A $37,450 donation to the Royal Melbourne Hospital is at the centre of an alleged plot to curry Chinese influence in Australia’s political establishment, a court has been told.
The motives of prominent Australian-Chinese community leader Di Sanh Duong, also known as Sunny, are under examination in the Victorian County Court in a trial over an alleged attempt to exert influence over former federal minister Alan Tudge.
Mr Duong has pleaded not guilty to a charge of intentionally engaging in conduct with the intention of preparing for, or planning, foreign interference, with his barrister, Peter Chadwick KC, arguing the donation was “nothing out of the ordinary” for the philanthropic businessman.
Mr Duong, the court was told, runs a successful stonemasonry business, takes a leading role in Melbourne’s Chinese community groups and was a long-term member of the Victorian Liberal Party – even standing as the candidate for Richmond in 1996.
Prosecutors claim Mr Duong had secret links to a global effort to advance the interests of the Chinese Communist Party – organised out of an agency called the United Front Work Department.
In handing Mr Tudge a cheque on June 2, 2020, fundraised from Melbourne’s Chinese community, it’s alleged Mr Duong attempted to “cultivate” a favourable relationship with the then immigration and multiculturalism minister for possible future use.
“Before you start thinking about James Bond or spy novels, this is not about espionage,” federal prosecutor Patrick Doyle SC said.
“It’s a case about a much more subtle form of interference. It’s about influence.”
But delivering his opening remarks to the 15-member jury on Friday, Mr Chadwick said it was denied “in the strongest possible terms” that his client had collaborated with United Front or sought to influence Mr Tudge on behalf of the CCP.
(The donation) was a genuine attempt to help frontline workers and demonstrate the ethnically Chinese community were concerned for the situation in Melbourne during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.
He asked the jury to cast their minds back to the “difficult or even triggering” reality of early 2020 when fear about Covid-19 was at an all-time high and Melbourne had gone into lockdown.
“In the US the former president Trump had infamously labelled it the ‘China virus’,” he said.
“The fear of Covid-19 hung like a dark cloud over the Chinese and broader community … there were even acts of violence against people perceived to be of the Chinese race.”
He told the court that his client, and others within their community groups, wanted to be seen doing something to show they cared and “change these perceptions”.
As a businessman and philanthropist, he said, Mr Duong “inevitably” had to deal with the United Front Work Department when travelling to China but “strenuously denied” allegations he had been enlisted to exert influence in Australia.
Called to give evidence on Friday, former Victorian MP and Victorian Liberal Party president Robert Clark told the jury that he had met Mr Duong multiple times over the years through the party.
He told the court he had received a letter from Mr Duong in March 2019 titled “Ideas for your consideration: Australia and China as partners for the creation of a win-win economy”.
Mr Clark said the letter contained a number of “naive and superficial ideas” for him to suggest to the federal Liberal Party ahead of the election campaign, along with a warning that Labor seemed more China-friendly.
These included signing up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, allowing China to build a high-speed train from Melbourne to Brisbane and use their “human resources” to turn undeveloped land into food-producing areas to sell back to China.
Prosecutors have claimed this is an example of the type of influence Mr Duong was seeking with Mr Tudge, whom he considered a possible future prime minister.
Under cross-examination Mr Clark agreed he would get “weird and wonderful” contact from all sorts of people.
The trial, before Judge Richard Maidment KC, continues.