There are many sins of commission in Bob Carr’s crack at debunking his straw man version of the Four Corners-Fairfax investigation into Beijing’s influence in Australia.
More fascinating are its sins of omission.
The joint investigation examined Chinese Communist Party activities that ranged from directing student groups, through threatening pro-democracy advocates to effectively controlling most Chinese-language media in Australia.
We also reported that, in 2015, ASIO warned the Liberal, Labor and National parties that two of their big donors had Chinese Communist Party links. The parties chose to keep taking money from both.
The two are Chinese-born billionaire property developers Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo. As we reported, Chau is an Australian citizen. Huang has applied for citizenship but it has stalled while ASIO assesses it.
Between them they have given $6.7 million to the Coalition and Labor, which puts the pair in the front rank of the most generous individual political donors in the land. They are also huge academic benefactors and have been particularly generous to University of Technology Sydney.
Carr does not name either, which is curious because he knows both men well.
As NSW premier, he employed Chau’s daughter as an adviser. Perhaps he believed this detail immaterial, and that is arguable.
But given Carr writes as director of the Australia China Relations Institute at UTS, then Huang surely rated a mention.
In 2014, Huang donated $1.8m to help set up ACRI. Two years later he boasted to Primrose Riordan, now of this newspaper, that he had hand-picked Carr for the director’s job.
“When we established the institute, ACRI, someone recommended an even more influential figure from politics to me but I decided to invite Bob Carr because I consider him to be a very good academic,” Huang said.
Others are less enthusiastic about ACRI’s academic credentials. The institute is at the heart of a live discussion among Australia’s universities over whether academic inquiry is being distorted by an over-reliance on Chinese money. That topic is worthy of its own investigation.
So let’s leave the case of Chau to one side and just examine the one piece of evidence that Carr will admit: that our story only turned up “a single big donation from a Chinese national”.
The nub of ASIO’s concern about Huang is that his money might come with strings attached, so we tested that idea.
We reported that in the lead-up to last year’s federal election, Huang pulled a $400,000 pledge to Labor, after its defence spokesman said Australia should let the navy challenge the 12-nautical-mile zones around the islands Beijing is militarising in the South China Sea.
The next day senator Sam Dastyari joined Huang at a press conference called exclusively for Chinese-language media. There Dastyari said: “The South China Sea is China’s own affair.”
Pause to consider how those words and images would have been interpreted when broadcast in China: an Australian politician standing beside a billionaire patron repudiating his party’s foreign policy and embracing Beijing’s. Then imagine what the Communist Party would do to the official and the donor if the circumstances were reversed.
A week later, as Huang continued to withhold the promised $400,000, he was front and centre at another press conference, where Labor announced it had put his political ally, businessman and active ALP member Simon Zhou, on the last spot on the ALP’s Senate ticket.
Huang spoke to China’s state broadcaster at the event.
“As China’s power keeps rising, the status of overseas Chinese is also rising,” he said.
“Now overseas Chinese realise that they need to make their voices heard in politics. To safeguard Chinese interests and let Australian society pay more attention to the Chinese.”
We also reported that Dastyari was so concerned about Huang’s stalled citizenship that he directly petitioned the Immigration Department about it on at least two occasions. Either he or his office called two more times. Labor says these were routine constituent matters.
Then there is the proximity of some of the donations to political events, including the parachuting of Huang’s ally, Ernest Wong, into NSW parliament. Wong stepped into the upper house seat vacated by a once-influential figure in the ALP right, Eric Roozendaal. Huang later employed Roozendaal.
So without access to ASIO’s resources, a reasonable person might conclude that there was some merit in the agency’s concerns about Huang.
Carr also dismisses the evidence of the Chinese embassy’s direct hand in organising students for mass events such as the welcome of Premier Li Keqiang. Again, he ignores a key point.
Nick McKenzie asked student leader Lupin Lu if she would tell the embassy if any students were organising a human rights protest. “Yes,” she said. “I would definitely, just to keep all the students safe and to do it for China as well.”
Carr ignores the 10-day detention and questioning in China of fellow UTS academic Feng Chongyi. Feng said the state security officials wanted details about his contacts in Australia and believed his interrogation was designed to send a signal to other academics not to trespass in sensitive areas. Carr’s critique also omits mention of the threats made by authorities against the China-based parents of Australian resident and pro-democracy advocate Anthony Chang.
Nor does he respond to the testimony of Don Ma that state security officials in Beijing forced a migration agent to stop advertising with his Australia-based, Chinese-language newspapers because he ran stories that irked the Communist Party.
This is not an exhaustive list, so it is hard to reconcile Carr’s assertion that every nation behaves here in the way that China does.
Our security agencies appear not to be as sanguine. ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis told parliament that espionage and foreign interference are occurring here “on an unprecedented scale”.
“And this has the potential to cause serious harm to the nation’s sovereignty, the integrity of our political system, our national security capabilities, our economy and other interests,” Lewis said.
Which man would you entrust your nation’s security to?
Just a thought.
Chris Uhlmann is the ABC’s political editor