ACT Senate candidate Li Fuxin linked to Chinese government’s foreign influence arm | #socialmedia

A Senate candidate billing himself as a choice for social harmony has a long history of activity with the Chinese government’s main arm of overseas influence, the United Front Work Department.

Canberra-based Dr Li Fuxin — the founder and principal of a Chinese language school — announced his intent to run for Australia’s upper house as an independent in late March.

While he declared he was running on a platform of multiculturalism, education and business, he was less forthcoming about the fact that, in recent years, he has cultivated important ties to Beijing, mainly through senior positions within provincial arms of the United Front Work Department.

The United Front Work Department has been described by Western governments as a key element of China’s President Xi Jinping’s strategy to conduct influence operations targeting foreign nations.

Other aspiring Australian politicians have been involved with the United Front Work Department in the past — Victorian Liberal MP Gladys Liu was found to have links to it — but few have held so many executive positions as Dr Li.

“If people are members — and, certainly, if they’re office holders in United Front-linked organisations — then their duty is to work on behalf of the Chinese Community Party,” said Clive Hamilton, author of two books on the role of the Chinese government’s covert influence operations around the world.

Dr Li Fuxin says he stands for “multiculturalism, education, languages and business”.(Facebook: Dr Li Fuxin)

Professor Hamilton said Dr Li was very unlikely to gather enough votes to be elected and his candidacy was more likely to be focused on building his reputation within the Chinese community in Australia.

“It’s all very much part of extending his influence and building his power within the Chinese diaspora [in Canberra],” Professor Hamilton said.

Dr Li came to Australia in the 1990s to study for his doctorate in education at Melbourne’s Monash university and has since become a prominent member of Australia’s Chinese language-teaching community, recently becoming the chairman of the Chinese Language Teachers’ Federation of Australia.

What is less known are his many United Front positions. The ABC has discovered Dr Li has in the past decade held positions on at least six provincial-level United Front groups.

In 2015, he was also elected as a committee member on a national United Front group, the China Association for International Cultural Exchanges with Overseas Chinese (ICEA).

ICEA committee members are only appointed on the recommendation of Chinese government departments or embassies, according to the organisation’s constitution.

Also, in 2015, Dr Li became one of three executive committee members of the International Society for Chinese Language Teaching (ISCLT).

The International Society for Chinese Language Teaching is a Chinese government-affiliated association supervised by the Confucius Institute headquarters, known as Hanban.

Hanban is associated with the United Front Work Department and Confucius Institutes have come under fire in recent years for being allegedly involved in undermining academic freedom and attempting to restrict debate on sensitive areas such as Tibet and Taiwan.

When the ABC spoke to Dr Li, he rejected suggestions his candidacy was in any way connected to influence operations in Australia.

While he acknowledged he had been a member of the United Front groups that the ABC had uncovered, he said he had not been in touch with them for “two or three years” and he had never been asked to do anything inappropriate.

Senate hopeful says he’s not influenced by Chinese government

Dr Li founded his Canberra-based school — the Australian School of Contemporary Chinese (ASCC) — in 2003 and now teaches Chinese to hundreds of children and adults across four campuses.

These include — according to a 2012 Chinese television interview with him — officials from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

In September 2019, Dr Li’s school co-hosted a “Chinese Culture Camp” in Canberra, which featured traditional dance and music, martial arts and examples of traditional Chinese tea ceremonies.

Such camps are funded, at least in part, by the Chinese government’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO), the highest level of government responsible for overseas Chinese affairs.

In early 2018, OCAO was absorbed into the United Front Work Department.

Earlier this year a Canadian judge, Vanessa Rochester, found the office had conducted “covert action and intelligence gathering against the overseas Chinese communities and other minorities around the world”.

“OCAO infiltrates the inner workings of the overseas Chinese communities, selectively imparts to them only what they need to know, and denies them access to information that may affect the success of the OCAO,” Justice Rochester said.

In the month after the school camp, Dr Li travelled to China and was photographed meeting with the deputy head of the United Front Work Department’s arm in Gansu province, Zhang Wenxue.

Li Fuxin holds a red banner while posing for a photo with three men in white shirts.
Li Fuxin (second from left) met with top United Front official Zhang Wenxue (third from left) in September 2019 in Lanzhou, China.(Source: Gansu United Front website)

When the ABC contacted Dr Li this week he said he was unsure if he was still a member of any of the United Front groups, and had not had contact with any of them for “two or three years”.

“These sorts of memberships (with United Front groups) … they are [memberships of] associations, rather than with a party,” he said.

He was not working for, or with, the Chinese government, he said.

“I was not influenced by any of these groups for my election. I just stand up as an independent … I just represent the [Chinese] community,” he said.

“No-one talked to me, no-one touched me, and I don’t accept that they influenced me.”

A man in formal attire poses in front of a banner featuring a Chinese government crest and the years 1949 and 2019.
Dr Li Fuxin attending a National Day reception held inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2019.(Supplied: Oriental City News)

He said he had not taken any money from the Chinese government for his campaign.

“All my funding are from myself or from the community donations,” he said.

Regarding the 2019 culture camp, he said it had been partly funded by the parents and students of his school.

When asked if the event had been co-funded by the OCAO, he said he thought the Chinese performers that came to Australia for the event had their travel and other expenses paid for, but he did not know by whom.

“I am not sure whether [OCAO] funded it. But, for us, our students and teachers involved, we need to pay. We just charged a fee from the students and parents to cover that.

“We just focus on our activity here.”

Dr Li has also done business with Chinese state media when serving as a director of an Australian media company called CAN Media Services.

In 2003, CAN signed a deal to become the exclusive publishing and sales agent in Australia and New Zealand for the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Daily.

Dr Li attended the signing ceremony, which was held at the Chinese embassy in Canberra.

Li Fuxin attends a parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Dr Li Fuxin attending a memorial parade in front of Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, in 2019.(Supplied: Oriental City News)

Candidate says he’s the victim of racial discrimination

Dr Li’s federal Senate campaign is not his first tilt at Australian politics. In 2020, he ran in the ACT elections in the seat of Yerrabi, garnering a little over 1 per cent of the vote.

It is unlikely that he will gather enough votes to be elected this time, either.

“I speak for all and stand for harmony,” Dr Li told the ABC of the policies on which he’s campaigning.

“I support multiculturalism, education, languages and business.”

If elected, Dr Li said he would advocate for a “good balance of national security and national interest”, adding that Australia should maintain a good trading relationship with China.

While Dr Li’s advocacy is open to the public, his background with United Front groups should also be considered by people considering voting for him, Professor Hamilton said.

“Dr Li, as an Australian citizen, is perfectly entitled to run for Australian parliament, but I think potential voters should know … [that] he is closely linked to the Chinese Communist Party,” Professor Hamilton said.

Professor Clive Hamilton, holding his book Hidden Hand, stands beside a wall.
Clive Hamilton says voters are entitled to know about Dr Li Fuxin’s links to the Chinese government.(ABC News: Greg Nelson/File)

Dr Li said he was disappointed that his connections with the United Front groups were being raised and felt it highlighted the difficulties the Chinese community faced in Australia.

“My understanding is that, in Australia, every citizen — regardless of their culture, race or colour — we have equal constitutional rights to stand for election.

“[But], because of my Chinese background and because of the COVID pandemic, I find it extremely difficult and frustrating to run a campaign.

“My posters [across Canberra] have been smashed … This is something about racial discrimination, because I have a Chinese background.”

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