The former chair of the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations resigned earlier this year in a letter to the Prime Minister.(AAP: Lukas Coch)
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.
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."
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.
"It would be difficult for anyone who is involved in establishing or encouraging good working relations with another country if you come from an organisation which has got such a clear hostile position to begin with."
"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.
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
The Falun Gong movement is officially banned in China and the CCP has labelled the group "an evil cult".
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 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, 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.
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.
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."
Echo Hui is an investigative journalist who covers political and social issues with a special focus on grassroots democracy, open society and global affairs. You can read her stories at echohui.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @hui_echo. Contact her safely at email@example.com.