Australian court finds businessman guilty of plotting Chinese political meddling in federal election

A Melbourne court has handed down the first conviction of its type under Australia’s foreign influence legislation, finding a businessman guilty of clandestinely working for the Chinese Communist Party.

A jury found 68-year-old Di Sanh Duong guilty on Tuesday of the charge of preparing for or plotting an act of foreign interference, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail. Duong is well-known in Melbourne’s Chinese community.

He is the first to face conviction under new Australian legislation passed in 2018 to combat the influence of foreign powers in the country’s politics. A tense relationship between Australia and China, its biggest trade partner, was further exacerbated by the law, which followed a string of scandals involving allegations of Chinese efforts to influence Australian politics.

The state police of Victoria filed charges against Duong in 2020. On Tuesday, the County Court of Victoria determined that he had made a substantial payment to the Royal Melbourne Hospital three years ago in an effort to covertly influence Alan Tudge, a former federal government minister.

Photo ops taken at a hospital event on June 2, 2020, show Duong handing a novelty check to Tudge for 37,450 Australian dollars ($25,000). The funds were collected by the Oceania Federation of Chinese Organizations, a collection of Chinese diaspora members led by Duong, who hails from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

The federal government claimed that Duong had hoped to gain favor with Tudge with the donation. No wrongdoing was alleged against Tudge.

An intercepted call between Duong and an accomplice in April 2020 was used by government lawyers. Duong, who viewed Tudge as an aspiring Australian prime minister, praised the importance of maintaining a relationship with him in the recording, which was played for the court.

During the trial, prosecutor Patrick Doyle contended that Duong—who had previously been affiliated with the Liberal Party of Victoria, Australia’s state chapter—would be an “ideal target” for the United Front Work Department in China.

The Chinese Communist Party’s ruling United Front is an enormous organization charged with fostering ties with elites beyond the party, including members of the Chinese diaspora. A number of Western countries, including the US, and academics have long held the suspicion that it is involved in Chinese government-sponsored worldwide influence operations.

“One of the primary objectives of this system is to cultivate support for the Chinese Communist Party and its policies,” Doyle informed the court.

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According to the prosecution, Duong had communications with Chinese state security personnel. The court heard a wiretapped call in which Duong said to an accomplice, “When I do things, it never gets reported in the newspaper, but Beijing will know what I’m doing.”

It will be next year when Duong is sentenced.

Through his defense attorney, CNN has contacted Duong for comment.

The verdict was welcomed by the Australian Federal Police in a statement released on Tuesday.

Members of the Counter-Foreign Interference Taskforce have been invaluable to the AFP’s investigation into this complicated matter. According to the statement, the AFP continues to prioritize protecting the nation from outside meddling.

The spokesperson for the opposition’s domestic policy, James Paterson, expressed his satisfaction with the guilty conviction in “Australia’s first ever foreign interference case” in a post on X, the former Twitter.

For the sake of preventing future efforts to meddle in our democracy, it is critical that prosecutions be successful. He emphasized that the AFP and prosecutors should maintain their strict enforcement of the law.