Beijing influence or racism? China debate hits Melbourne council elections

A Labor-aligned candidate running in a Melbourne council ward says she no longer wants to win after being accused of being a Chinese agent of influence.

Li Zhang is running for the Glen Eira City Council.Credit:Facebook

Li Zhang, a member of the ALP and a former adviser to state Labor MP Hong Lim, is contesting the Tucker ward in this month's Glen Eira City Council elections in Melbourne's southeastern suburbs.

Federal Liberal MPs, along with some of her council opponents, have called for Ms Zhang to reveal any links she has to Beijing's overseas influence arm.

Ms Zhang is the current president of the Chinese Community Council of Australia's Victorian branch, which has been named by one China influence expert as the "foremost United Front organisation in Victoria", although other academics dispute this. The United Front Work Department is the Chinese Communist Party's principal agency for overseas influence and interference.

In an email to other councillors on her ticket last Thursday, Ms Zhang denied CCCAV was connected to the CCP in any way, saying it did valuable work for the Chinese community in Victoria.

"I have been cyberbullied for a few days. Some people attacked me claiming I'm CCP agent," she wrote in the email.

"Our [the CCCAV's] past presidents include Chin Tan – a Malaysian, a Liberal, and the current Race Discrimination Commissioner. How could such an organisation has any link with CCP?? We are just doing good things for our local Chinese community!"

Ms Zhang said she and a Chinese volunteer were recently abused while in Bentleigh East, with someone yelling at them "F—ing Chinese!".

"That volunteer didn't say anything but I noticed his tears came out. He is pretty young, just graduated from Uni," she wrote in the email.

She said she didn't want to win the council seat anymore, but she would continue the campaign to attract votes for the two other councillors on her ticket – Declan Martin and current councillor Jim Magee.

"I don't want to win any more, but I believe I can at least attract some votes for you two from the Chinese voters," she wrote.

Ms Zhang did not respond to a request for comment.

The CCCAV has previously denied any links to the United Front, saying it was a community association that advocates for the Chinese community in the state.

Clive Hamilton, professor in public ethics at Charles Sturt University, said the CCCAV has among its member organisations "many that are identifiably United Front bodies, such as the AC Media Group, La Trobe [Chinese Students and Scholars Association], Melbourne Chinese Youth United Association, the Pacific Times, and the Zhejiang Association of Victoria".

China expert John Fitzgerald, emeritus professor at Swinburne University of Technology, said the claim all people who hold positions on the CCCAV are United Front figures was wrong.

He said it was based on a logical fallacy known as the "fallacy of the undistributed middle … A is B, and C is B, therefore C is A," Professor Fitzgerald said.

But Professor Hamilton said if several senior people at the CCCAV were clearly linked to United Front organisations "then one should regard CCCAV as, potentially at least, carrying out United Front activities.

"If blameless others in the CCCAV do not want to have a cloud of suspicion hanging over them then they should rid the association of the United Front operatives in the top levels of the organisation," he said.

Federal Liberal MP Tim Wilson, a vocal critic of CCP influence, said Ms Zhang's connections "through the Chinese Community Council of Australia to the Chinese Communist Party should disturb Glen Eira residents".

"If any candidate has a link to the CCP and its intricate web of front groups they have a responsibility to answer basic questions to make it clear they're running to be a councillor and not a covert influencer," Mr Wilson said.

Liberal Senator James Paterson said every Australian was entitled to put themselves forward for local council, but "they should be totally transparent with voters about any relevant affiliations when they do so".

"It raises serious questions about their suitability for office if they conceal a significant part of their biography," he said.

Independent Glen Eira councillor Anne-Marie Cade said the revelations were "concerning and it's important that the position is clarified sooner rather than later so residents have the correct information to make an informed choice when they vote".

Cr Magee said "Li Zhang's association with the Chinese Community Council of Australia is a matter for Li Zhang. I have no comment to make on this." He added he was unconcerned about CCP influence in Australia and he has "never heard of Clive Hamilton or the United Front".

Liberal-aligned candidate Joanne Beilby said she was "concerned for representative democracy and Australian sovereignty given the extensive covert infiltration by CCP affiliated organisations".

Independent candidate Joshua Bach said he shares Ms Beilby's concerns and he applauded "her for speaking out in defence of representative democracy".

Liberal-aligned candidate Philip De'Ath said "no candidate in Australian elections should be associated with the Chinese Communist Party as it would set an extremely dangerous precedent."

In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry in July, the CCCAV said it was a "local community association run by volunteers, aiming to advocate for the Chinese community".

"Over the last decade CCCAV has organised a number of national conferences about Chinese community in Australia and the Australia-China relationship with speakers from politics, academia and community," the submission said.

It is not the first time the CCCAV has come under scrutiny for its alleged links to Beijing's overseas influence arm. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews' senior adviser on China, Marty Mei, and his electorate officer, Nancy Yang, were both named as members of the organisation this year.

Members of the CCCAV, including Ms Zhang's former boss Mr Lim, Mr Andrews's former China adviser Mike Yang and past president Stanley Chiang, have all been linked to the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China. The ACPPRC was previously headed by Huang Xiangmo, who had his Australian permanent residency visa cancelled in 2018 for reasons including character grounds.

University of Adelaide senior lecturer in Chinese studies, Gerry Groot, said the United Front was not necessarily about getting people to agree with China's positions, "but it's often about neutralising critics".

"There is very little criticism of the Chinese Communist Party coming from Chinese community organisations in Australia," Dr Groot said.

Ms Zhang is also the current chief executive of the Australia-China Economic Trade & Investment Expo, which is chaired by former Liberal Trade Minister Andrew Robb. Mr Robb took an $880,000 a year job consulting for Lanbridge, the Chinese company that controversially secured a 99-year lease on the Port of Darwin, but he quit this role just before the deadline for lobbyists to sign up to Australia's foreign influence register.

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