This week the Australian government rejected the citizenship application and canceled the permanent residency of the prominent Sydney-based Chinese businessman, Huang Xiangmo. The Diplomat spoke to Alex Joske from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute about who Huang Xiangmo is and the reason that Canberra felt compelled to take these actions.
The Diplomat: Who is Huang Xiangmo? And why would the Australian government reject his application for citizenship and cancel his permanent residency?
Alex Joske: Huang Xiangmo is a businessman from the Chaoshan region of Guangdong province in southern China. He made his fortune as a property developer when the province’s economy boomed in the 2000s. In 2011, Huang relocated to Australia and expanded his property development business just before many of his associates in the Chinese government were arrested for corruption.
Huang moved quickly to build networks and status within parts of the Chinese community, as well as political and academic circles. Shortly after arriving in Australia, Huang became the leader of several local groups close to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, which is tasked with influencing and controlling non-communists.
Huang also left his mark in academia. He and a close associate from Chaoshan, Zhou Chulong, donated AU$2.8 million (US$2 million) to the University of Technology Sydney to establish the Australia China Relations Institute. Huang would later boast that he hand-picked former Australian foreign minister and premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, to lead the institute, which Carr says takes an “unabashedly positive and optimistic view of the Australia-China relationship.” Huang also funded the establishment of a center at Western Sydney University.
It is Huang’s political links that have attracted the most controversy. He secured relationships with Australian political parties and power brokers like former Senator Sam Dastyari from the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party, and together with his associates donated around AU$2 million (US$1.4 million) to the Labor Party and over AU$1 million (US$710,000) to the Liberal Party.
The relationships between Huang and Australian politicians like Dastyari became alarmingly deep and raised serious concerns about foreign political interference. Notably, Dastyari repeated Beijing’s line on the South China Sea over his own party’s in a press conference Huang organized for Chinese-language media. The day before the press conference, Labor’s then foreign affairs spokesman had sharply criticized the People’s Republic of China’s expansion in the South China Sea. Huang responded by withdrawing a AU$400,000 (US$250,000) donation he had promised.
We now know that Australia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), decided to cancel Huang’s permanent residency because he was “amenable to conducting acts of foreign interference” and had shown a willingness to do so in the past. This suggests ASIO believed Huang had sought to influence Australian political processes on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party, and was likely to continue doing so.
In 2017 media reports revealed the extent of Huang’s donations to political parties in Australia and the subsequent concerns of ASIO. What would have been the potential outcomes Huang was seeking from these donations?
The pattern of Huang’s donations and behavior suggests he was seeking greater influence over Australian politics in order to promote rhetoric and policies aligned with the Chinese Communist Party’s interests. Huang’s decision to withdraw a AU$400,000 donation to the Labor Party after it took a strong stand on China’s actions in the South China Sea is a convincing demonstration of this. On other occasions, Huang and his associates made donations that coincided with the signing of the controversial China-Australia Free Trade Agreement in 2014.
What is the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China? And what are its aims?
The peaceful reunification council, often abbreviated as the ACPPRC, operates as a peak body for organizations and individuals in Australia which are part of the United Front. The ACPPRC has frequent exchanges with, and may even be a branch of, the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification, an organization run by the United Front Work Department that plays a role in coordinating overseas United Front work.
Huang Xiangmo became chairman of the ACPPRC in 2014 and a senior committee member of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification the next year. Under Huang’s leadership, the ACPPRC managed to recruit over 80 community groups as member organizations and its membership list became a who’s who of CCP-linked Chinese community figures and even politicians. The ACPPRC is still active but is less influential now after media scrutiny, which led to Huang stepping down as chairman in 2017. Although he is still chairman of a similar group with significant overlap in membership, the Oceanic Alliance of the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China. Both these groups were referenced by ASIO in its decision to cancel Huang’s permanent residency.
It seems the Australian government is now becoming aware of the extent of the CCP’s influence activities in the country. Are there measures of greater vigilance the government should be taking?
Last year’s legislation targeting foreign interference drew a clear line in the sand about what kinds of foreign political influence are unacceptable and constitute interference, but there’s a long way to go before CCP influence is effectively controlled and understood. The core of any response to undue foreign influence should be to shine sunlight on unacceptable activities, disrupt the mechanisms of foreign interference, and engage with communities most affected by it. New legislation has given the bureaucracy more tools to uncover and prosecute cases of interference, but much more can be done to inform the public and political circles about foreign interference and to build greater engagement with civil society and communities the CCP seeks to interfere in.
Is Beijing likely to seek any retaliatory measures against Canberra due to the measures taken against Huang?
No. The Australian government’s decision is based on a legitimate right to protect sovereignty and resist foreign political interference. Huang Xiangmo had brief successes building relationships with politicians and promoting voices sympathetic to the CCP, but he may have done more than any other individual to raise awareness about CCP influence around the world. The United Front, once obscure and perceived as insignificant, is now mentioned in newspapers around the world nearly every day. Public protests by Beijing over the Australian government’s decision wouldn’t be in the CCP’s interests and would only draw attention to Huang’s ties to the party.