An Australian MP, Mr Andrew Hastie, has accused a prominent Chinese Australian tycoon, Dr Chau Chak Wing, of conspiring to bribe a senior United Nations official in a bombshell speech in Parliament that threatened to further strain the nation's ties with China.
Mr Hastie, a member of the ruling Liberal party and chair of the joint intelligence and security committee, told Parliament on Tuesday night that Dr Chau was a co-conspirator in an effort to bribe the former UN president of the General Assembly, Mr John Ashe, in 2013.
He said he received the information from the US authorities during a recent trip there.
The claim comes amid mounting tensions between China and Australia over the ruling LiberalNational coalition government's crackdown on foreign interference - a move seen as squarely aimed at alleged meddling by Beijing.
Mr Hastie said Dr Chau, an Australian citizen and prominent property developer, has "extensive contacts" to the Chinese Communist Party, including the United Front Work Department, a Chinese agency that aims to influence politics abroad.
"In Australia, it is clear that the Chinese Communist Party is working to covertly interfere with our media, our universities and also influence our political processes and public debates," he said.
A report last year by ABC News and Fairfax Media said Australia's domestic spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, warned the country's major political parties in 2015 about accepting donations from Dr Chau and Mr Huang Xiangmo, another property developer and political donor.
About billionaire Chau Chak Wing
1 Born in southern China, he moved to Australia in the 1980s and is an Australian citizen
2 Founder and chairman of Kingold Group, a Guangzhou-based real estate firm
3 Reportedly worth billions of dollars, he has been a big donor to Australia's main political parties
4 His purchase of a A$70 million (S$71 million) mansion in Sydney in 2015 set an Australian property record
5 His home in China reportedly has a 27-hole golf course and a 6,000 sq m museum
The report also made claims about Dr Chau's alleged role in a A$200,000 (S$202,600) bribe to the late Mr Ashe, apparently to attend a conference in China in 2013.
Dr Chau was not charged but an alleged associate, Ms Sheri Yan, pleaded guilty to making the payment and was jailed in the US for 20 months in July 2016.
Dr Chau has sued the media outlets for defamation.
His lawyer, Mr Mark O'Brien, told ABC News yesterday that his client was very "disappointed that an elected representative would use the cover of parliamentary privilege to repeat old claims and attack his reputation just weeks before some of these matters are tested in court".
"Mr Hastie purports to be acting in the interests of Australians. It seems he has forgotten or disregarded the right all Australian citizens have to a presumption of innocence unless proven otherwise," he said.
Mr Hastie made his claim in Parliament, which means he cannot be sued for defamation.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said yesterday he had no prior warning of Mr Hastie's speech. "As far as the specific allegations that were made, they are not new," he said.
"They are in fact the subject of litigation currently in the Australian courts and for that reason I don't propose to say any more about them."
Australia has been gripped by a fierce debate about the extent of Chinese interference, particularly in political affairs and at universities.
The government has introduced a ban on foreign political donations and a requirement that lobbyists for foreign entities register their interests. This followed the resignation late last year of Labor MP Sam Dastyari, who accepted donations from Mr Huang and then espoused a pro-China position on the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
Mr Hastie said he raised the allegations about Dr Chau because he was concerned about the growing threat of Chinese interference.
He said he was told by the US authorities that a co-conspirator in the US probe, identified only as CC-3, was Dr Chau.
"The merits of these defamation cases are appropriately left for a court," Mr Hastie said. "My concern is that defamation cases can have a chilling effect on our free press."
Mr Hastie said Dr Chau has donated A$4 million to Australian political parties since 2004 and A$45 million to universities. The education donations included A$20 million for the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building at the University of Technology Sydney, which was the first Australian building designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry.
The latest allegations come amid a low point for ties between Canberra and Beijing.
China has reportedly put the relationship into a "freeze", including delaying approval for visits by Australian ministers.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his Australian counterpart, Ms Julie Bishop, during a Group of 20 foreign ministers' meeting in Buenos Aires this week and acknowledged that ties were strained.
"If Australia is genuinely hopeful for getting the bilateral relationship back on the right track, Australia should discard its traditional thinking and take off its tinted glasses to take a proactive approach towards China's development," Mr Wang said in a statement released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
"The China-Australia relationship has met with some difficulties recently and this had an impact to the communication and co-operation between the two countries," he added.
In contrast, Ms Bishop played down reports of a rift.
"There was no diplomatic freeze; if there was a diplomatic freeze I wouldn't be meeting him ," she told the Australian Financial Review on Tuesday.