Chinese Donors Influencing Australian Politics

Amid growing concerns over Beijing’s broadening soft power push into Australia,  Australian Labor Party senator Sam Dastyari resigned from his party’s frontbench this week after it was revealed that he used a Chinese-linked company’s donation to cover travel expenses of approximately $1,270. The revelation has sparked broader worry that foreign donors may be attempting to buy political influence in Australia. At The New York Times, Michelle Innis reports:

Mr. Dastyari told Parliament last week that the Top Education Institute, a private Chinese company, made the payment, which he later said he had used to pay some travel bills. He publicly declared the funds on a disclosure register for politicians, and his acceptance of them was not illegal.

[…] But Mr. Dastyari’s opaque declaration in Parliament on Aug. 31 — it was just 66 words and came only after pressure from his political opponents — added fuel to concerns that he might have deviated from Australia’s bipartisan, hard-line policy against China’s activities in the South China Sea. That led to a fiery debate over the influence of foreigners in Australia’s politics.

[…] Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, urged China to abide by the [recent] ruling [against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea by the Permanent Court of Arbitration], and Mr. Turnbull told President Xi Jinping of China after the Group of 20 meeting that Australia expected all parties to comply with the law and not act in a way that exacerbated tensions in the region.

[…] During questioning of Mr. Dastyari in the Senate, Stephen Conroy of the Labor Party demanded to know why Ms. Bishop’s party, the Western Australian branch of the Liberal Party, had received about $457,000 from a Chinese company that does not do business in Western Australia, Ms. Bishop’s home state. He added that the payment had “hopelessly compromised” her. […] [Source]

The Guardian reports on how the Dastyari donation led journalists to uncover the senator’s links to high-profile Chinese political donor Huang Xiangmo:

Once the payment became public, Dastyari moved to pay the money back. Which led journalists to check out Dastyari’s links with the Chinese community. Which led to the Yuhu Group and its chairman, Huang Xiangmo, and his company’s payment of $5,000 to cover “legal bills” before Dastyari was a senator. What for? We don’t know. Dastyari said on Tuesday there was a confidentiality clause but he confirmed the amount was about right. None of this is against the rules.

Further down the burrow. Huang also gave him two bottles of wine when he entered parliament in 2013. Again he declared them because they were worth more than $300 (which is the declaration limit). Last weekend we found out the wine was probably worth $700 given it was Penfold’s Grange. Titillating detail but only because of Barry O’Farrell’s fall from grace over a bottle of Grange.

Which begs the question, who is Huang? He is a 47-year-old resident of Australia, who arrived in 2011 – a big guy in the Chinese community. He donates large amounts to Australian charities. Just as he rescued Dastyari over his legal bills, he was also there in 2013 to offer a job to the former Labor treasurer Eric Roozendaal when he decided to quit New South Wales politics. Roozendaal was investigated for the circumstances surrounding the provision of a car by Eddie Obeid’s son Moses in 2007. Icac commissioner David Ipp made no finding of corrupt conduct against Roozendaal. […] [Source]

Huang Xiangmo has been a prolific donor to both major Australian political parties, and has also been instrumental in deepening Chinese ties to Australian educational institutions—another major part of Beijing’s drive in the country. In 2013, Huang donated $1.8 million to found the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology, Sydney, and another $3.5 million to set up the Australia-China Institute of Arts and Culture at the University of Western Sydney. At The Sydney Morning Herald, Matthew Knott reports on warnings that institute’s like Huang’s ACRI are being used as Chinese “propaganda vehicles” in Australia:

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”. [Source]

Huang’s ACRI think tank is directed by Bob Carr, who was Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2012-2013. At The Australian, Sarah Martin reports further on fears that the ACRI is operating in the manner of a Chinese propaganda outlet, explaining possible reasons why the university would be willing to host such an institute:

Bob Carr’s China think tank at the University of Technology, Sydney, is operating as a “propaganda arm” of the Chinese communist government, critics say, as they raise concerns that the Australian university sector is compromising academic freedoms and has ­become an easy target for Chinese “soft power”.

[…] The Australian can reveal that, before ACRI was established, the university had faced problems with the Chinese government after it included references to Falun Gong religious artwork displayed in a student-union exhib­ition on its website. Falun Gong is a spiritual practice banned in China since the late 1990s; its ­followers are widely persecuted.

Sources say the university ­received a formal request from Chinese government officials in Australia to remove the artwork, and made their displeasure known. Soon after the incident, the UTS website was blocked in China, meaning it was unavailable to potential international stud­ents, cutting off an important ­income stream.

There are competing views about why this occurred, with two academics familiar with the ban telling The Australian it was “punishment” for its unwillingness to restrict academic freedom, while another said there had never been any indication of a link between the two and they believed it was related to a commercial entity in China wanting to take over the university’s website address. [Source]

Amid the soft power push into Australia, several recent deals between Chinese and Australian media outlets have compounded concerns that China may be attempting to manipulate the political atmosphere on the continent. Beijing’s efforts to influence Australia’s media landscape appear to have achieved some success—recent reports say that the Chinese-language press in the country is now near completely controlled by interests aligned with Beijing, and several major outlets run by Fairfax Media are now running Chinese state media copy in a monthly “China Watch” lift-out. A new report from University of Technology, Sydney communications professor Wanning Sun has recommended that the Australian government and businesses actors “level the playing field” by actively using Chinese social media platforms. The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy reports:

The report says Chinese-language online media, particularly social media, has helped major Australian political parties to win votes from the Chinese diaspora.

 […] “This online space has also become a popular forum for the Chinese migrant students to express palpable frustration, even anger, with Australia’s perceived tendency to follow the United States in its foreign policy towards China.”

It suggests the Australian government should be less passive given there has been a huge expansion in the use and influence of Chinese online and social media: “It is not the exclusive domain of the Chinese government to spurt propaganda or give fuel to nationalist sentiment,” the report says.

“The Australian government, for example, could take the opportunity to use Chinese online media to exert Australian soft power and explain its position on controversial matters such as the South China Sea dispute,” it says. […] [Source]