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Australian expulsion of China-born businessman and timed reports reveal Canberra's paranoia

By KARL WILSON in Sydney | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-04-20 16:01

Just before the Australian election date was announced, two of the country's newspapers ran front-page stories outlining the expulsion of a Chinese businessman for alleged links to Chinese spies.

The story appeared on the front pages of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on April 4 under the headline 'Millionaire expelled over links to China spy'.

Just as quickly as the story appeared it disappeared, and not a word has been said since.

The story appeared days before the federal election date was announced, but it also underlined the deteriorating relationship between Canberra and Beijing, which is likely to intensify during the election campaign.

There was no basis of fact to the story, just the allegations of unnamed sources.

Property developer Zheng Jiefu, a long-time resident of Melbourne who has invested millions of dollars into the property market in Australia, was expelled "sometime" last year according to the story.

His expulsion came after the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) "warned the federal government in 2020 that he posed a security risk", the story said.

None of the sources are named, "because they are not authorised to speak publicly", according to the story.

Yet such a story has been rejected by experts, who indicate that such reports all add to some officials' growing and unfounded paranoia over China's growth as a global economic power.

Greens senator Jordon Steele-John said in an interview with The Australian newspaper published on April 18 that the government was "ramping up tensions" with China with the full backing of the United States.

"I don't see China as a threat to Australia," he told The Australian.

Colin Mackerras, professor emeritus at Griffith University in Queensland and one of the country's leading Sinologists, agreed, saying the government has become paranoid over China.

"I think it is a complete misreading of China's actions, but in line with the Australian government's policy, which is increasingly regarding China as an enemy and a threat," Mackerras said.

"This tends to affect – very unfairly in my opinion – how the Australian security regards and treats individual Chinese.

"I think it is a very unwise and ultimately destructive policy, which is not only wrong but very much against Australia's interests," Mackerras said.

Zheng is not the first Chinese-Australian resident to be thrown out of the country and probably will not be the last.

ASIO has deported several Chinese businessmen and journalists in recent years under the Espionage and Foreign Interference Act (2018), accusing them of ties to the Communist Party of China and, in turn, of interfering in Australia's domestic politics. 

The Act is wide-sweeping and can involve acts that are deemed "clandestine or coercive, carried out on behalf of a foreign state and which are aimed at influencing Australia's political system or harming national security".

There is never any firm evidence presented, at least not by the media, just vague accusations by unnamed sources.

"Mr Zheng's alleged activities are said to include offering money to an Australian student in a way that could place pressure on his father, a human rights activist detained in China. The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have spoken to multiple sources, including government insiders and supporters of Mr Zheng, to confirm elements of Mr Zheng's expulsion case," the story said, without naming any of those sources.

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are owned by Nine Entertainment, whose chairman is Peter Costello, a Liberal member of the federal parliament from 1990 to 2009 and treasurer from March 1996 to December 2007.

According to the story, Zheng visited Australia in 2008 to attend a daughter's graduation before applying for residency and buying an A$8.25 million Brighton mansion. 

Zheng was reported to be fighting his expulsion.

Australia expelled Huang Xiangmo, a Chinese billionaire developer and political donor in Sydney, in February 2019 after ASIO accused him of being "prone to engage" in acts of foreign interference. These were allegations he firmly denied.

ASIO waited until the long-time Sydney resident was overseas before announcing he was no longer welcome and turned down his application to become an Australian citizen.

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