WHEN Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, urged China earlier this month to respect “the sovereignty of others”, many took it as criticism of China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea. But the comment might just as easily have been a reference to Australia’s political parties. All of them face questions about donations from businessmen linked to China’s government. A parliamentary inquiry in March called for a ban on political donations from foreign sources. Mr Turnbull has endorsed the idea, as has Labor, the main opposition.
Yet on June 5th, three days after Mr Turnbull’s speech, a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reinflamed the controversy. Two years ago both Labor and the Liberal-National alliance, which Mr Turnbull heads, are said to have ignored a warning from the domestic spy agency against accepting donations from two Chinese property developers: Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo. Mr Chau is an Australian citizen and Mr Huang has applied for citizenship. Both have links to China’s Communist Party, although both say they do not represent the Chinese government.
Last year Sam Dastyari, a Labor senator, quit a party post, but not parliament, after the disclosure that he had accepted money from Yuhu Group, which Mr Huang heads, to pay for travel and legal advice. Mr Dastyari had called on Australia to “respect” China’s claims in the South China Sea. The ABC claims that Mr Huang had promised Labor a donation of A$400,000 ($303,000) before the federal election last year, but withdrew the offer after the party’s defence spokesman publicly criticised China’s actions in the South China Sea. Mr Huang also donated almost A$2m to help launch the Australia-China Relations Institute, a think-tank in Sydney. Bob Carr, its head and a former Labor premier of New South Wales, pooh-poohs the idea that China might be seeking to buy political influence through such gifts.
Former politicians taking jobs with Chinese firms are another source of controversy. Andrew Robb, a Liberal minister who negotiated Australia’s free-trade deal with China, started working for Ye Cheng, a Chinese billionaire with extensive interests in Australia, after he left parliament last year.
China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and its second-biggest source of immigrants (after India). Almost 160,000 Chinese students study in Australia; rich Chinese also see the country as a haven for investment. All this, argues Rory Medcalf of the National Security College in Canberra, gives China’s authorities a natural desire to influence Australian policy and in particular to weaken its ties with America.
James Clapper, a former American intelligence chief now at the Australian National University, sees “striking parallels” between Russia’s meddling in America’s politics and China’s “potentially nefarious foreign interference” in Australia. As well as supporting the proposed ban on foreign donations, Mr Turnbull ordered a review of espionage laws earlier this month, to strengthen defences against foreign meddling. John Fitzgerald of Swinburne University in Melbourne wonders if these moves will suffice. Australia’s leaders, he says, have been “blind to risks” that come with closer commercial ties with China.
Billionaire Huang Xiangmo’s political influence has extended directly into the NSW parliament with revelations that a serving NSW MP filed documents for an organisation headed by the Chinese Communist party-aligned businessman while acting as its adviser.
Labor MP Ernest Wong filed and signed off on financial documents for the Australian Guangdong Chamber of Commerce (AGCC) headed by two major Labor donors, including Mr Huang.
Mr Wong also listed his parliamentary email on the NSW Department of Fair Trading documents he lodged on behalf of the AGCC in November 2014.
Mr Wong filed the documents even though the organisation is directed by several wealthy businessmen, including at least two multimillionaires, with ready access to lawyers and translators.
…Mr Wong’s role assisting the Mr Huang-chaired AGCC provides further evidence of the close ties Mr Huang has struck with local politicians amid growing concerns about China’s attempts to influence Australian politics.
…In November 2012, prior to Mr Wong’s May 2013 placement into the NSW upper house by the state ALP to fill a vacancy left by the resignation of Eric Roozendaal, Mr Huang and a second Chinese businessman Luo Chuangxiong, donated $300,000 to the NSW ALP. In August 2013, the two businessmen donated a total of $250,000 to the NSW ALP.
…In early 2014 it emerged that Mr Roozendaal, who is also a former general secretary of the NSW Labor party, had been appointed vice-president of Yuhu after he quit parliament in May 2013.