Gladys Liu is in hot water over her alleged association with the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party. Yet no-one has alleged that Ms Liu herself, nor the Liberal Party she belongs to, holds any communist sympathies. Her association is with a body that is not in Hong Kong, where she was born, but rather in mainland China, and she hasn’t been a member since 2015, well before entering.
So what is all this fuss about? Ms Liu was on the council of the Guangzhou China Overseas Exchange, and an honorary chair of overseas Chinese trade and commerce bodies. These are “linked to the Chinese Government’s United Front Work propaganda and foreign influence activities”.
The United Front Work Department remains a poorly understood part of the party. It is a leftover from when China was occupied by Japan, and the party — weak and isolated — joined with other political parties and groups to form a “united front” against the invaders. Put bluntly, their job was to play nice.
Some context: the Chinese Communist Party leads China through controlling China’s Government and through running its own activities. Its own activities, separate from those of the Government, include making people study how the Communist Party sees the world, and promoting this same world vision to China’s own people.
As China has grown in importance throughout the world, it has attempted to include the Chinese diaspora, including in Australia, in these activities. In 2018, one of these associations was moved administratively from being in the Government to being under the direct supervision of the party’s United Front Work Department.
But this shift does not really alter the relationship between Ms Liu’s organisation and China’s leaders. Rather, it changed the formal lines of reporting from the association meeting in Guangzhou and then briefing the Guangzhou Government, to meeting and briefing the Guangzhou United Front liaison.
Either way, a representative still has to take it to the Guangzhou Party committee, which would pass it to the Guangdong Party committee, who forwards it to the Central Secretariat, which may bring it to the attention of the party’s politburo, a 25-person cabinet which meets monthly.
So the problem is rather with the informal channels. Chinese diaspora organisations want winners as figureheads, and while Ms Liu, a brilliant fundraiser, may not be from Guangzhou, she speaks the right language.
In return, the associations give her access to wealthy business leaders, many of whom have links to Australia through family, friends or even city-to-city relationships, especially that between Guangzhou and Sydney.
China’s current leader Xi Jinping wanted more focus on the United Front, emphasising more work on China’s restive provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, micromanaging religious groups, and finally, moving relations with overseas Chinese organisations from the Government into the United Front bureaucracy.
It was this final move that is most relevant to Ms Liu’s current difficulty. That was because Xi reminded everyone that United Front work was designed to keep China unified and be a “magic weapon” that would help China itself grow strong, through more “consultations” with everyone.
Xi’s focus may have been internal to China, but in Australia these consultations were not welcomed, particularly during the Turnbull administration. Turnbull’s speechwriter — John Garnaut, a former Fairfax Beijing bureau chief — wrote a classified report on Chinese influence and an article saying that Australia had “reset” relations with China.
Labor senator Sam Dastyari attended a press conference to support China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea, and media was later briefed that he had told a Chinese donor his house was bugged. Dastyari resigned. Turnbull attacked, introducing China-focused foreign influence legislation.
All of this is now rebounding on Ms Liu, which seems a bit stiff. Any overseas Chinese organisations could be described as being “linked to the United Front”. In reality, it is messy and fragmented. Party activities focus on language and thinking, trying to influence Chinese-language community and civil society groups and media.
The organisations that have got Ms Liu into trouble, however, are crudely transactional, mingling the rich with the powerful.
While both parties cry outrage, they both take Chinese money. And neither defines what sort of Chinese influence they will or won’t accept.
Ms Liu’s energy, access and fundraising — the very things that brought her to the Liberal Party’s attention — are now a curse rather than a blessing.
It is hard to map China’s politics onto ours. Many things get lost in translation. “Magic weapon” or fabao, for example, can also mean a lucky charm. Ms Liu probably doesn’t think so.
Ryan Manuel is head of Official China, a research initiative that downloads and translates Chinese official documents. He is a former senior China analyst for the Australian government.