Tuesday, March 31, 2020
PHOTO: Gladys Liu left and Bruce Atkinson right, with WTUF Founder Baima Aose and China's United Front co-ordinator Zhang Meiying in Beijing January 2015. (Supplied)
Ties linking new Federal Liberal MP Gladys Liu to a secretive international influence arm of the Chinese Government have been uncovered by the ABC.
Ms Liu, who made history after becoming the first Chinese-Australian woman to gain a seat in the Lower House, was appointed honorary chairman of a Hong Kong-based organisation that experts say is affiliated with China's efforts to exert influence on foreign governments and expatriate Chinese.
Liberal Party elder Bruce Atkinson, a Victorian MP and former Upper House President, has similarly been connected to the same organisation — World Trade United Foundation (WTUF) — for some years.
Mr Atkinson said he played no active role in the organisation and denied he had in any way been a vehicle of Chinese influence in Australian politics.
Ms Liu simply said she joined the WTUF in order to "support the promotion of trade between Australia and Hong Kong" and that she resigned from the group "around 2016".
PHOTO: Prime Minister Scott Morrison congratulates his new parliamentary colleague Gladys Liu. (ABC News: Luke Stephenson)
The WTUF describes itself as "global non-profit organisation".
"As a non-government organisation with consultative status to the United Nations, WTUF has a 18-year history of public diplomacy," a spokesman said.
PHOTO: Bruce Atkinson with the WTUF's founder Baima Aose in a newspaper ad promoting Australia-China relations. (Supplied)
"This makes WTUF an international platform with great social influence."
WTUF promotes itself as dedicated to fostering international free trade, but observers in Hong Kong say there is little evidence of any trade-related activities by the organisation. Instead, they say, its links to the Chinese Government and Communist Party are clear.
China experts say WTUF is part of the Chinese Communist Party's United Front work activities, which seek to further the Party's interests through a variety of organisations.
A large number of WTUF's office-holders and honorary chairmen hold positions in government bodies and party organs that play a lead role in directing United Front's activities.
Chinese observers have told the ABC this is a sure sign the foundation is approved by Beijing and the party, and a signature of many organisations involved in China's United Front activities.
There has been growing concern in Australia about some organisations seen to be linked to United Front.
United Front is Beijing's over-arching strategy to enhance its reputation and power by wielding influence on Chinese citizens as well as expatriates in countries such as Australia. At its highest level, it is backed by President Xi Jinping himself.
"The goal of China's United Front in the last decade is to serve China's rise, mobilise the outside world as much as possible, to serve China's interests and policies, especially the Belts and Roads Initiatives," said Dr Wu Qiang, a political analyst who has spent years monitoring China's United Front activities.
In 2015 President Xi decreed that the United Front program was to be substantially ramped-up.
"The activities of United Front, funds, and effectiveness have increased significantly," Dr Wu said.
United Front activities are funded out of a $293 billion annual budget earmarked for "stability maintenance". That amount is divided up between United Front and other projects.
United Front operates through companies and organisations that are seemingly independent of the Government and Party to exert influence on the activities and public pronouncements of Chinese individuals at home and abroad.
This influence neutralises China critics and rewards its supporters.
Most of these organisations don't outwardly declare themselves to be United Front.
The organisation has donated to a number of causes in Australia.
Baima Aose's activities have Beijing's stamp of approval.
He and other WTUF representatives attended Chinese state banquets in 2015 and 2016 held by the State Council at the Great Hall of the People, to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Invitations to these events, which were also attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping, are extended to those approved by Beijing's politburo and inner circle.
Hong Kong academics Sonny Shiu-hing Lo, Steven Chung-fun Hung, and Jeff Hai-chi Loo have been investigating senior members of the WTUF and have concluded that it is engaged in United Front work.
In their forthcoming book, China's New United Front Work in Hong Kong, they lay out how senior WTUF officeholders Brave Chan Yung and Lo Man-tuen are deeply enmeshed in pro-Beijing politics in Hong Kong — a feature of many United Front outfits.
A large number of other WTUF office holders are from Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference or United Front Work Department, the two primary vehicles for China's United Front activities.
Sydney academic Feng Chongyi agreed that the list of the WTUF's officeholders showed clear links to United Front activities.
"If you look at the structure and the members of the leadership, including honourable president and the executive office holders, you can see their clear connection with the Chinese United Front operation," he said.
One of the broader United Front's policies is to influence expatriate Chinese to join political parties and seek elected office — a policy known as huaren canzheng or "ethnic Chinese political participation".
"In the past decade or so, we have indeed discovered the latest developments in the United Front is encouraging Chinese (people) to actively participate in local elections and become politicians," Wu Qiang, former politics lecturer at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said.
"It is hoped that in this way, it will affect the other countries' policies and governance," he said.
WTUF's spokesman did not respond directly to the ABC's questions about whether WTUF is engaged in United Front work.
However a spokesman said "we do not agree with your theory or conjecture."
PHOTO: Gladys Liu and Jennifer Yang contested the seat of Chisholm, which Ms Liu won by an ultra-thin margin. (ABC News: Iris Zhao)
In 2014 Gladys Liu was made an honorary chairman of UCCAA — the United Chinese Commerce Association of Australia, which is described by its lawyer as a subsidiary of WTUF established in Melbourne by WTUF's founder Baima Aose.
A spokesman for the WTUF told the ABC that the UCCAA is an "affiliate" of the WTUF's "global partnership network" and has no legal or economic relationship with the WTUF.
At the same time as Ms Liu, Jennifer Yang was also appointed as an honorary chairman of the UCCAA.
Both women would later be preselected as candidates for Chisholm in the 2019 federal election — Liu for the Liberals, Yang for Labor.
PHOTO: In 2014, Gladys Liu and Jennifer Yang (left) were made honorary chairwomen of the UCCA by WTUF founder Baima Aose. (Supplied)
In a written statement to the ABC, Ms Liu explained her relationship with the WTUF.
"I joined the Melbourne branch of the World Trade United Foundation for no other reason than to support of the promotion of trade between Australia and Hong Kong, and to encourage individuals in the Australia-Hong Kong community to undertake community work," she said.
"I resigned my membership around 2016 due to time restraints."
The ABC has established Ms Liu's association with WTUF and its subsidiary continued until at least as late as August 2017, with Ms Liu attending a gala event in Melbourne co-hosted by both organisations.
Ms Liu's adviser told the ABC she attended the event as a translator.
Ms Yang attended the same event, with both women appearing on stage — alongside Bruce Atkinson — in front of the large crowd.
PHOTO: Bruce Atkinson and Gladys Liu on stage at a WTUF-sponsored event in Melbourne, August 2017, with Jennifer Yang sitting in the back row. (Supplied)
Ms Yang told the ABC she did not recall being formally appointed an honorary chairman of UCCAA.
However, she confirmed her association with the organisation, saying she was introduced to the WTUF by community members.
"I saw a video which said they are associated with the World Trade Organisation. They said they wanted to do charity work, that's their mission," she said
Ms Yang told the ABC she attended some events in Melbourne recognising donations from WTUF/UCCAA to various charities and recalled attending a large gala event before the 2014 State Election.
"In general I just try to be helpful," she said. "I always encourage people trying to do charity work."
The ABC has established that Ms Yang was pictured on a WTUF office-holders list in 2015 and on a different iteration of this list dated 2016.
Ms Liu and Mr Atkinson are also included in the first list; Mr Atkinson, who was President of Victoria's Upper House until 2018, is included in the second.
PHOTO: A WTUF office-holders list published in 2015 (left) showing Jennifer Yang and Gladys Liu and a 2016 list (right) that includes Baima Aose, Bruce Atkinson and Ms Yang. (Supplied)
While Ms Yang, along with Ms Liu and Mr Atkinson attended WTUF events at least as recently as August 2017, the ABC has not identified any record of Ms Yang attending events in Hong Kong or Beijing.
The revelations about Ms Yang and Ms Liu and their links to the Hong Kong based organisation mean that, while the outcome in the 2019 federal election in Chisholm was incredibly tight (Liu 50.57 per cent: Yang 49.43 per cent), whichever candidate won would have a history with WTUF.
While Ms Liu was known to have been appointed honorary president of the UCCAA in 2014, her role in the parent organisation in Hong Kong significantly alters what was known about her background.
Jennifer Yang told the ABC she received no financial support from the UCCAA for her Chisholm campaign. Gladys Liu did not respond to questions about campaign financing.
The UCCAA did not respond to the ABC's requests for comment.
Ms Liu is already facing a High Court challenge to her election result over the use of Chinese-language Liberal Party posters on election day, which a voter in the seat of Chisholm alleges were designed to deceive voters.
Constitutional law expert from the University of Sydney, Anne Twomey, said that under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS) Act 2018, Members of Parliament are exempt from registering activities undertaken on behalf of a foreign principal.
The legislation does not cover honorary relationships such as those of Ms Liu and Mr Atkinson.
"Many MPs have large ethnic communities in their electorates and represent their interests, which might also involve their interests with respect to their countries of origin," Ms Twomey said.
Ms Twomey said there could be other ways for Members of Parliament to declare associations without formally registering under the FITS Act.
"If one was concerned about transparency of involvement with foreign groups or foreign national governments, it would be relatively easy to add that kind of information to any of the registers or checklists or declarations that members of parliament make without having them go through the onerous aspects of the Foreign Influences Transparency Scheme."
Victorian Liberal MP Bruce Atkinson was also an honorary chairman of WTUF.
He has appeared regularly in social media posts by WTUF founder Baima Aose.
In August 2014, as Hong Kong was heading towards its own pro-democracy protests known as the "umbrella" movement, Mr Atkinson received a delegation from WTUF in the Victorian Parliament. Ms Liu was pictured with the then Upper House President and numerous WTUF delegates.
PHOTO: Bruce Atkinson (seated right) and Gladys Liu (seated second from left) with WTUF's founder Dato' Sri Baima Aose (seated centre) and a delegation inside Victorian Parliament in 2014. (Supplied)
Asked why he met with the delegation in Parliament, Mr Atkinson said he hosts many such delegations, and that doing so does not represent an endorsement.
He said he strongly supports Victoria's multicultural policies and has worked to expand the State Parliament's engagement with all of its multicultural communities, and the organisations they have established.
In January 2015, immediately following Hong Kong's 79 days of demonstrations calling for universal suffrage, Ms Liu and Mr Atkinson attended a WTUF ceremony in Hong Kong.
Mr Atkinson was presented as "a presiding guest" along with then Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Wang Zhimin, the director of the Chinese government's liaison office in Hong Kong. The liaison office is the main coordinator of United Front activities in Hong Kong.
The pair then travelled to Beijing and met with a senior Communist Party official named Zhang Meiying who coordinates United Front activities.
PHOTO: Bruce Atkinson wearing a WTUF pin, giving an interview with media at the Inauguration Ceremony of the WTUF in Hong Kong in 2015. (Supplied)
Mr Atkinson was interviewed by Chinese media. Asked about the Hong Kong demonstrators' demands, he said he did not believe in an "international standard" for elections and that "every country or region should choose a system that suits its situation," echoing Beijing's rhetoric towards Hong Kong.
The Victorian Parliamentarian has since told the ABC his statement was a "matter of fact," and that democracies also had "different structures and methods of election".
"In a democracy, one vote one value is a right and I would want to see that right extended universally," he said.
In response to a number of questions about his connection to the WTUF, Mr Atkinson said his title was purely honorific and that he has "no active role in any Chinese organisations, including no advisory, consultative or executive role."
He also said no Chinese entity or individual has tried to influence his thinking on political issues. However, he said he was concerned about the emergence of a "reds under the beds" attitude in Australia.
"The attitude limits our ability to engage in constructive dialogue on those issues that concern Australian governments and citizens, is already negatively impacting on our economy and has the potential to generate racial tensions for Chinese Australians who have made an important and positive contribution to our country," he said.
In relation to the anti-Beijing protests again underway in Hong Kong, Ms Liu told the ABC "the significant number of people in Hong Kong who have taken to the streets to voice their concerns demonstrates to the world the kind of passion and commitment to democracy that the people of Hong Kong hold".
"Peaceful dialogue is the best course of action to resolve the dispute, consistent with both Australia's democratic values and with the established democratic practices of Hong Kong, valued by Australia and many around the world."
PHOTO: Mr Atkinson and Ms Liu with a Chinese journalist in January 2015 during an interview canvassing their involvement with the WTUF. (Supplied)
Mr Atkinson remains in the WTUF's favour.
In May this year, he was appointed to the position of Vice-Chairman of Heaven Springs Dynasty Harvest Group and President of its International company, a WTUF-linked enterprise that spruiks technology for extracting water from humid air.
Heaven Springs is a significant corporate enterprise, which claims its businesses, including intelligent technology, film and television, luxury goods and big data, are valued at over HK$2 billion ($370 million).
All of its directors are also involved in WTUF.
Mr Atkinson said he has received no financial benefit from any Chinese organisation, however he confirmed that he is a shareholder of the water technology company.
China's coronavirus cover-up was among worst in history, congressman says
The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee has accused China of carrying out "one of the worst cover-ups in human history" over the novel coronavirus outbreak and inflicting a pandemic and economic calamity on the world.
Why it matters: Rep. Michael McCaul's rhetoric is characteristic of the growing hawkishness toward China among many in Washington, D.C. even, or especially, amid a crisis that is battering both countries.
Driving the news: McCaul spoke with Axios shortly after China revoked credentials from reporters at five U.S. media outlets.
- "If they expel our journalists, if that's their answer, I worry we will never get to the bottom of this," McCaul said. "But at the end of the day, we will be pointing the finger at China."
Between the lines: China has been criticized in Washington and beyond for prioritizing the containment of information, rather than of the virus itself, when it emerged in Wuhan.
- It has also been praised for the "war" it belatedly waged on the virus, with Beijing claiming its decisive action "bought the world time."
- Increasingly confident it's beyond the worst, China is attempting to play a global leadership role. European politicians, including in Serbia and Italy, have praised China for offering help when the EU could or would not.
The big picture: President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other prominent officials have drawn China's ire by referring to COVID-19 as the "Chinese virus" or "Wuhan virus."
- Communist Party officials are simultaneously engaged in a disinformation campaign, questioning the origins of the virus and even claiming it may have been spread by the U.S. military.
That back-and-forth has merged with another, over access for journalists from both countries.
- China's effective expulsion of journalists from the NY Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal follows new U.S. restrictions on Chinese state-owned media operating in the U.S.
What they're saying: "This came out of Wuhan, China is responsible for that, and they don’t like to hear that so their response is to expel our journalists," McCaul told Axios. "We want the truth to come out about this. I do worry — for two months they tried to cover it up, which made this situation worse."
- McCaul claimed "unsanitary practices" in China — in the case of COVID-19 at a wet market in Wuhan — had been responsible for several viruses that spread beyond China's borders.
- "I just don't think they can get away with it this time. I think the World Health Organization should play a role here in — instead of applauding China for their efforts — really holding them responsible for what they've done. They are the cause of a global pandemic."
- McCaul also said he suspected that China had massively underreported the death toll there.
His bottom line: McCaul said the crisis presented the U.S. and American businesses with an opportunity to re-examine their dependence on China. "That's going to be the ultimate impact of this whole crisis," he said.
HOW CHINA IS EXPLOITING THE PANDEMIC TO EXPORT AUTHORITARIANISM
MARCH 31, 2020
During the past two weeks, Serbia’s president has hailed Chinese President Xi Jinping as his “brother” and kissed the Chinese flag, while leaders across Africa and Latin America have effusively praised China’s generosity. The Chinese government throughout the past year pursued a series of largely ineffective efforts to manipulate global narratives regarding its crackdown on democracy protests in Hong Kong and detention of more than one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now undertaking its most audacious effort yet at shaping international perceptions, looking to produce a soft power victory out of a pandemic of its own making.
Beijing’s use of the COVID-19 crisis to position itself as a responsible global leader is not only the height of chutzpah, but also a clear marker of a new phase in China’s manipulation of the global information space.
The CCP is employing a propaganda and disinformation blitz not just to protect its reputation, but to go on the offensive. Chinese leaders appear set to translate their manipulation of the global narrative and provision of medical equipment to countries hit hard by COVID-19 to their concrete benefit, including through advantageous investment deals with the European Union and individual countries. Deliveries of ventilators, masks, and virus test kits — many of which might not work properly — may come packaged with pressure on countries that have been reluctant to adopt China’s terms, or integrate Huawei equipment in their 5G infrastructure.
The CCP’s manipulation of the current crisis is, however, just one manifestation of its broader impact on the fundamental relationship between information, governments, and populations in countries around the world. China is exporting its authoritarian approach to information control, and bolstering the notion that regimes of all types have the right to manipulate or even shut down their sovereign information spaces to protect their rule.
This obsession with maintaining control over information is the very approach that produced the current pandemic. The Chinese government’s silencing of those sounding the alarm about COVID-19, and suppression of critical research, delayed interventions that could have significantly reduced the virus’s spread. By seeding that same obsession in fragile democracies and autocratic nations around the world — and sharing the tools to act upon it — the CCP is raising the likelihood of future transnational crises.
Beijing is poised to capitalize on the mounting challenges that governments around the world will face as a result of COVID-19, promoting authoritarian methods to leaders looking to placate or control frustrated publics. The United States should counter China’s efforts by redoubling support for democratic solutions to those challenges, underscoring the success of democracies like Taiwan and South Korea in responding to the virus, and demonstrating that democracies are best positioned to resuscitate their economies and societies in the wake of this crisis.
Popularizing Autocracy, Devaluing Truth
From Cambodia to Serbia to Uganda, China is offering large-scale training on how to manipulate public opinion, censor and surveil journalists and civil society activists, and implement CCP-style cybersecurity policies. The Chinese government is inspiring a growing number of governments — including Vietnam, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — to better control and even shut down their internet to maintain their grip on power. Illiberal leaders are gaining the technology and knowhow to monitor and target individuals who challenge the official narrative, as the CCP did with COVID-19 whistleblowers Li Wenliang and Ai Fen in Wuhan. China’s growing influence over news production and content in foreign countries is also undercutting democratic governance and media freedom.
In essence, China is exporting the notion that that the only legitimate information — within countries’ borders, in the international media, and from international institutions — is that which those in power deem convenient to their continued rule. To paraphrase George Orwell, it is becoming less profitable to speak and write truths that do not comport with official government narratives.
China’s model of information control is alluring to critics of democracy, for whom Beijing’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — rife with human rights abuses — looks like another proof point for authoritarianism. China’s tightened grip on its media, internet, and civil society is an inspiration for illiberal leaders insecure in their popular legitimacy and afraid of open debate among their own citizens. The CCP’s crackdown has shut down or silenced media outlets and advocacy groups who held the Chinese government accountable for the SARS outbreak in 2003, and which could have sounded the alarm on COVID-19.
Silencing Future Whistleblowers
There are tangible risks to China’s enabling of information controls across a growing set of countries, any of which could be the locus of the next transnational crisis. In many cases, China’s support for authoritarian leaders is exacerbating problems with information flow that are inherent to non-democratic rule.
Autocratic governments are less likely to receive information critical to stamping out incipient health and other crises because, as occurred in Wuhan during the early days of COVID-19, lower-level officials fear the repercussions of sharing bad news. The laboratory in Shanghai that first published the COVID-19 genome sequence in early January was quickly ordered to close for “rectification,” which hampered scientists’ research aimed at controlling the outbreak. Insecure in the legitimacy of their rule, authoritarian leaders are also more likely to silence members of the media and prevent them from unearthing critical information that might help to avert major problems.
Authoritarian leaders also are less likely to share vital information with other countries, permit observation and assistance from foreign experts, or collaborate internationally to nip emerging crises in the bud. China withheld information about community spread of the virus in late December and did not inform the World Health Organization until nearly three weeks later. The global institution has offered glowing judgment of China’s “transparency” in handling the crisis, raising questions about China’s influence over the organization. Meanwhile, China’s blocking of Taiwan’s access to the World Health Organization meant that Taiwan’s reports on community spread were not fed into the global public health system; the organization’s Director General refused last week to even discuss the effectiveness of Taiwan’s response to the pandemic. Furthermore, data shared by authoritarian regimes such as the CCP is frequently unreliable. These governments are often well-practiced at doctoring GDP data, pollution measurements, and other statistics at the best of times and can hardly be trusted to share accurate information during a crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that the dysfunctions of authoritarianism in one country can wreak havoc around the world. In an increasingly connected world in which local challenges can quickly metastasize into global crises, the United States and its democratic allies cannot afford to have a growing number of governments prioritize their grip on power above the safety of their citizens.
Transparency and the Next Pandemic
At a time when the CCP is presenting its response to COVID-19 as evidence of the superiority of its authoritarian system, the United States and its partners should continue to push back on China’s manipulation of the narrative. Washington can underscore the CCP’s responsibility for this pandemic — and its draconian methods to control the virus — without stoking racism or undermining global collaboration needed to combat COVID-19. Indeed, America’s international leadership in responding to the pandemic would underline democracies’ continued role in tackling global challenges and avoid ceding the field to China. Such leadership, combined with a demonstration of the United States’ and its allies’ capacity to effectively combat COVID-19, is critical to answering the CCP’s propaganda push. The necessity for greater U.S.-China cooperation to battle COVID-19, including through the sharing of scientific research and data, does not negate the importance of thwarting Beijing’s efforts to use this crisis to promote authoritarianism.
While countering this particularly egregious instance of CCP propaganda is important, Washington must also look beyond this moment. The United States should prepare for a future certain to be characterized by increasingly frequent Chinese government efforts to dominate the global narrative, and the expansion of CCP-style information controls across a growing number of countries.
American efforts to mitigate such risks and counter the export of China’s model of information control will require playing the long game — including by supporting civil society and independent media as the guarantors of transparency in countries around the world. Organizations such as Reporters without Borders and Freedom House continue to document closing information spaces, while partners on the ground are training journalists and mobilizing popular awareness of the hazards of creeping information controls by government leaders, elected or not. Washington should increase support for these groups on the front line of democracies’ battle against the advocates of authoritarianism. Perhaps most importantly, the United States and its partners must demonstrate that democracies can respond effectively to crises of this magnitude, and that their model is best-equipped to cope with and recover from its long-term effects.