook, or sending them off the man-on-the-bike’s handler, or the secret police perhaps?

Nothing else untoward happened on the trip. But enough to make you paranoid?

Obviously, you’d hope there’s more concrete evidence than tourists’ anecdotes behind these latest moves to control Chinese influence in Australia.

The Australian Government does occasionally hint that we’ve got reason for concern.

In May this year, it stopped just short of publicly naming China as the source of a major cyberattack on Australian governments and businesses. But it did offer enough nods and winks for the media to join the dots.

And the Queensland Government’s view on this sudden decision by Prime Minister Morrison to review it arrangements with overseas organisations?

“The Queensland Government has not seen the proposal so can’t comment on it,” a spokesperson said.

But be reassured that, “Queensland’s international trade and investment creates jobs for Queenslanders”, and “in doing so the Government works closely with the Commonwealth Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.”

As to the question of how the Queensland Government monitors and audits its various international agreements, in the absence of formal Federal Government oversight?

Well, no answer yet.

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