Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 11 March 2021



Liberal Party donor Haha Liu 'engaged in acts of foreign interference': ASIO

Melbourne-based Chinese businessman Huifeng "Haha" Liu.
Melbourne-based Chinese businessman Huifeng "Haha" Liu.( ABC News: Illustration By Alex Palmer )

A Liberal Party donor who developed relationships with federal Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar and MP Gladys Liu engaged in "acts of foreign interference" and activities for Beijing, according to Australia's domestic spy agency.

The bombshell findings by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) are contained in Melbourne-based Chinese businessman Huifeng "Haha" Liu's court application to fight the Federal Government to avoid deportation.

The case of Mr Liu, who ingratiated himself with Liberal Party MPs over the past five years, is a rare test of Australia's opaque strategy to counter alleged Chinese government interference by cancelling visas.

The 52-year-old stepped down as the president of a popular neighbourhood watch organisation which was also an official agency for the Chinese government, after ASIO deemed him a national security risk last year.

Federal Court documents released to the ABC reveal that in making the adverse security assessment, ASIO found the Chinese national "had engaged, and was at risk of engaging, in activities which constituted 'acts of foreign interference'".

According to Mr Liu's court application, ASIO concluded the former Chinese army soldier had lied in interviews with the agency about his work for, and ties to, unnamed Chinese officials.

"ASIO found that [Mr Liu] deliberately misrepresented the nature and extent of his relationships with officials of the Chinese government and the activities he has conducted on their behalf," Mr Liu's application said.

'Material errors in ASIO assessment'

Mr Liu is challenging ASIO's findings, accusing the agency of denying him a fair process and failing to demonstrate how his actions constituted "acts of foreign interference" under Australian law.

Haha Liu signs the letter of intent between AEAAI and the Chinese consulate in Melbourne in 2017.
Haha Liu signs the letter of intent between AEAAI and the Chinese consulate in Melbourne in 2017.( ABC News: Supplied )

He claims an official translator made "material errors" in an ASIO Security Assessment Interview conducted two days after his visa was revoked.

The ABC has also uncovered new WeChat messages which show Mr Liu and his neighbourhood watch organisation worked closely with Chinese diplomats in Sydney and Melbourne and hoped for funding from a Chinese foreign influence agency.

Federal Opposition legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus, a member of Parliament's intelligence and security committee, called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to come clean on the Liberal Party's ties to Mr Liu, in response to ASIO's "deeply disturbing" findings.

"The real question is how long has Mr Morrison known that a donor to his party and a man connected to Gladys Liu and to Michael Sukkar has been identified by ASIO as an agent of foreign interference?" he asked.

"Gladys Liu and Michael Sukkar need to explain what their links are to Haha Liu.

"Mr Morrison has failed to hold his MPs to account but it's now obvious he can't just brush this one under the carpet."

Haha Liu shows off cosmetic products autographed by John Howard and Michael Sukkar
Haha Liu shows off cosmetic products autographed by former prime minister John Howard, left, and Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar at Liberal Party fundraising events.( ABC News: Supplied )

The court documents in Mr Liu's case against the Immigration Minister and ASIO do not provide further details of his alleged acts of foreign interference or specify whether the allegations relate to his relationships with Australian politicians.

ASIO's findings will be tested in a one-day trial later this year.

Mr Liu's court battle comes after the government revoked the visas of two Chinese academics on national security grounds last year, provoking a storm of criticism from the Chinese government.

Yun Jiang, the managing editor of the Australian National University (ANU)'s China Story blog and a former Treasury official, said the government was increasingly relying on visa and immigration decisions to counter foreign interference.

"One thing we need to bear in mind is that compared to public prosecution under the foreign interference legislation, there's not much public information about these visa decisions," she said.

"One reason that the Australian government may decide to proceed with a visa rather than legislative approach is that it may have less effect on the bilateral relationship.

"But in the case of visa decisions, there is no public discussion and the public is not aware of the evidence presented. It also means that the public cannot be on the lookout for similar behaviours."

A certificate written in Chinese characters.
The certificate of the consular protection assistance cooperation between the AEAAI and China's consulate in Melbourne.( Supplied )

A deal with the Chinese Consulate

Mr Liu founded a popular community safety organisation, the Australian Emergency Assistance Association (AEAAI), which was announced in 2017 as an official "consular protection assistance agency" of China's Melbourne Consulate.

The AEAAI has more than 1,000 volunteers who act as middlemen for Chinese speakers with Australian authorities.

According to confidential documents revealed by the ABC in January, the association agreed to take instructions from the consulate and report back on criminal incidents, emergencies, accidents and "security risks" involving Chinese citizens deemed to require consular assistance.

The AEAAI has not always been transparent about the agreement, promoting itself as a grassroots community aid group to its more than 55,000 members across the country on the Chinese social media platform WeChat.

The ANU's Yun Jiang said the deal to report to the Chinese consulate could be risky for Chinese nationals, although it was not clear what information the association had provided.

"We know that the Chinese government has targeted individuals inside Australia for harassment," she said.

"That includes, for example, Hong Kong democracy activists, members of the Uyghur communities, or Falun Gong practitioners.

"So, an Australian organisation that supplies private and personal information to the Chinese Embassy can really endanger those individuals and that is very, very concerning."

WeChat messages show Liu wanted funds from Chinese foreign influence agency

The ABC can reveal internal AEAAI communications show Mr Liu also hoped for funding for the association from a top agency within the Chinese government's foreign influence network.

He made the comments in a series of WeChat messages to his leadership committee in March and April 2017, announcing the partnership with the consulate which, he wrote, came with "funding for our public events".

He wrote he expected "other donations" and hoped for money from the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, a foreign influence agency.

"[I have been] trying to get funding from various other sources," he wrote to the 22 members of the committee.

"Our lives would be made even more comfortable if the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese could provide some funding as well."

HaHa Liu's WeChat messages

As part of their agreement, the Melbourne consulate also agreed to reimburse the organisation for transportation and accommodation costs of consular protection activities.

However, in a detailed response to the ABC's questions, the AEAAI said it had never received any funds from Beijing and its formal agreement with the consulate lapsed last July.

"Neither the association nor Mr Liu has ever received either directly or indirectly through any third-party entities any monies from any foreign governments or political parties," said current AEAAI's president Skye Cai in a statement.

Ms Cai said the AEAAI had discussed potential funding "with full transparency" and its leadership committee jointly decided not to seek or receive money.

She said an internal audit last November found the AEAAI's bank accounts were untouched until 2020, when the only deposits were from three companies sponsoring a seminar.

Several committee members who spoke with the ABC on condition of anonymity questioned why the accounts remained empty over several years of AEAAI operations.

Mr Liu stood down as the association's president last November amid an internal row with committee members over questions about financial transparency and his dealings with ASIO.

In a statement in January, the consulate said there had been no "financial exchange" with the AEAAI and accused the ABC of "deliberately discrediting the Consulate-General and the Chinese government".

The consulate said its agreement with the AEAAI "strictly abides by Australian laws and regulations" and "the Chinese government … will never interfere in the internal affairs of any country".

Expanded responsibilities

In 2019, Haha Liu expanded his diplomatic connections, establishing a relationship with China's Sydney Consulate, the ABC can reveal.

The Sydney consulate approached the AEAAI to work together on New South Wales cases, in a bid spearheaded by China's Deputy Consul-General in Sydney, Mi Bin.

Mi Bin met with Mr Liu and four AEAAI committee members in the consulate in January 2019 to plan cooperation.

The initial approach to the AEAAI was made on WeChat by a consular officer, who wrote Beijing needed help with "more and more tourists, students and other people coming to Australia".

"It's unavoidable that they will encounter difficulties sometimes and some of them will come to the consulates seeking consular protection and assistance," the officer wrote.

"Recently, we found out about your Association which has been well established with considerable scale here in Australia, so we hope that we can establish some contact with you and seek some cooperation."

The consular officer later confirmed in a message: "The consulate wants to include you in our 'consular protection volunteer' system."

He asked a committee member to recommend volunteers in Sydney, further north in Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie, and in the NSW South Coast towns of Nowra, Kiama and Merimbula.

Afterwards, Deputy Consul-General Mi Bin and two of his Consuls took three committee members to a private dinner in a VIP room at the Imperial Kitchen and Bar in Sydney's CBD in April 2019.

Chinese men shake hands in front of flags of Australia and China.
Haha Liu (left) and China's Deputy Consul-General in Sydney, Mi Bin, at the Sydney consulate in January 2019.( Supplied )

WeChat messages show the consulate communicated with the AEAAI about cases involving the Chinese community as recently as January this year.

The Sydney consulate, Melbourne consulate and Chinese embassy did not respond to questions by the ABC's deadline. However, the AEAAI said it never had a formal cooperation agreement with the Sydney consulate.

In her statement to the ABC, the AEAAI's current president Skye Cai said the association was privy to ASIO's findings and "believe strongly in the innocence of Mr Liu".

"If there is any evidence which the ASIO has of any wrongdoing by either the Association or Mr Liu, we are not aware of it," Ms Cai wrote.

"Nor has the association directly been approached by ASIO nor have we been provided with any evidence or details of any foreign interference.

"Neither the association nor Mr Liu's personal relationships either with Australian politicians or Chinese officials ever exceeded the norm of cordial friendship and politeness."

Ms Cai said the AEAAI's internal investigations concluded ASIO's findings were "extremely likely a direct result of a third party's ill intent and false representations".

Liu's links to the Liberal Party

Sources close to Mr Liu told the ABC earlier this year he was on ASIO's radar since at least 2016, when he had the first in a series of meetings with the agency.

Haha Liu and Gladys Liu pose for the cameras.
Haha Liu is photographed with Liberal MP Gladys Liu on the occasion of her maiden speech to Parliament in July 2019. .( ABC News: Supplied )

Mr Liu was photographed that year attending the launch of a new Australian association for veterans of China's People's Liberation Army that had close ties to Beijing.

Soon after, the imports-exports businessman launched the AEAAI and donated $20,000 to the federal Liberal Party in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

He flooded social media with photos of encounters with a who's who of Liberal Party figures, including Mr Sukkar, Gladys Liu, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, then-foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop, now-Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and former prime ministers John Howard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.

Mr Liu developed relationships with Gladys Liu (no relation) and Mr Sukkar, the Assistant Treasurer, who wined and dined the political donor at events and party fundraisers over at least two years.

Gladys Liu, a prolific fundraiser and campaigner, publicly promoted the AEAAI over several years, spoke at its annual conferences, and helped Haha Liu develop relationships with Victoria Police and Liberal Party politicians.

Mr Liu also sat in Parliament in 2019, watching from the public gallery as Gladys Liu gave her maiden speech as MP.

Mr Sukkar invited Mr Liu to join him at the Parliament budget night dinner and wrote him a thankyou card for his "friendship and support" in 2017.

Mr Sukkar and Gladys Liu declined the ABC's requests for interviews. Their spokesmen referred the ABC to previous statements in which both said allegations against Haha Liu should be "thoroughly investigated."

In his December statement, Mr Sukkar's spokesman said the Assistant Treasurer "never had a private meeting or conversation with Mr Liu, who is known locally not to speak English."

He said they had not attended any of the same "community events" in at least the past two years.

Mr Sukkar's spokesman declined to answer questions about specific fundraising events, but said the thankyou card was one of about 5,000 "personalised Christmas cards" the Assistant Treasurer sent each year.

Gladys Liu said her only dealings with Mr Liu were in his capacity as president of the AEAAI.

Mr Liu declined the ABC's interview request and refused to answer a detailed list of questions.

An ASIO spokesperson said the agency did not comment on intelligence matters, while the Department of Home Affairs said it would not comment on matters before the courts.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton were also contacted for comment.

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