Australian Lawmaker Resigns over Chinese Influence-Buying Scandal

Labor party senator Sam Dastyari said his remarks on the South China Sea during the recent election campaign may have been misquoted by the Chinese media, or he may have misspoken. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images
William West/AFP/Getty Images

Australian Senator Sam Dastyari, a Labor Party deputy whip and committee chairman, resigned from his leadership positions on Thursday after an influence-buying scandal that stoked Australian concerns about China’s growing power in their political system.

Dastyari was accused of improper dealings with Huang Xiangmo, a billionaire tied to the increasingly aggressive Chinese Communist Party. The Associated Press provides details of the case:

Fairfax Media reported this week that Dastyari gave Huang counter-surveillance advice when they met at the businessman’s Sydney mansion in October last year. Dastyari suggested the pair leave their phones inside the house and go outside to speak in case Australian intelligence services were listening, Fairfax reported.

Dastyari has not denied the reports but said he had no knowledge about whether Huang was under Australian surveillance at the time.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten demanded Dastyari’s resignation from his leadership roles late Wednesday after media broadcast audio of the senator misleading Chinese journalists last year on the Labor Party’s policy on the South China Sea territorial disputes.

Australia maintains that China should respect international law, and an arbitration ruling last year found China’s broad claims to the sea were legally baseless. But Dastyari told Chinese reporters at a news conference in Sydney attended by Huang that Australia should observe “several thousand years of history” by respecting Chinese claims over most of the South China Sea. The phrasing mirrors China’s stance.

Dastyari, an immigrant who was born in Iran, insisted that he “could not be a prouder Australian” and finds allegations to the contrary “deeply hurtful.”

Unfortunately for him, some of those deeply hurtful sentiments emanate from Labor Party leader Bill Shorten, who said on Thursday that “at the moment, I simply don’t trust his judgment again.”

“I have lost faith in him and I do think his judgment was erroneous and he did make a significant mistake of judgment and that is why I have sacked him again. But I do not believe he has broken a law and I do not believe he is a national security risk,” added Shorten, softening the blow somewhat.

Harsher critics are calling for Dastyari to resign from Parliament entirely. One of his colleagues, Senator Ian Macdonald of the Liberal National Party of Queensland (LNP), called him a “coward” for talking about how the charges against him have upset his wife and daughters.

“Everybody knows that Senator Dastyari puts on social media videos with him and his children talking about political matters like banking royal commissions. But he comes in here with crocodile tears about involving his children in political matters when he does it himself,” said Macdonald.

“Privately, some in the party believe he may need to resign from parliament altogether, especially if more revelations about his links with Chinese donors emerge,” the Australian said of Dastyari’s political prospects on Thursday.

Among those calling for Dastyari’s complete resignation are Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who essentially accused the senator of sedition, saying, “Dastyari has shown he does not put Australia first and he does not owe his first loyalty to Australia. Sam Dastyari has shown that he is not on Australia’s side and it’s time he got out of Australia’s parliament.”

“I don’t agree with the Liberal Party’s attack on him, calling him a traitor, that is rubbish,” Shorten shot back. He probably realizes he will not be able to write the scandal off as pure party politics, however, as the Australian notes stunned responses from Parliament when Dastyari essentially claimed he could not remember spouting Chinese propaganda about the South China Sea while onstage with his benefactor Huang.

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) declared it is time for Dastyari to go, contrasting his “serious lack of judgment” in dealing with Huang—and getting caught advising Huang on how to evade Australian security agencies—with his considerable political skills. The implication is that it is hard to believe an operator as sharp as Dastyari would make the kind of mistakes he claims to have made.

“Australia’s parliamentarians should be loyal to this country alone. That simple, fundamental message appears to have escaped Senator Dastyari,” the SMH charged. “On his record, as revealed, the senator cannot be trusted to observe even his own party’s policy, let alone to respect Australia’s national interest, if money can be raised by ignoring them.”

Disturbingly, the chief intelligence agency of Australia, the ASIO, said it is having trouble keeping up with the pace of “harmful espionage and foreign interference” operations occurring on Australian soil, including efforts to “shape the opinions” of Australian citizens and manipulate media coverage.

The agency issued warnings about Huang and his links to the Chinese Communist Party two years ago, a necessary precaution because Australia does not forbid foreign donations to political campaigns.

Australia’s sounded alarms on Thursday about China’s United Front Work Department, a “secretive lobbying agency” that works to spread the Chinese Communist Party’s influence throughout the Western world. The article notes that Chinese President Xi Jinping has specifically praised the operation as a “magic weapon” for influencing China’s adversaries.

In the wake of Dastyari’s leadership resignations, Merriden Varrall of the Low Institute East Asia program in Sydney warned that the United Work Front Department has been given a massive budget increase for secret operations in Australia and elsewhere, along with some 40,000 new employees.

One of the group’s major functions is to ensure Chinese nationals working abroad remain ideologically committed to communism and the rulers in Beijing, using tactics that range from friendly persuasion to intimidation and psychological warfare. It also uses China’s “friends” in other countries to advance Beijing’s positions, including its designs on the South China Sea.

China is not shy about straight-up bullying countries like Australia when persuasion and political subterfuge do not get the job done:

Contrary to Beijing’s assertions that Australia is not a legitimate party to the South China Sea dispute, Australia’s ABC News cites concerns about “freedom of navigation” and the “rules-based global order:

The South China Sea is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, between $3 trillion and $5 trillion worth of trade passes through the contested waters each year (estimates vary)—including more than half of Australia’s coal, iron ore and LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas] exports.

So Australia has a big interest in keeping that trade route open.

The other concern is that China is threatening the “rules based global order,” which basically relies on all countries following international laws and resolving territorial disputes peacefully.

Also, ABC notes that Australia is caught up in the great game between its strongest military ally, the United States, and its largest trading partner, China, which creates precisely the kind of political pressure point China’s overseas influence operations aim to exploit.

In an essay excerpted at the UK Guardian last weekend, Hugh White argues that Australian leaders have been underestimating China’s ambitions and refusing to admit just how much influence Beijing has developed in Australia. White notes China milks a great deal of leverage from its understanding that Australian politicians are desperate to avoid making a choice between America and China, so a “diplomatic frown from China can create an acute political problem for any Australian government by disproving the mantra on which Australian foreign policy is based.”

White compiled quite a list of Chinese subterfuge for Australia to worry about:

Areas of concern include espionage and cyber-infiltration, the vulnerability of major infrastructure, influence over Australia’s Chinese-language press, and surveillance and intimidation of Chinese nationals in Australia, including students. There have been allegations of threats to the academic independence of our universities, of attempts to buy influence over Australian politicians, and of efforts to sway Australian public debate and media coverage about China.

These are serious issues which raise important questions about China’s influence in Australia and how we manage it, though discussion about them has, perhaps inevitably, been tinged with populist xenophobia. They have nudged both government and opposition to start raising concerns about China’s growing power more frankly than they have been prepared to do before.

Interestingly, White damns U.S. President Donald Trump for treating Turnbull roughly in their first official phone call and for not demonstrating sufficient concern about Australia, and then grudgingly admits Trump might be either deliberately or inadvertently doing exactly what is needed to rouse Canberra from its complacency about the Chinese threat. As with the question of whether Senator Dastyari was deliberately or inadvertently acting as an agent of Chinese influence, results will end up mattering more than intentions.


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