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Australia warns China to keep out of its affairs

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
Edgar Su | Reuters
Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

Australia is reviewing its espionage laws and banning foreign political donations over concerns that China is buying influence by using rich businessmen to funnel millions of dollars in donations to political parties. "

Just as modern China was based on an assertion of national sovereignty, so China should always respect the sovereignty of other nations, including, of course, our own," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters on Tuesday.

Many other western nations, including the US and UK, prohibit foreign political donations, and Washington has expressed concern both over Chinese meddling in Australian politics and the role of a wealthy diaspora in Beijing's drive to project soft power overseas.

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Mr Turnbull's comments follow an investigation by Fairfax Media and Australian broadcaster ABC detailing A$6.7m in donations to the Liberal and Labor parties made by billionaires Huang Xiangmo and Chau Chak Wing. The report alleged that ASIO, Australia's intelligence agency, had warned both parties in 2015 about accepting the pair's donations because they had links to China's Communist party. It also said that the warnings had not been heeded.

Mr Huang, founder of Shenzhen-based property group Yuhu Group, was at the centre of a scandal last year that toppled Labor party senator Sam Dastyari when it emerged the politician had accepted thousands of dollars in donations from Yuhu and used them to pay for travel and legal bills.

In interviews with Chinese media, Mr Dastyari had publicly called for Australia to respect China's territorial claims in the South China Sea — a position contrary to that of his party.

After the scandal Mr Huang resigned as chairman of the Australia China Relations Institute, a think-tank he co-founded that is linked to University of Technology Sydney. Acri has been criticised by some academics who allege its pro-China stance is part of a $10bn global propaganda push by Beijing.

The Fairfax/ABC investigation alleged that Mr Dastyari had intervened on behalf of Mr Huang with Australia's department of immigration over the businessman's application for citizenship and that Mr Huang's application had been stalled by ASIO.

Mr Dastyari said on Monday his office had dealt with 200 immigration and citizenship matters from many different nationalities since he became a senator. "This is part of my job," he added.

Mr Huang remains president of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, which critics allege is linked to the Chinese Communist party and backs Chinese policy on issues such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The investigation alleged that Mr Huang had reneged on a pledge to donate A$400,000 to Labor in June 2016 when the party's defence spokesman called for Australia to undertake freedom of navigation operations in the contested waters.

Mr Huang moved to Australia in 2011. Since then he, his family, his company and Yuhu staff have donated to both the Liberal and Labor parties. He has been photographed with politicians including Mr Turnbull.

John Fitzgerald, professor at Swinburne University of Technology, said all the available evidence pointed to an attempt by the businessmen to influence Australian politics in a manner that supported Chinese policy goals.

"Australians resent foreign interference in their electoral processes from any foreign source — America, Russia, China — as it can skew political outcomes and undermine faith in electoral systems," he said.

Mr Huang told the Financial Times it was regrettable that people who did not know him were choosing to question his motives and undermine his reputation based on dubious assertions and innuendo.

"While some seek to reinforce negative stereotypes about Chinese involvement in Australia, I am committed to more positive pursuits, such as investment, philanthropy and building stronger community relations," he said in a statement.

The investigation also details donations by Dr Chau, who chairs the Kingold Group, a conglomerate with interests in property, education and finance based in Guangzhou.

Dr Chau, who has received Australian citizenship, has donated A$25m to UTS to fund scholarships and a new building for its business school.

A spokesman for Dr Chau did not immediately reply to a request for comment.