Donor resigns over Chinese ‘political’ links scrutiny

Concerns over Chinese ‘soft power’ influence on Australian universities has led to the resignation of a well-connected Chinese donor as chair of a China-Australia think tank at the University of Technology Sydney or UTS.

Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo, founder of the Yuhu Group, a property company based in Shenzhen, China, had been in the spotlight as a major donor to Australia’s main political parties at a time when a political donations scandal had led to the resignation of opposition senator Sam Dastyari from his front-bench position as a shadow minister, after links were made between donations from prominent Chinese businessmen and Dastyari’s comments on foreign policy issues that appeared to back the Chinese government line.

Huang said in a statement on Thursday that he was resigning from his position as chairman of the Australia-China Relations Institute, or ACRI, at UTS because of “unfair” scrutiny over his political donations and “incorrect allegations” that he had been a conduit for Chinese government influence in Australia.

Huang had provided generous donations to set up ACRI as a think tank that would provide a positive view of Australia-China relations, leading to questions from academics on whether ACRI was independent of indirect political influence from China, and some scrutiny of Huang’s political connections, both in Australia and with China’s ruling Communist Party.

Huang said he had been contemplating stepping down for the past six months due to other commitments.

"But the major reason for me stepping down at this time, is that, quite unfairly, too much has been made of my chairmanship of ACRI in the coverage about political donations and supposed Chinese influence. As a result, I do not want this to be an ongoing source of distraction from the very good work being done by the institute," he said in his statement.

Independent teaching and research

China expert James Leibold, an associate professor at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, and a critic of UTS’ governance structure that made it open to possible undue political influence from donors, welcomed the resignation but called on UTS to reinstate its China Research Centre which preceded ACRI. The China Research Centre had ceased to function when ACRI was set up in 2014. Some of its China scholars joined ACRI but others left, citing the need for academic independence.

“In seeking to understand one of Australia’s most important bilateral relationships, universities have an important role to play in fostering critical, independent teaching and research on China, where all aspects of China's rise – both positive and negative – are open for robust examination and public discussion,” Leibold told University World News.

“The recent events surround ACRI should serve to remind university administrators about the need to think carefully about the conditions under which it accepts private philanthropic donations,” Leibold added.

Other prominent Chinese businessmen have also provided funds for ACRI, including Chau Chak Wing, who chairs a Guangzhou-based property, finance and education conglomerate called Kingold Group. Chak has donated A$25 million (US$19 million) to UTS for a new business school and to fund student scholarships. He has also donated more than A$1 million (US$762,000) to Australia’s two main parties in the past two years.

In an article that appeared last month in Global Times, a tabloid offshoot of the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily, Huang said the Chinese community needed to demand a greater say in Australian public life and learn “how to have a more efficient combination between political requests and political donations and use the media to promote our political requests”.

Governance review

Huang’s resignation came as UTS was carrying out a governance and operations review of ACRI, and it intends to move towards a system that would set up a management committee of UTS leaders headed by the deputy vice-chancellor Bill Purcell.

A spokesman for Huang said the Yuhu Group chairman would "remain supportive of ACRI's work in a way respectful of its independence", the Australian Financial Review newspaper reported on Thursday.

Huang said Yuhu would also withdraw from ACRI's governing council but stressed the council was completely independent of China’s Communist Party and that media claims that he had strong personal links to the party were “mischievous and grossly exaggerated”.

Huang’s involvement in ACRI had sparked a debate in Australia about China’s use of influential and well-connected businessmen to promote its viewpoint abroad.