Abetz committee shuts down critics

A top Chinese community leader Dr Tony Pun, who was highly critical of Eric Abetz was silenced by the Senate committee looking into diaspora communities, while a pro-Trump Chinese media outlet was welcomed to make public comment.

Editor’s note:
After publication of this article on the APAC.News website yesterday, the Senate released a transcript of evidence provided by Dr Pun. Following his testimony on 2 November 2020, the Committee Secretariat indicated evidence was taken in camera and there was no decision as to whether it would be released. Senator Abetz excused himself from the meeting and did not participate in proceedings during that time; he returned to the committee immediately after Dr Pun’s departure. The transcript can be accessed here.

One of Australia’s most prominent Chinese community leaders, Dr Tony Pun, OAM, has been made to give evidence ‘in camera’ at a closed session of the Senate Inquiry into Issues Facing Diaspora Communities in Australia.

Members of the controversial US-headquartered Epoch Times Chinese newspaper group, which is vocally supported by Eric Abetz, were allowed to put their views on the public record.

Appearing in his capacity as chairman of the Multicultural Communities Council of New South Wales, Dr Pun and three fellow members of the council were not permitted to give evidence in public.

The parliamentary broadcast of their evidence was blacked out and the witnesses face potential contempt charges should they divulge details of their evidence.

Over five days of public hearings, no other witnesses were made to give evidence in closed sessions. This includes Australia’s top domestic spy, ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess, who appeared publicly before the committee on 15 October.

“Unconditional condemnation”

Last month, the committee’s deputy chair, Eric Abetz, caused a firestorm by demanding three Chinese-Australians appearing voluntarily “unconditionally condemn” the Chinese government before giving evidence.

In a strongly worded response, Dr Pun joined a large chorus of federal parliamentarians, human rights activists, media commentators and ethnic community leaders in condemning Abetz and demanding an apology.

He accused Abetz of reviving McCarthyism for political purposes, writing, “The nightmare began when McCarthyism was re-incarnated by Senator Eric Abetz asking three young Chinese Australians to ‘unequivocally condemn’ the Chinese Communist Party. Congratulations to Chiu, Jiang and Chau for having the courage to defend themselves when bullied.”

After four decades of advocacy of Chinese community issues, the now retired Dr Pun remains an active voice in the Chinese community, well known for not pulling punches when it comes to defending the diaspora.

In a recent interview with The Australian newspaper, he also stated he had no appetite for the promotion of the views of the Chinese Communist Party.

His public comments on Abetz’s interrogation of Osmond Chiu, Wesa Chau and Yun Jiang suggest the outspoken Dr Pun would not have taken a similar grilling lying down.

What was said to Dr Pun at this committee hearing may never be known as the committee can permanently seal both verbal and written evidence provided in testimony.

A small net for a big fish

Born in Malaysia, while it was still under British colonial rule, Anthony Pun moved to Australia in 1964. After gaining a PhD in molecular biology from the University of NSW, he became chief research scientist at St. Vincent’s Hospital, serving in that role for 19 years.

In 1989 he came to public prominence when he lobbied then prime minister Bob Hawke to allow Chinese students to remain in Australia following the Tiananmen Square massacre.

He is also known to have had the ear of former prime minister Gough Whitlam and was at Whitlam’s side for the 30th anniversary commemoration of the establishment of diplomatic ties with China.

In an interview before the committee hearing, Dr Pun said, “I have never played partisan politics. I’ve worked well with Labor prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke, and Liberal prime minister John Howard. I also served under Tony Abbott, when he was health minister, on the Australian Pharmaceutical Advisory Council.”

One of the most highly regarded ethnic community leaders in Australia, he served two terms as chair of the NSW government’s Ethnic Communities Council. Dr Pun is a three-time recipient of the NSW Premier’s award for community service, spent nine years as an Australia Day Council ambassador and in 1997 was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia.

Epoch Times gets green light

Four members of the Falun Gong-supported Epoch Times newspaper group were permitted to give evidence on the public record.

A fortnight ago Epoch Times interviewed Abetz, praising him for demanding Chinese Australians condemn China. It was the only media interview Abetz granted on the topic.  Epoch Times, which according to its own figures is read by less than five per cent of Chinese-Australians, is one of the only Chinese groups to have backed Abetz.

Both Abetz and his brother Peter, a former West Australian member of parliament, have in the past actively supported Falun Gong campaigns.

The bulk of questions came from Abetz, who focused mainly on the written submission of Epoch Times director Daniel Teng. That submission outlined an alleged campaign of harassment of advertisers and of the theft of copies of the free newspaper.

Victorian Greens senator Janet Rice asked the witnesses to provide specific examples of theft and harassment; none were provided.

However, Teng assured the committee that Epoch Times’ concerns were taken seriously by Australia’s security agencies, telling senators: “I can say that we’ve been in contact with some of our intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies about these issues [of alleged harassment], so these discussions have been ongoing which I think is definitely a good thing.”

Senator Rice said she was supportive of Epoch Times, but that in relation to advertisers withdrawing from the publication, she suggested its editorial stance on a variety of issues would be problematic for many. “Things like, you were saying before, essentially conspiracy theories on the origins of COVID. Calling COVID the ‘CCP Virus Pandemic’ and very strong unequivocal support for President Trump… I find them very challenging editorial lines,” she said.

Supporting Abetz and Trump

Followers of the US-based Falun Gong—which former staff members say is behind Epoch Times­—call it a meditation-based practice that preaches tolerance. Banned in China, Falun Gong is, say a number former members, is a cult that, among other things, is anti-medicine, homophobic and believes aliens inhabiting the earth are responsible for interracial childbirth.

Last week an investigation by the New York Times uncovered what it says are major links between Falun Gong, Epoch Times and a number of far-right media outlets promoting the re-election of Donald Trump. The Times says that since 2016, the Falun Gong-backed newspaper Epoch Times has used aggressive Facebook tactics and right-wing misinformation to create an anti-China, pro-Trump media empire.

In December, Facebook removed 900 Falun Gong-linked accounts which it said were “engaging in foreign and government interference”. Forbes reported that Epoch Times was behind a large number of the accounts and estimated it had spent $US9.5 million on pro-Trump ads linked to those Facebook accounts.

In July, APAC News revealed that members of the, Epoch Times-aligned, Vision Times newspaper had been funded by the US State Department to produce Chinese language news in Australia. That funding was later withdrawn without any announcement or explanation.

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Marcus Reubenstein is an independent journalist with more than twenty years of media experience. He spent five years at Seven News in Sydney and seven years at SBS World News where he was a senior correspondent. As a print journalist he has contributed business stories to most of Australia’s major news outlets. Internationally he has worked on assignments for CNN, Eurosport and the Olympic Games Broadcasting Service. He is the founder and editor of China-focussed business website, APAC News. You can follow Marcus on Twitter @ReubensteinApac.

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