First Aussie arrest on foreign-meddling charge

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

MELBOURNE • When the Australian authorities announced the first arrest under the country's new foreign interference laws last 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 Di Sanh Duong, known as Sunny, follows a breakdown in the China-Australia relationship, 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.

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 Ms Yun Jiang, editor of the China Story blog at the Australian National University and director of the China Policy Centre.

"In this instance, they haven't even named the country yet - so right now we don't have that tough rhetoric on China," she added. But if Australia says more about the case and publicly ties it to Beijing, "China may react more strongly", Ms Jiang said.

Duong, 65, was charged in Melbourne last Thursday with "preparing for a foreign interference offence" and was granted bail. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Duong 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 Duong's arrest had come after a year-long investigation. A person with insider knowledge said police were investigating whether Duong had sought to influence 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.

Ms 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. She said 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.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2020, with the headline 'First Aussie arrest on foreign-meddling charge'. Print Edition | Subscribe