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.
Australian Liberal MP Gladys Liu’s links to secretive United Front Chinese influence arm
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”.
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.
“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.
A large number of its 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.
What is 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.
WTUF identified as United Front organisation
The World Trade United Foundation was founded by a Baima Aose, a self-proclaimed “living Buddha” who has been photographed with US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
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.”
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.
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 advisor 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.
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.
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.”
MP appointed international president of WTUF-linked company
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.
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.
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.”
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.