From Beijing to Parramatta: how China muscled up to council
When John Hughes got the nod from the residents of Harris Park and became a councillor for Parramatta City Council, it was the beginning of a promising but hardly spectacular political career.
The constituents of Elizabeth MacArthur ward expect their local councillors to work hard, but bin nights, speed bumps and local zoning laws are a long way from the power politics of East Asia.
It was a surprise, then, when Hughes got word that government officials in China had taken more than a passing interest in his win.
“They were surprised (that) people with not much of a pro-China community profile would be elected,’’ Hughes says. He is coy about the details because he still has friends in China, but as time passed the message for him became clear: “They had an interest in me to be friends. To make friends with me.’’
In one way Hughes was an unusual politician. A Chinese Australian, he had managed to get elected despite being openly sceptical of the pro-Beijing line.
He had built relationships with Falun Gong, the Chinese spiritual movement despised and feared by Beijing. To Hughes, it was all part of the grunt work of local politics: build as many micro constituencies as you can in the hope they carry you across the line.
But to the Chinese government and much of Sydney’s Chinese diaspora, it made him suspect.
Gradually, over the years, the Chinese communities that formed
in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre have undergone a slow transformation.
Community organisations that once devoted themselves to cultural or social pursuits, providing their members a sentimental link to a culture they had left behind, have become political.
They also seem to be drawing materially closer to the Chinese Communist Party.
Hughes says his four years in local politics left him in little doubt the Chinese government plays an increasingly active role in Australian politics, not just through political donations, but by providing material support to favoured candidates. He is not alone.
Professor Chongyi Feng of the University of Technology Sydney says much of this work is organised from the Chinese consulate in Sydney’s inner-west Camperdown. By leveraging relationships with the plethora of Chinese associations and community leaders, which effectively function as cut-outs for Beijing, Professor Feng believes consulate officials have become increasingly active in local affairs.
“The consulate, it’s very influential in the Chinese communities, especially a variety of associations, they have influence or power to mobilise support through the activity of those associations,’’ Professor Feng says.
Hughes says it is an open secret that the consulate has become the hub for a type of foreign interference that extends well beyond the kind of softpower outreach that is the norm for most countries. In cultivating junior politicians in the embryonic stages of their career, Beijing, he says, is playing a long game.
“They have encouraged a few of their close associates to join our local political parties and become active members, build close relationships with local candidates and politicians,’’ Hughes says. “At the moment, in reality hardly any people of Chinese background would have enough community profile to run for state and federal offices so the main focus would be local councils.’’
Hughes has first-hand knowledge of the heavy hand the Chinese embassy — which did not respond to requests for comment — wields when it feels Beijing’s interests are under threat, even at the seemingly trivial level of local Sydney politics.
Hughes was part of a Parramatta council delegation due to travel to mainland China and Taiwan in 2014. About eight people were due on the six-day trip. Hughes was one, then-lord mayor John Chedid was another.
A month before the group was due to fly, Hughes fired off an email to the Chinese consulate. Hughes, who became an Australian citizen in 1997 — an act that under Chinese law saw him automatically stripped of his Chinese citizenship — had applied separately for a visa. The email, he says, was a courtesy. A few days later he received a phone call from a consulate official inviting him in for a chat about the upcoming visit.
Hughes turned up alone and ready to talk. There were three officials in the room, and the meeting was held in Mandarin.
“They went straight onto my close association or friendly association with a local Chinese community group, namely Falun Gong. They expressed a concern that I shouldn’t go and watch their Shen Yun (dance performance) show in Sydney,’’ Hughes says.
To Hughes, it was an outrageous intrusion. He had migrated from Shanghai as a student in 1990 and by 1997 had become an Australian citizen. He had even changed his name from Hu.
“I’m an Australian and I’m a proud Australian,’’ he says.
Hughes refused the request and left the consulate in a state of dismay. Worse was to come.
A few days later Chedid received a phone call inviting him to a meeting at the consulate. Chedid, who was busy, declined. Instead he invited the officials to the council offices. Chedid, a veteran of the hardball world of western Sydney politics, was astonished at what transpired.
Over the course of a 45-minute meeting in the council boardroom, a male and female official from the Chinese consulate laid out their concerns about Hughes.
To punctuate their point, they produced a series of documents.
“They had documents where they showed him, that he’s been speaking at these Falun Gong events, social media screenshots ... I can’t remember the exact number but they showed me at least three to four different pages,’’ Chedid says. “I believe they were monitoring his actions.’’
When they were done, the officials cut to the chase. “They wanted John removed from the delegation,’’ Chedid says. “I said that will not happen.’’
Instead, Hughes was summoned to a second meeting at the consulate, where two requests were made.
“One, not to support Falun Gong group, especially not to go to watch Shen Yun show in Sydney, or in Australia. Second request was not to support the accusation about human organ harvesting in China.’’
To put it beyond doubt, the officials wanted Hughes’s commitment in writing. “They tried to make me sign a written statement,’’ he says. “They asked me to write it and email it to them.’’
They made it clear his visa to China was at stake if he refused.
Hughes held out anyway. In the end he got his visa and the delegation went ahead, incident free.
What China is doing is neither unusual nor outrageous — up to a point. All powerful countries use their diasporas to project a favourable image of themselves.
But to Hughes, the Chinese government’s interest in local affairs has gone well past the point of soft diplomacy.
“They just don’t want people to have any negative comments about them,’’ he says.
Councillor John Hughes
The Chinese consulate in Camperdown, Sydney