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Explainer: Why Australia revoked Chinese tycoon’s citizenship citing ‘political interference’

By Chinese Border-crossing Question and Answer

The news concerning Chinese tycoon Huang Xiangmo’s revoked Australian citizenship shook the Chinese overseas and diasporic communities this month. Huang, now settled in Hong Kong, told the media that the ban from entering the country was “grotesquely unfair” and “based on unfounded speculations that are prejudiced and groundless”.

However, the Australian government and many researchers feel that Huang was unfairly using political ties to push Chinese Communist Party interests within the country. The Chinese Border-Crossing Question and Answer project hosted by the Hong Kong-based Culture and Media Education Foundation (CMEF) interviewed Perth-based researcher W.L Yeung about the context of the incident.

Huang Xiangmo

Huang Xiangmo. Photo: Yuhu group.

Question 1: Who is Huang Xiangmo? How did he make his reputation in Australia?

Huang Xiangmo, who also goes by his legal name Huang Changran (黄畅然), is a property developer, a Director of the Yuhu Group (玉湖集团), a political donor and a lobbyist. He relocated to Australia from China in around 2011.

The Australian public first heard of him when he splashed A$12.8 million on a mansion in a prestigious Sydney suburb in 2012. This real estate transaction stimulated a buying spree of similarly expensive properties among Chinese investors who claimed to be friends of Huang.

Huang caught public attention again in 2014 when he donated A$1.8 million to the University of Technology Sydney to replace an existing China research centre, famous for its independent critical research, with a pro-Beijing Australian-China Relations Institute (UTS ACRI) headed by Huang’s handpicked Director, Australia’s former foreign minister Bob Carr.

Huang’s eagerness to establish close links with Australia’s higher education institutions did not stop at UTS. He subsequently donated another A$4.5 million to several universities. Among the beneficiaries of his generosity was a former Australian diplomat who had once been a vocal critic of the Confucius Institutes.

Over the next few years, photos of Huang rubbing shoulders with Australian politicians became a regular feature in Chinese language media nationwide.

However, mainstream media did not start to look seriously into him until 2016 when a Fairfax reporter discovered that Huang had made donations of more than A$1 million to both major political parties from 2012 to 2015. Since then the total sum has surged to around AU$3 million.

The Fairfax report also revealed details of how Huang was caught up in a corruption scandal in his hometown of Jieyang in Guangdong Province prior to his departure for Australia.

Despite Huang’s repeated denial of wrongdoing and his insistent that he is not banned from entry to China, many Australian researchers believe that Huang has not set foot in Mainland China since 2013.

Australian-China Relations Institute

Australian-China Relations Institute. Photo: Screenshot.

Question 2: The decision to revoke the permanent residence of Huang Xiangmo by the Australian government is based on security advice that he was “amenable to conducting acts of foreign interference”. What “acts of foreign interference” has Huang allegedly conducted in Australia?

I believe the “acts of foreign interference” here refer to Huang’s united front associations and the pattern of his donations, both of which suggest he has been actively seeking political influence in order to promote the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.

Huang Xiangmo was head of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC) and is currently head of the Oceanic Alliance of the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (OAPPRC). Both the ACPPRC and the OAPPRC are official branches of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification (CCPPNR) in Beijing run by the United Front Work Department of the CCP Central Committee.

Huang’s membership in these groups was mentioned by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) as one of the reasons for cancelling Huang’s permanent resident status. A 2016 protest rally in support of China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea (SCS) was staged by the Melbourne branch of the ACPPRC. Other activities, including protests against the visits of the Dalai Lama to Australia, was also linked to this united front group.

The pattern of Huang’s political donations came under media scrutiny when the Sam Dastyari scandal broke out in 2016. During parliamentary debates into the Dastyari scandal, alarming evidence emerged, pointing to ways in which Huang used his friendships with politicians to solicit policy endorsement in alignment with Beijing’s interests:

  • Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, who was caught on record allowing Huang to pay a fine of A$44,000 on his behalf to settle a court case, had previously parroted Beijing’s line on the South China Sea, contrary to his party’s policy, in a press conference which Huang arranged exclusively for Chinese language media.
  • At about the same time, Huang withdrew a A$400,000 donation promised to the Labor party after the party’s foreign affairs spokesman openly criticized China’s expansion in the SCS.
  • It was suggested that Huang and others had topped up their political donations in 2014 prior to the signing of a controversial China-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

Government records also indicated that Dastyari had attempted to use his political influence to fast-track Huang’s citizenship application.

Based on this and other undisclosed information, ASIO decided that Huang had acted on behalf of the CCP to influence political processes in Australia and it was likely that he would continue to do so in future, should he be allowed to return to Australia.

Question 3: Huang has been active in Australia for many years as investor and lobbyist. Why did the Australian government only decide to take action now? Has there been any political or legal development recently that leads to the current decision?

I have already touched on the political scandal that became a wake-up call for Australia to tackle foreign political interference head on. However, Australia’s counter-espionage legislation was seriously out of date at the time.

Foreign donations were permitted in Canberra as as well as in most states (except NSW). Following months of intense debates and reviews, a new set of legislation was passed in June 2018. A total ban on foreign political donations was also adopted a few months later.

The new legislation outlines, in more explicit terms, the kind of political influence that may constitute interference. It gives law enforcement the necessary tools to investigate and prosecute offenders. It also provides a legal basis for the government to force foreign agents to register and to prosecute them if they fail to comply.

Parliament of Australia

Parliament of Australia building. Photo: Parliament of Australia.

Question 4: Can you give us some examples of exactly which policy areas Huang had an impact on?

Please refer to my answer to Question 2 for more details. One thing to note is that Huang’s political influence is not confined to pushing China’s SCS policies, or to weakening Australia’s alliance with the USA. Fairfax media uncovered a set of documents in 2017 that exposed a business link between NSW Labor MP Ernest Wong and Huang.

In 2014, Wong was parachuted by NSW Labor party into a seat vacated by the sudden resignation of NSW treasurer Eric Roozendaal. A subsequent media investigation found that Roozendaal had in fact quit the NSW parliament to work in Huang’s Yuhu Group.

Judging from this case some observers suggest that Huang’s political interference in Australia may have gone beyond the level of policy advocacy. No one has been prosecuted as a result of this alleged case of interference because legislation at the time did not provide the tool necessary for law enforcement to act.

Ernest Wong

Ernest Wong. Photo: Ernest Wong.

Question 5: There is speculation that the decision is related to the arrest of Australian citizen Yang Hengjun in mainland China? How does this speculation come about? Do you think it is groundless? Why or Why not?

I first heard of this from James Laurenceson, the Deputy Director of UTS ACRI, in his interview with a Sydney-based Chinese language newspaper. I am not sure if he is just guessing or if he is privileged with insider information.

I think it would be very difficult to establish a direct link at this stage. Having said that, I must point out that diplomatic relations between China and Australia are now at an all-time low. China seems to take offence at:

  • Australia banning Huawei from taking part in future 5G mobile infrastructure rollout; and
  • The passing of foreign political interference legislation.

China seems to be directing its anger specifically at former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his China adviser John Garnaut.

When UTS Associate Professor in China Studies Feng Chongyi (冯崇义) was briefly detained in China in 2017, he was interrogated by China’s security police for information about Garnaut, as the Fairfax media later revealed, citing intelligence sources.

Garnaut is a friend of Yang Hengjun. So, it is also possible that Yang’s detention is related to China’s anger towards the 2018 foreign political interference legislation. Huang’s ban from entry to Australia is also the result of the new legislation. In this sense, there are perhaps grounds in linking the two cases together.

Yang Hengjun

Yang Hengjun. Photo: Yang Hengjun, via Twitter.

Question 6: What is the general public reaction to the revoking of Huang’s permanent residence? How does the Chinese community react to the news in particular?

Public opinion supports the government’s decision. Prime minister Scott Morrison’s personal rating has slightly improved since Huang’s ban was made public, even though Liberal continues to trail behind Labor in opinion polls.

The Chinese dissident community is jubilant. A Chinese-Australian community group, the Australian Values Alliance, has just issued a statement to welcome the decision.

Outside of the dissident circle, however, Chinese communities nationwide are rather quiet, reflecting a sense of uncertainty and insecurity over the impact of the new legislation. I think more transparency from law enforcement and cultural sensitivity in media reporting will go a long way in easing tension.

Pro-Beijing Chinese media in Australia have fired some pathetic shots.

A widely circulated WeChat post from a Perth-based public news platform attempted to rouse sympathy by claiming that Huang, a respectable community leader, had been treated worse than a serial killer.

The WeChat platform is owned by the general secretary of the WA Shanghai Federation, a powerful united front group whose president is an honorary advisor of the WA branch of the ACPPRC.

Phoenix TV has also posted a video interview with Keith Suter, who called himself an Australian scholar of international studies. However, the Australian international studies community on Twitter was unable to verify Suter’s qualifications or his institutional affiliation. During the interview, Suter argued empathically against the legality of ASIO’s ruling.

Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison (right). Photo: G20 Argentina.

Question 7: What is the implication of the decision for Australian politics and relations with China? Will there be further action to reduce China’s interference in Australia? 

A part of the new legislation contains a transparency scheme, modelled in part on the United State’s foreign agents registration act. It will require individuals or institutions to make a declaration if they are acting on behalf of a foreign power to influence the political processes of Australia.

Those who are currently lobbying for foreign governments in Australia have a six-month grace period to register. It is expected that some individuals or institutions who have failed to comply will be prosecuted. So yes, I believe this will go a long way in protecting Australia against interference from most foreign countries including China.

I am one of the Australian scholars of China, the Chinese diaspora and China-Australia relations who signed a joint letter in March 2018 to support the new foreign interference legislation.

I share with other cosignatories a firm belief that “identifying, recognizing and winding back CCP interference as an unacceptable and counterproductive part of bilateral engagement is a step towards developing a healthy China-Australia relationship over the long term”.

Bill Shorten

Bill Shorten. Photo: Facebook/Bill Shorten.

Question 8: How did Australian politicians and political parties react to Huang’s proposal on the return of political donations?

When PM Scott Morrison was asked if his party would return the donation, he referred to the law introduced to ban foreign donations and said, “The actions we’ve been taking in relation to this gentleman, that’s based on information that exists today.” He did not elaborate.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten dodged questions about whether his party would return donations from Huang. He said and I quote: “Well, we stopped taking money from him a couple of years ago. In fact, Labor stopped taking donations from that gentleman and another person before the law caught up with our position.”


A shorter version of this article originally appeared in Global Voices.

Explainer: Why Australia revoked Chinese tycoon's citizenship citing 'political interference'