Australia quiet on first foreign-meddling arrest, but target is clear

Tensions have simmered for years as Australia has complained of meddling by China in its politics, universities and media. PHOTO: REUTERS

MELBOURNE (NYTIMES) - When Australian authorities announced the first arrest under the country's new foreign interference laws this week, they said little about what the suspect was accused of doing, and nothing at all about the country on whose behalf he was believed to have worked.

The implication, though, was clear. The man is a prominent member of the Chinese Australian community who has been involved with one of the country's major political parties. And he was charged under sweeping national security legislation, passed in 2018, that is widely seen as targeting China and that Beijing has called an insult.

The arrest of the man, Di Sanh Duong, known as Sunny, follows a breakdown in the relationship between China and Australia, which in recent weeks has been marred by signs that Beijing is crimping purchases of an array of goods from Australia's export-dependent economy.

Tensions have simmered for years as Australia has complained of meddling by China in its politics, universities and media. In September, Chinese news outlets reported that Australian intelligence officials had raided the homes of four Chinese journalists and that the visas of two Chinese scholars had been cancelled by the Australian government on national security grounds.

But given Australia's initial restraint in describing the case against Duong, it was unclear whether the arrest would aggravate the strains even further.

"China was very concerned about the passing of the legislation because the rhetoric at the time was very targeted at China," said editor of the China Story blog at the Australian National University and director of the China Policy Centre Yun Jiang.

"In this instance," she added, "we don't have much of that rhetoric in the official government position - officially, they haven't even named the country yet - so right now we don't have that tough rhetoric on China." If Australia says more about the case and publicly ties it to Beijing, however, "China may react more strongly," she said.

Duong was charged in Melbourne on Thursday (Nov 5) with "preparing for a foreign interference offense" and was granted bail. Duong, 65, who faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted, is of Vietnamese-Chinese heritage and has served on the boards of a number of Chinese Australian community groups.

The federal police said in a statement that they had taken "preventative action to disrupt this individual at an early stage." They said Duong's arrest had come after a year-long investigation and raids in October on a number of properties associated with him.

A person familiar with the details of those raids said police were investigating whether Duong had sought to influence the acting federal immigration minister Alan Tudge and whether the conduct was on behalf of or in collaboration with the Chinese Communist Party.

In June, Mr Tudge appeared with Duong at an event at which Duong presented a donation to a Melbourne hospital on behalf of a community association he leads, the Oceania Federation of Chinese Organisations From Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Mr Tudge has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The person familiar with the raids, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case, was also involved in the fund raising and said the money was intended to help the hospital fill a shortage in personal protective equipment as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Duong wrote in an autobiography last year that he had been a member of the conservative Liberal Party since 1992, and had helped establish a local branch, of which he had been chair.

The autobiography also says that Duong was born in Vietnam and fled the country's communist regime in 1979 for Melbourne, where he quickly got involved in the "public welfare activities and undertakings of the Australian Chinese communities". Jiang said the case against Duong was significant because it would be the first time that the government had provided examples of what constituted foreign interference under the new laws.

Still, she said it remained unclear exactly what that would be, based on the limited information about the case - namely, that Duong had made the donation with the government minister present and that one of the groups he helped lead was part of the United Front Work Department, the Chinese Communist Party unit that controls policy towards overseas Chinese.

The Australian media reported that another director of the group, the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification, had been Huang Xiangmo, who was barred from Australia on national security grounds about two years ago.

Ms Jiang noted that membership in a community group in itself was not enough to prove that Duong had engaged in illegal activity and that the group was still legal in Australia.

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