Foreign influencers accusation just won't stand up

Tom Fowdy
The ASPI is a hawkish think tank with ties to Australia's defence establishment and also receives funding from arms contractors and foreign governments.
Tom Fowdy

Last week the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a study on foreign influencers in China, accusing them of singing from the "Communist Party of China's hymn sheet." The study was carried by the Financial Times and it accused these individuals – either Youtubers or on other video-streaming sites – of pushing pro-China narratives as part of an online influence operation.

Such stories are scarcely original or uncommon, although they tend to deliberately exaggerate to frame every single person who dare depict China positively, or challenge mainstream narratives targeting the country, in terms of being complicit in some way.

The ASPI, however, is a hawkish think tank with ties to Australia's defence establishment and also receives funding from arms contractors and foreign governments. Because of this, it played an intrinsic role in shaping public opinion against China from 2019 to 2022, in particular pushing the Uygur narrative and "forced labor" which were designed to facilitate bans on Chinese products from Xinjiang.

Because of this agenda-driven behavior, the ASPI has always been distinctly more aggressive in its behavior than US government think tanks, and from personal experience their analysts have been more abusive, unpleasant and unprofessional in their conduct with others online. While the employees of RAND, CSIS, etc, think tanks, all known defence industry mouthpieces, will never personally confront or abuse you, some employees of the ASPI will and this only goes to show the insidious nature of this institution which, despite its questionable background, has nonetheless been astroturfed by the mainstream media as an impartial and objective source of truth.

Predictably, the given "report," which was published and circulated on social media, was also funded by the US State Department, on the condition that it was not to write about US citizens. Despite this, for the time being it is actually rare to hear from the ASPI, that is because since Australia's Liberal Party lost power to Labor, the government of Anthony Albanese has sought to calm relations with China, reset ties and therefore marginalize disruptive influences such as the ASPI. It doesn't have the clout it once had. Similarly, the US has also (temporarily) toned down its hostility toward Beijing.

In addition to that, it might be added that when Twitter (now X) was under the ownership of the pro-establishment Jack Dorsey, the company consulted the ASPI as a source for weeding out what it deemed to be "pro-China narratives" from its platform. The ASPI would identify accounts it would claim were "Chinese bots" and ban them indiscriminately, even though they were often real people.

However, Elon Musk's takeover of the platform has seen X safety team effectively fired and collaborative work with the ASPI ended. As the quality of the platform deteriorated in general because of this and the elite "blue tick" regime having ended for an "anything goes" system, the ASPI also lost the influence it once had on the platform and many of its analysts withdrew or limited their participation.

Yet despite this, the underlying theme of its work pertaining to its Internet research continues, albeit on a quieter scale, that is to hype up the notion of a Chinese threat and peddle narratives of "infiltration," "threat" and "influence." This includes attacking Youtubers who are based in China and say positive things about the country, accusing them of being part of a "Party-line" system and merely singing to the choir of "Chinese nationalists" who, according to this report, have a distorted view of the world.

However, on the other hand are we to believe that sources such as the ASPI are completely impartial, neutral and always bringing us the truth against China? In my opinion, the ASPI is in all seriousness one of Australia's worst think tanks. It is hard to conceive any other institution which is, to such a great irony, tasked with pushing the narrative of a foreign power.

(The author, a postgraduate student of Chinese studies at Oxford University, is an English analyst on international relations. The views are his own.)

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