Two young professional women appear to be wielding extraordinary influence over trade, investment and security matters in this country. But are they really?
If reports in The Australian are to be believed, Jean Dong and Nancy Yang between them enticed Victoria into becoming the sole sub-national jurisdiction on the planet to sign on to Xi Jinping’s strategic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Jean Dong has been the director and chief executive of the Australia-China Belt and Road Initiative (ACBRI) group since its founding five years ago, and is described by The Australian as “China’s Aussie influencer”. Nancy Yang is an electoral officer in the Andrews government, and also a board member of the Chinese Community Council of Australia Victoria (CCCAV), which The Australian calls “the foremost United Front organisation in Victoria”.
The United Front is a well-resourced and powerful Chinese communist party influence network on which a great deal has been written over the years. Showing how it actually works on the ground, however, involves a lot more than harming reputations by association. At the very least it requires getting the associations right.
The CCCAV is not a United Front organisation let alone the foremost one in Victoria. And in any case, Australia is a long way from conceding a place for young and capable Asian-Australian professionals at the trade and security policy head table. More’s the pity.
It beggars belief that Dong and Yang exercise anything like the influence that old Labor Party factional heavies, deal-making lawyers, former premiers and even retired Liberal Party heavyweights pulled in getting Victoria to sign on to the BRI.
For example, former state premier John Brumby was the Victorian-based president of the Australia China Business Council when its chapters advocated signing on to the BRI, while former federal trade minister Andrew Robb sits on the ACBRI advisory board along with a number of other influential figures.
When it comes to the crunch, big decisions are still being taken by a tightly-knit network of powerful men.
And by what measure can the CCCAV be considered the “foremost United Front organisation in Victoria”? There are over 500 Chinese community organisations in the state. Some are peak organisations, like the CCCAV, while others are associated with particular localities or welfare issues or with schools, religious charities, cultural groups, business interests and the like.
Many have much closer affiliations with China’s party and government authorities than the CCCAV, especially the “hometown” associations set up to provide social amenities for members in Melbourne while fostering links with party and government authorities in their home towns and provinces in China.
This much we know from the membership records of Australia’s peak United Front organisation, the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC), headed for some years by United Front figure Huang Xiangmo.
While Huang led that organisation — before he was effectively expelled from Australia in February 2019 — more than half of the ACPPRC’s corporate members were hometown associations of one kind or another. For many of these hometown associations, business is inseparable from political networking and interference.
First, a disclaimer. Some of Melbourne’s hometown associations date from imperial and republican times when thousands of these place-name associations were founded across China and around the world to serve as homes-away-from-home for travellers.
Within China, for example, the Guangdong Association in Beijing used to host Cantonese merchants visiting the imperial capital along with candidates from Canton coming north to take the imperial examinations.
Beyond China, emigres founded hometown associations around the Pacific rim and south-east Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of them in Melbourne and regional Victoria. These older associations are not part of the party’s current United Front operations.
After Australia recognised the People’s Republic in the early 1970s, a new suite of hometown associations arose overseas to service Chinese emigres and party and government officials back in their home districts.
Many of these newer hometown clubs are led by independent local business-people who have the wherewithal to host visiting party and government officials on their tours of Melbourne and elsewhere, presumably in return for business opportunities back in their home districts in China.
Many also maintain close links with resident China consulates and actively support United Front initiatives countering Tibetan or Xinjiang protestors in Melbourne, for example, or protesting Australian government positions on the South China Sea. Some have been formally absorbed into the party’s United Front network by joining the ACPPRC.
The CCCAV, by contrast, is a loosely organised umbrella organisation with a membership, executive, and record of activities that give the lie to the claim that it is “the foremost United Front organisation in Victoria”.
A number of hometown associations are corporate members of the CCCAV but these sit alongside other member organisations and individuals without United Front affiliations. That’s because it is an inclusive organisation.
Second, its executive and board are drawn from across the political spectrum. One former president, Mike Yang, presided over a hometown association linked to United Front activities but his successor, Chin Tan, is a community leader with no particular China affiliations.
Its advisory board members include prominent community leaders such as former lord mayor John So, Hong Lim MLA, and Marion Lau OAM. Another key CCCAV adviser before his passing in 2019 was the late senator Tsebin Tchen who presided over the Victorian branch of the Kuomintang (KMT), hardly a communist front organisation.
The clincher is the CCCAV’s record of activities. The association organised a commemorative Walk from Robe in 2017 to mark the 160th anniversary of discriminatory head taxes imposed on immigrants from China by the Victorian colonial administration.
United Front leader Huang Xiangmo offered to fund the 520km walk on condition that he could run the film and television communications surrounding the event, and would be appointed “captain of the walk” over its last few hundred metres so that he could personally accept the historical apology from Premier Dan Andrews on the steps of Parliament House.
When CCCAV organisers rejected Huang’s terms he withdrew his offer of funding.
That decision cost the CCCAV and its backers a good deal of money, but it earned the respect of those in the community who want the CCCAV to be an organisation that can speak with integrity on actual historical injustices and avoid the concocted grievances promoted through Beijing’s United Front operations overseas.
The CCCAV also saved Dan Andrews considerable embarrassment. One week after the premier offered his historical apology, a Four Corners/Age investigative team exposed Huang Xiangmo as an agent of a foreign government who was actively interfering in local politics and community affairs.
The CCCAV’s timely decision to reject Huang’s money saved the premier from being dragged into that controversy by mistakenly delivering a formal apology to the disgraced representative of a foreign government purporting to be an aggrieved Chinese Australian.
There a number of lessons to be drawn here. One is that mainstream media needs to get its stories right or risk damaging the reputations of countless Chinese Australians who routinely volunteer to work in community affairs for the public benefit.
Second, whatever the circumstances, journalists should stop laying the blame for ill-judged decisions taken by powerful white men on young Chinese-Australian professionals. Give them a break.
A third is that Australia’s city, state and national governments need to invite more independent Asian Australians on board to help manage relations with the proud, resurgent, and wilfully interfering communist government of China — not just because justice demands it but also because they are likely to have a far better idea of what is going on than the rest of us.
Editor’s note: this article has been revised to correct an error in the original description of leadership succession of the CCCAV and to remove any implication that Mike Yang is not a respected community leader. Mike Yang was preceded by Stanley Chiang and succeeded by Chin Tan.