Australia-China Huang Xiangmo Chinese lobbyist blocked communist party
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

John Zhang was largely unknown outside a small Chinese-language media circle in Australia before his name landed on the front pages of our newspapers on June 26. 

Reports of the Federal Police raid on NSW parliamentarian Shaoquett Moselmane’s office noted that Zhang, a part-time staffer in that office, participated in a propaganda training course in China and helped to translate Moselmane’s speeches into Chinese.

What’s the problem?

Under Australian law, Zhang is perfectly entitled to participate in foreign government training courses and to translate or speak and write as he pleases. So is Shaoquett Moselmane.

Many countries offer familiarisation tours for foreign journalists and opinion leaders in the hope of securing their understanding and support. Australian journalists have taken advantage of opportunities to visit Washington and Tel Aviv as well as Shanghai and Beijing.

Participating in Chinese communist party propaganda training exercises is not a crime. In fact, well over 100 Chinese-Australian media workers, corporate communications personnel, political party staffers and people involved in Chinese-Australian community affairs have taken part in propaganda training forums in China over the years.

These include taxpayer-funded Chinese language media staff of SBS and the ABC, as well as operators of small private media enterprises.

In China they are hosted and trained by the United Front Work Department, a top-level communist party agency responsible for ensuring the loyalty of the Chinese diaspora to Beijing, irrespective of country of citizenship. They are trained to “tell China’s story well” back in their countries of residence.

John Zhang participated in more than one of these biennial propaganda training workshops, known as Global Chinese-Language Media Forums. He was honoured with an award for his media work in Australia “countering negative reporting about people of Chinese descent in the Western media” at the ninth biennial workshop in Fuzhou. More recently, he took part in the tenth meeting in Shijiazhuang in October 2019.

Training programs of this kind have a demonstrable impact on those who take part. One journalist who participated in an earlier program later recorded the lessons he learned on his Australian newspaper blog (my translation):

“We are of course a minority in our country of residence but still we have this advantage, that our million strong can vote in elections. This is not something to be taken lightly. We can forge a unified voice through public opinion targeted at community organisations and overseas Chinese leaders, and promote our unified voice to government and to local parliamentarians, and in this way achieve our aims.”

Many Chinese Australians find Beijing’s presumption that it can mobilise their votes at will highly offensive. Other Australians find it alarming. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs categorically denies it. But the intent is there.

In 2017, Primrose Riordan reported that China’s security czar, Meng Jianzhu, alerted the Labor opposition to the electoral risks of failing to support Beijing’s position on a bilateral extradition treaty. Meng implied that if Labor did not fall into line, Beijing would tell the Chinese-Australian community that Labor failed to value Australia’s relationship with China, presumably through its trained media agents around Australia.

On the Coalition side, after it became clear that the government would not tolerate Beijing’s local interference operations, China appears to have mobilised its networks to campaign against the government in the Bennelong byelection.

Even so, advocating for policies in support of a foreign government is entirely within Australian law — the 2018 Foreign Interference Transparency Scheme (FITS) only obliges people and institutions that try to exercise foreign influence in Australian electoral politics to register under the scheme.

As I read it, people who have accepted United Front hospitality and taken courses five, 10, 15 or 20 years ago are probably not obliged to register under FITS, even if they agitate on behalf of China’s government policies.

But anyone participating after 2018 who works for a political party or in an electoral office, or tries to sway voters in elections, can still speak, write, and publish as they please — although they are now obliged by law to declare on whose behalf they have been taught and in many cases funded to advocate.