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


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