Robb would go on to take informal soundings, and donations, from Huang. One came on the day Robb finalised the China Australia Free Trade Agreement in late 2014.
There would be other conversations, too. Most infamously, Labor Senator Sam Dastyari would whisper to Huang in the backyard of his Mosman mansion in late 2016 that Huang’s phones were being tapped by security agencies. The conversation killed Dastyari’s career. The warning, though, was accurate.
By then, ASIO was leading efforts by Australian agencies to determine the breadth of Huang’s “many dimensions,” and how they related to the Chinese Communist Party.
The outcome of those efforts were revealed by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald today: in a development likely to cause ongoing political fallout and further tension between Canberra and Beijing, Huang has been denied entry back into Australia from a trip overseas. He’s effectively stranded, with his long-stalled application to become an Australian citizen finally rejected by the Australian government and his permanent residency cancelled.
The activities of Huang Xiangmo, and how Australia’s attitude to him has flipped, give rare insight into how our relationship with China under Xi Jinping is changing before our eyes.
Huang’s gradual fall from grace has been the product of an awakening in Australia, stoked by a few China experts in government, a small group of journalists and an increasing number of politicians. It involves a realisation that the Communist Party’s influence activities are not as benign, and far more entrenched in Australia, as many in government had once believed.
As a 15-year-old, Huang left school for a year to look after his impoverished family after the sudden death of his father in the back blocks of southern China’s Guangdong province.
“Life was a struggle, especially with five children to feed,” he once told a reporter. “Despite the hardships we were a close family.”
In 2001, he scraped together enough money to form the Yuhu Investment Development Company in Shenzhen, a buzzing metropolis in southern Guangdong. He built upmarket villas and apartment blocks before diversifying into energy and agriculture. He also formed the close Communist Party connections expected of any billionaire property developer in China.
In 2011, Huang moved to Australia and developed a shopping centre. The decision to leave China may have been good timing. In 2012, one of Huang’s key Communist Party contacts in his home town of Jieyang was targeted for corruption.
Huang has insisted he wasn’t escaping anything but, rather, seeking a new home where the “people are warm and friendly and the air is clean, very clean”. He found it with a multi-million dollar mansion in Mosman with its own private elevator, and also in politics and philanthropy, where the warm and friendly lined up to access Huang’s largesse.
Welcome to Australia
Huang’s first donation was $150,000 to the NSW branch of the ALP on November 19, 2012. That same day, two of Huang’s close associates gave an additional $350,000.
Huang and his allies’ large donations were initially handled by the then ALP NSW secretary Sam Dastyari. As well as encouraging Huang’s campaign donations, Dastyari requested the developer give $5000 to settle an outstanding legal bill he had accumulated as party secretary.
In the Liberal camp, Huang was also dealing with high-flyers. They included Robb, whose Victorian fundraising vehicle was given $100,000 by Huang, and Tony Abbott, who encountered Huang at Liberal fundraisers where, in the lead-up to the 2013 election, the Chinese businessman donated more than $800,000.
Huang’s philanthropy blitz spanned medical research and universities, including $1.8 million to help found the Australia China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney. Huang later boasted about hand-picking its director, former foreign minister and NSW premier Bob Carr.
ACRI and Carr would become the main public foil to academics, politicians and security agencies warning that the Communist Party was using proxies in Australia to influence political debate and limit dissent among Australia’s local Chinese population.
A United Front
Carr’s argument that these warnings amounted to an overzealous anti-China beat-up aligned with Huang’s own views, as well as those of the Sydney organisation Huang became chairman of in 2015, the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China.
The Peaceful Reunification Council claimed to be an apolitical NGO dedicated to improving cultural and business ties between China and Australia.
But paperwork produced by the council, and reviewed by The Age and Herald, revealed it as the Australian affiliate of the United Front Work Department, a Communist Party agency tasked with overseas influence activities.
United Front Work has been elevated under Xi to a means of advancing the Communist Party’s agenda in China and overseas, including its efforts to weaken US alliances and reclaim contested territory, including islands in the South China Sea.
In 2015, as Peaceful Reunification Council leader, Huang dispatched a delegation to a United Front conference in Beijing where the Sydney group was praised by party officials and urged to continue making “allies to obtain international support”.
Huang’s key ally in Sydney was unquestionably Chinese community leader and ALP identity Ernest Wong.
Huang recruited Wong as an adviser to his Peaceful Reunification Council. An online video from 2015 shows Huang and Wong singing karaoke together on a Peaceful Reunification Council tour of Taiwan like mates at a buck’s party.
But the pair talked politics, too. Wong relied heavily on Huang to raise donations for Labor.
The role of Huang in Ernest Wong’s political rise remains a topic of intense speculation in NSW and federal political circles. In May 2013, Wong was parachuted into a NSW State Parliament upper house seat left vacant by the resignation of former Labor member Eric Roozendaal.
The move was preceded by a $500,000 donation to the NSW ALP from Huang and two fellow Peaceful Reunification Council members. And it was followed by Roozendaal landing a job with Huang’s property development firm.
The beginning of the end
In the lead up to the 2016 federal election, Huang was nearing the height of his political powers. He had Liberal and Labor MPs on speed dial.
On June 17, he arranged for Dastyari to address Chinese-language media outlets and parrot Beijing’s talking points on its militarisation of the South China Sea. He also told Labor he would withdraw a promised $400,000 donation because shadow defence spokesman Stephen Conroy had attacked Beijing.
While figures such as Carr later dismissed claims Huang ever had any tangible influence inside Australian politics, and Huang himself has denied seeking any influence, ASIO wasn’t so sure.
By late 2016, ASIO had already warned senior figures in both major parties, including Bill Shorten, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, that Huang’s donations should be viewed in light of his ties to the Communist Party.
Those warnings finally became public knowledge in June 2017, when The Age and ABC’s Four Corners exposed new details about Huang’s activities. More exposes followed, including revelations about Huang’s dealings with Dastyari that cost the senator his job.
After Dastyari’s resigned from the Senate in December 2017, Huang all but disappeared from public view. His business card still described him as a “founding chairman” of Bob Carr’s think tank and the “executive director” of the Chinese Council for Reunification, but he was no longer directly active in either organisation. Politicians stopped taking his calls and attending his functions.
More ignominy followed.
In early 2018, emerging Liberal star MP Andrew Hastie, who chairs the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security, audited his donations and discovered a cheque for $10,000 from Huang that had been delivered by Abbott. Hastie posted the cheque back to Huang’s corporate headquarters in Sydney.
Explaining his decision to refuse the funds, Hastie referred to his role supporting sweeping new laws introduced by Malcolm Turnbull and which were aimed at countering efforts by the Communist Party and other state actors to interfere in Australian politics.
In June 2018, those laws were finally passed. By then, Dastyari was being referred to as a disgraced ex-politician. Andrew Robb’s reputation had also been tarnished, albeit by his dealings with another wealthy Communist Party aligned businessman.
Legitimate suspicion, or anti-China bias?
Yet debate still raged about whether Huang, and those who had fallen in his wake, were the subject of anti-China panic.
In October 2018, the Bob Carr headed think tank that Huang had founded released a report entitled “Do the claims really stack up? Australia talks China.”
In the report, author James Laurenceson said Carr had observed “that whatever the concerns that Australia’s security agencies might have about Huang Xiangmo, the Australian government recently extended his permanent residency status and has allowed his Australian-registered family company to purchase more than $1 billion in prime Australian real estate assets.”
“It could be added that in 2018 when the Australian government was seeking to upgrade political donation laws in a bid to stem foreign interference, donations from permanent residents such as Huang were unaffected.”
But the facts were not quite as friendly to Huang.
ASIO and Home Affairs officials had spent more than two years examining his application to become an Australian citizen.
Government sources and Chinese community figures with knowledge of Huang’s activities say ASIO and Home Affairs were concerned about the reliability of information Huang gave authorities when he first entered Australia and in subsequent interviews and his connections with Communist Party United Front operations.
When Huang flew overseas earlier this year, he had no idea he might never be allowed to return. But when he tried to fly back to Australia, he was informed that his citizenship application had been denied and his permanent residency cancelled. Australian authorities had deemed him unfit to hold an Australian passport or even reside here.
Huang has fallen from being a “visionary” and a favoured donor, to being stranded offshore, blocked from returning to his Sydney mansion, his multi-million dollar business and his wife and children.
It’s perhaps the most powerful signal yet to Beijing from Canberra that Australia is serious about countering efforts to interfere in our politics.
The political parties who once relied so heavily on Huang’s donations must now be wondering: should we give his potentially tainted funds back?
Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter for The Age. He’s won seven Walkley awards and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.
Chris Uhlmann is political editor for Nine News.