CANBERRA (BLOOMBERG) - Australia's first Chinese-born lawmaker is under intense political scrutiny over her former ties with Communist Party-linked groups - a saga that reveals growing sensitivities about Beijing's perceived meddling in national affairs.
Ms Gladys Liu, who has lived in Australia for more than 30 years and was elected to Parliament in May, this week acknowledged she once belonged to Chinese community groups associated with the United Front - an organisation that seeks to project China's influence overseas.
The 55-year-old, who is a member of the governing Liberal party, has professed her loyalty to Australia, and on Thursday (Sept 12) Prime Minister Scott Morrison came out in her defence. He attacked the opposition Labor party for "grubby" politics after it questioned whether Ms Liu was suitable to be a lawmaker.
"There are 1.2 million Australians of Chinese heritage in this country," Mr Morrison told reporters. "Gladys is a Chinese-born Australian. Does that make her in cahoots with the Chinese government? Of course not."
The controversy shows growing concern in political circles over the sway Beijing may hold over the Chinese diaspora in Australia. But the rancorous political debate, and at times sensationalised media coverage, risks stoking Sinophobia that could strain ties with China - Australia's biggest trading partner and a strategic rival to its main security ally, the United States.
"The tone around Liu is starting to sound xenophobic," said Ms Jane Golley, an academic at the Australian National University in Canberra. "This absolutely has the potential to further damage Australia-Chinese relations. While that could end up meaning Australia's economy could suffer, there's also a human cost to the sort of attacks we've seen on Liu and people in the Chinese-Australian community will be hurting."
Born in Hong Kong, Ms Liu emigrated to Australia in 1985 and became a citizen in 1992. She helped run small businesses and joined Beijing-backed groups including the United Chinese Commerce Association of Australia.
Her membership of such organisations was revealed in a Australian Broadcasting Corp article on Tuesday, prompting Ms Liu to defend herself in an interview with broadcaster Sky News later that day.
That appearance attracted further scrutiny, with media commentators noting she didn't condemn China's actions in the South China Sea as "illegal" and declined to label Chinese President Xi Jinping a dictator.
Ms Liu issued a statement on Wednesday, saying her membership of such community groups helped her support Australia's trade ties with Hong Kong.
She went on to echo the government's official position that claimants in the South China Sea should "resolve disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law". She also stated that "China is not a democracy and is run under an authoritarian system".
"I am a proud Australian, passionately committed to serving the people of Chisholm," Ms Liu said in the statement, referring to the electoral district she represents. "Any suggestion contrary to this is deeply offensive."
That hasn't stopped Labor from trying to eke a political advantage from the issue. Less than two years ago, one if its own lawmakers, Senator Sam Dastyari, resigned from Parliament after admitting that a Chinese company had paid a travel bill for him and amid allegations that he'd warned a Chinese businessman with ties to the Communist Party that his phones were likely being tapped by Australian intelligence agencies.
Labor's Senate leader Penny Wong on Wednesday demanded that Mr Morrison assure Australians that Ms Liu was a "fit and proper person" to be a lawmaker.
On Thursday, it tried and failed to force the government to answer questions on the issue in Parliament.
Sensitivities over China aren't confined to Australia. In New Zealand, opposition leader Simon Bridges was criticised by some media this week for meeting with senior Communist Party figure Guo Shengkun during a recent visit to the country and for lauding China's economic growth.
Mr Bridges defended the visit, saying that even though he disagreed with China's human rights record, that doesn't mean "we shouldn't be visiting and we shouldn't be having a relationship with a superpower that we trade more with than any other country."
Ms Golley, who is director of the ANU's Australian Centre on China in the World, said there had been a marked shift in sentiment towards China in recent years.
"The way United Front operates through boosting China's soft power influence in expatriate community groups has been known for a long time, and until recently, Australian lawmakers actually encouraged that," she said. "But now it's being turned into almost a crime."