On the night of the 2016 federal election, a beaming Craig Laundy was photographed surrounded by two dozen campaign supporters who had helped him retain the Sydney seat of Reid he had snatched from Labor three years earlier.
Laundy has his arm draped around the shoulder of a man in the middle of the group. His name is Yang Dongdong and he claims to be a “community adviser” to Laundy. He is also a conduit to the large Chinese-Australian community in Laundy’s electorate.
The Liberal MP disavows Yang’s claims about the pair’s closeness and flatly dismisses the claim Yang has worked as an adviser, despite one of Laundy’s own casual staffers, Amanda Li, telling Fairfax Media on Monday that Yang is a “consultant” and is “quite close” to him.
Laundy also professes complete ignorance of the Chinese-born businessman’s back story, especially when it comes to his ties to the Communist Party back in China.
“I am unaware of any of these allegations,” Laundy said on Wednesday when quizzed about Yang’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ties.
Follow the (Beijing-linked) money
Whatever the precise nature of the relationship between the pair, it is clear that Yang has sought to stay close to Laundy throughout the Liberal MP’s political ascension. It is also clear that the Chinese businessman has nurtured his intimate and long-standing links to the Chinese consulate in Sydney and, according to Yang, sought to advance the objectives of the CCP.
Fairfax Media and the ABC’s Four Corners program have exposed the disturbing pattern of influence of Beijing-linked money in Australian politics, especially through the NSW Labor Party. Politicians are squirming as evidence emerges of their willingness to adopt Beijing-friendly positions after receiving largesse from these political benefactors or to taking donations with little regard for the motive of the donors or the source of the funds.
Yet donations are only the most obvious potential channel of influence for the CCP in Australian politics. A small but growing number of Chinese-Australians with close links to the CCP now seek to occupy roles in this country’s political structures.
It’s a trend that goes to the heart of concerns raised by the federal government and security services about the undisclosed sway in Australian politics of Beijing’s agents of influence. But it’s also worrying some Chinese-Australians, led by those who came to Australia to escape party control.
Serving the motherland abroad
Before coming to Australia at the end of 1989, Yang was deputy secretary of a branch of the Chinese Communist Youth League in Shanghai. Yang proudly reminisces on social media about his time in the party hierarchy, sharing old photos of himself at party meetings.
In 1988, his name was inscribed in the Chinese Communist Youth League honour roll. He was named “Shanghai New Long March Shock Trooper” for his work as a cadre devoted to the Youth League’s mission of promoting the party.
When pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square were massacred on June 4, 1989, a shocked Australian prime minister Bob Hawke offered all Chinese students in Australia protection visas. Arriving in Sydney after the massacre, Yang Dongdong appeared “desperate” to establish his eligibility for such a visa, according to Chin Jin, a prominent member of the Sydney anti-communist party group, Federation for a Democratic China.
Yang joined the federation and attended protests. Eventually, he was granted permanent residency and then citizenship.
From anti-communist to faithful servant
There are few traces of Yang’s early Australian anti-communist activities in his more recent dealings. Yang now promotes himself as one of the strongest supporters of the CCP in Australia, says his old anti-communist friend Chin Jin.
Yang is a member of the Overseas Committee of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, as well as its subsidiary, the Shanghai Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese. In one of his companies’ profiles of Yang, the groups are described as part of the CCP’s United Front Work Department, a unique lobbying organisation that works secretly to mobilise overseas Chinese to advance Beijing’s interests. In a brief interview on Wednesday, Yang said the Shanghai federation is “a communist party association”.
Yang’s 2014 application letter to be admitted to the Overseas Committee of the Shanghai Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese – which he posted temporarily online – details his activities on behalf of the Chinese government. At the end of the document, he refers officials who wish to make further inquiries about him to the Chinese consulate in Sydney or the embassy in Canberra.
Yang, whose business activities have included a Sydney telecommunications shop, also claims in the application that that he has supplied phone services to visiting Chinese presidents, the Chinese Olympic committee, Chinese diplomats and even the Chinese navy when in Australia. Former diplomat Chen Yonglin confirms these claims, which suggest Yang had somehow acquired a high level of trust from Chinese officials at the consulate and embassy (which also hosts China’s intelligence services). When quizzed about his supply of telecommunications services, Yang said on Wednesday he had provided mobile phones to the consulate and embassy “a long time ago.” He said he could not recall if he supplied phones to the navy or visiting officials.
Chen Yonglin, a political officer in the Sydney Consulate until he defected amid a storm of controversy in 2005, says that Yang developed “an intimate, close connection with the Consulate”.
Chen says Yang once reported to the consulate that ASIO had approached him to provide information about these phones. ASIO’s policy of not commenting on operational matters means this cannot be verified.
Yang’s application also states that he supplied phones to Chinese state-owned enterprises like China Eastern Airlines and China Central Television, a business relationship that suggests he is trusted by some in the Chinese government. Contracts with state-owned enterprises are a classic way of rewarding loyalty.
The activist and networker
At the now-infamous 2008 Olympic Torch Relay in Canberra, at which thousands of Chinese students were bussed in for angry and sometimes aggressive displays of patriotism, Yang was leader of two “order maintenance corps”. He had earlier told a Chinese state media outlet that he would protect the torch from Tibetan independence activists. Inspired by what he saw, he penned an article titled “This evening by the lake we did not sleep – a record of Australia protecting the Olympic flame”.
He organised a number of anti-Dalai Lama protests to disrupt the Tibetan leader’s visits, including one in 2015. “On the many occasions when the Dalai Lama scurried to Australia, [he] did much to actively promote the successes of the new Tibet to mainstream Australian society,” Yang’s 2014 application states.
Yang is also the vice president of the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Reunification of China, another lobbying group aligned with the CCP’s United Front Work Department.
Yang’s group works closely with the similarly named Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, headed by Chinese-Australian billionaire Huang Xiangmo whose activities have recently come under intense scrutiny. The generous political donor is among the most powerful figures in the Sydney Chinese community. In 2015, ASIO confidentially warned the major political parties that, given Huang’s close ties to the CCP, there was a risk his political donations may come with strings attached.
Via several Australian organisations with an ostensible focus on business development, including the Australia China Business Summit, Yang has gathered contacts in the Liberal Party. In 2015, prime minister Tony Abbott wrote to him (“Dear Dong Dong”) thanking him for his hospitality. He was snapped joining a toast last year with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and China’s Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu.
He has been photographed with a range of Liberal Party heavyweights including Andrew Robb and Gladys Berejiklian (who with Liberal powerbroker John Sidoti handed him a community service award). Yang claims to be close to only one politician: the member for Reid.
China’s new friend
Laundy, who is heir to one of the largest pub empires in Australia and lives in an $8 million mansion in Hunter’s Hill, won the federal seat of Reid for the Liberal Party in 2013. It was the first time the Liberals had held it since the seat’s creation in 1922. Centred on Burwood, Drummoyne and parts of Strathfield in Sydney’s inner west, around 10 per cent of Reid’s voters were born in China.
After his election, Laundy was promoted to the front bench as assistant minister for multicultural affairs. Now serving as assistant minister for industry and science, the Turnbull ally is earmarked as a future cabinet minister.
With a large and diverse Chinese community living in his electorate, it’s unsurprising for Craig Laundy to seek its members’ support. Complaints that Chinese-Australians have been under-represented in Australian politics are justified. But Chinese involvement in local politics takes on a different hue when it is driven by figures such as Yang, who appear to be simultaneously working to advance the CCP’s aims.
Laundy’s election campaign in 2016 received energetic support from Yang, who is also a founder of the Liberal Party’s Chinese Council. The Labor Party was blindsided by a highly effective Chinese-language media campaign, with Yang writing an article praising Laundy and rallying dozens of Chinese-Australian to take to the streets to campaign for the Liberal Party candidate.
Laundy, though, say that Yang’s election role was unremarkable and he was just one of 300 volunteers under the control of his campaign director.
Promoting the friendship
Laundy has become one of federal politics’ most vigorous promoters of the China-Australia friendship. He’s candid about his desire to work with the Chinese consulate in Sydney. In 2016, Yang’s business group arranged for him to meet China’s Consul-General Gu Xiaojie. The Consulate later reported that during this meeting, the MP expressed his willingness to “closely cooperate with the Consulate … and to deepen practical cooperation [between the two countries]”.
When Laundy met the billionaire donor Huang Xiangmo in December 2015, the ACPPRC reported that the Liberal MP “highly praised how the ACPPRC under Huang Xiangmo’s leadership had done much work for Australia and China”. He “expressed his admiration for Huang’s penetrating opinions on Australia’s culture, economy, history, and so on, and expressed appreciation for the contributions of Huang’s compassionate philanthropic services.”
When Yang organised a protest against the visit by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine in March 2014, Laundy appeared alongside Yang waving Chinese and Korean flags. Laundy also promised to deliver a petition from the protesters to the foreign minister, the prime minister and parliament, and to call on them to support the protest.
Laundy wasn’t contradicting his government’s position, but his spear-carrying on an issue cranked up by Beijing’s propaganda machine raised eyebrows among China watchers.
Keeping an eye on the Tibetans
Yang claims in his application that he “had a federal parliamentarian make a speech in parliament opposing Abe’s veneration of spirits”. Later, a People’s Daily article – headlined “Voices of Opposition to Abe’s Visiting Yasukuni Shrine Appear in the Australian Parliament for the First Time” – triumphantly reported on Laundy’s and fellow Liberal backbencher David Coleman’s criticism of Abe.
In July 2015,when Tibetans staged a protest outside China’s Sydney consulate in Camperdown, Yang’s business group claimed on social media that Craig Laundy had issued a statement “strongly condemning the conduct of the thugs who attacked the Chinese Consulate in Sydney”.
In his media release, Laundy wrote that after talking to “Reid’s local Chinese-Australian community” he condemned the “violence” of the protesters, who had done no more than take down the Chinese flag. He made no mention of the cause of the protest, the death in a Chinese prison of a prominent Tibetan monk.
On Wednesday, Laundy dismissed that any of his advocacy had ever been influenced by Yang. “He’s never asked me to support any position.”
Laundy says he spoke out about the shrine visit because of outrage felt by his Chinese and Korean constituents. “The reason I raised the Abe issue in parliament [is because] … I did the research and took a position myself.”
After mining magnate Clive Palmer made insulting remarks about Chinese people, Yang Dongdong led the anti-Palmer protests. Laundy turned up too, along with Sam Dastyari and fellow Liberal MP David Coleman. In his application Yang claims to have lobbied parliamentarians and the government to put pressure on Palmer, finally leading to Palmer’s grovelling public apology.
Noting his consistently pro-Beijing stances, China’s state-run media appears to treat Laundy as a go-to man for comment. The MP has been quoted in several CCP controlled newspapers praising China’s contribution to Australia and has featured on the cover of BQ Weekly, the magazine of Air China, under the headline “Chinese Migrants Represent the Australian Dream: In an Exclusive Interview Federal MP Laundy Says No to Anti-Chinese People”.
All about free trade
Laundy insists his only interest in mainland China is “how our first generation or second generation Australians of Chinese descent can leverage their networks and take advantage of the free trade agreement”.
Laundy has vowed to look into Yang’s claims about his influence over the MP and cautions about drawing any inferences from those who use “selfies” with politicians or loose affiliations to big-note themselves. “If what you are saying [about Yang] is true, I would be extremely disappointed. I would be sitting down and having a talk to him.”
Yang Dongdong declined to answer detailed questions, saying he was too busy and then too tired to speak when Fairfax Media called him on Monday and again on Wednesday. When pushed about why he had claimed to be an adviser to Laundy, and taken credit for some of the MPs activities, Yang said: “I need to ask Laundy’s office again to give you a correct answer.”
Laundy is dismissive of suggestions he has been the target of a campaign of influence. He has previously applied a different judgment to Senator Sam Dastyari’s Chinese connections. In September last year, Laundy described Dastyari as “at best wilfully reckless.’ But Laundy says there is a big difference in his own case: “I haven’t taken any brass [donations] from any of them.”
Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra and is writing a book on China’s influence in Australia. Alex Joske is a researcher and student at the Australian National University.