Australian universities have been warned against becoming “propaganda vehicles” for foreign interests by accepting money from donors with close connections to China.
There is rising concern about the University of Technology, Sydney’s Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI), which was founded in 2014 with a $1.8 million donation from businessman and prolific political donor Xiangmo Huang.
Mr Huang’s Yuhu Group, a China-based property company, paid a $5000 legal bill for Labor senator Sam Dastyari who stood down from the opposition frontbench on Wednesday.
The ACRI website says the institute, whose director is former NSW premier Bob Carr, publishes work “based on a positive and optimistic view of Australia-China relations”.
Academic staff at UTS said they were concerned about the “neutrality and independence” of the institute, given Mr Huang serves as the institute’s chairman.
A UTS staff member who spoke to Fairfax Media said the seminars and publications by ACRI closely resemble “party propaganda of the Chinese Government”.
“It’s far from independent or neutral and it’s a worry among staff,” the academic, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said.
“A lot of people have wondered what the qualifications Mr Huang has to be the chairman of a strategic think-tank like ACRI,” the academic said.
James Leibold, a China expert at La Trobe University, said he believed Mr Huang’s role as chairman “clearly suggests that the independence of the institute has been compromised”.
“I don’t think we want institutes, which have become largely propaganda vehicles for friendly viewpoints on China,” he said.
“Universities need philanthropy but they also need to protect their independence.”
Professor Leibold said ACRI did some “reasonably rigorous research” but it promoted an overwhelmingly positive view of China in its fact sheets and other publications.
John Fitzgerald, a China specialist at Swinburne University, this week described ACRI as “the clearest departure from accepted university practice” he has seen.
ACRI replaced the respected UTS China Research Centre, which has now been disbanded.
University of Sydney academic Yingjie Guo, who previously served as deputy director of the China Research Centre, said its work was academically “substantive” and some staff members were critical of the Chinese regime.
By contrast, he said ACRI mostly publishes opinion pieces and while they can be “analytical they certainly don’t try to be critical” of China.
Mr Huang has also given $3.5 million to Western Sydney University to establish a new Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture.
ACRI director Bob Carr, who has long had close links to the Australian-Chinese community, has used his role at ACRI to become one of Australia’s most strident pro-China commentators.
After the recent announcement that the Turnbull Government would veto the sale of Ausgrid to Chinese interests on national interest grounds, he labelled the decision “a policy sacrifice to the witches’ sabbath of xenophobia and economic nationalism stirred up in the recent federal election”.
Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Mr Carr “is extremely consistent in the way he promotes a line that is about producing policy outcomes that are congenial to Beijing.”
UTS Deputy Vice-Chancellor Glenn Wightwick said ACRI performs “high quality and extremely important research” and had commissioned research “by the very best scholars in their fields”.
“UTS has, and always will, support academic freedom and the obligation of its academics to speak out on public issues related to their fields of expertise, whether that be in science, economics or public policy,” he said.
Mr Carr did not respond to requests for comment.