The Chinese Communist Party had escalated its campaign to influence Australian universities at the same time as University of Technology Sydney academic Chongyi Feng was being interrogated in China.
As recently as last week, in the days before Dr Feng was interviewed by Chinese officials, the head of a Chinese government department aimed at influencing Chinese people living abroad toured Australian universities.
The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office director, Qiu Yuanping, toured Australia, meeting with University of Sydney leaders, and UTS donor Huang Xiangmo.
The Australian can reveal that despite resigning as chairman of the UTS Australia China Relations Institute last year amid controversy over Chinese “soft power” in Australia, Mr Huang has become an adjunct professor with the institute.
“Although Mr Huang Xiangmo stepped down from the ACRI board last year, he continues as one of many hundreds of adjunct professors at the university,” a UTS spokesman confirmed.
Dr Feng, who has been a critic of the Chinese government, has been prevented from leaving China and has been interrogated by Chinese internal security forces in Guangzhou.
UTS leaders, including deputy vice-chancellor William Purcell, met directly with officials from the United Front Work Department of the CCP late last year at an event organised by Mr Huang.
Adelaide University Chinese bureaucracy expert Gerry Groot said this was “bizarre” since university officials usually work with officials from Chinese government departments, rather than the party itself. He said such a meeting could be a sign of China’s increased confidence abroad.
The officials were from the party’s United Front Work Department, which aims to aggressively influence overseas institutions and harness overseas Chinese to comply with the aims of the party.
“The department’s work abroad extends beyond reaching out to foreign citizens of Chinese ethnic origin and recent emigrants, to trying to influence foreign nationals to accept the communist party’s point of view on a plethora of topics,” Dr Groot has previously written.
Last Thursday, Ms Qiu addressed Chinese-Australians at an evening event and urged them to unite behind China and “share the Chinese dream”.
The China dream is a signature slogan of President Xi Jinping, which emphasises national glory.
Ms Qiu also met University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence, students, academics and Australian-Chinese property developer billionaire Chau Chak Wing, who donated $20 million to UTS to build the Frank Gehry-designed business school and $15m to the University of Sydney to build a museum.
In response to questions from The Australian, UTS said it maintained relations with a number of Chinese organisations and it did not imply either party aimed to influence the other.
Mr Huang is president of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, which he has denied is linked to the Chinese government despite its pro-Beijing advocacy.
He is also a financial backer of the Australia China Relations Institute, headed by former Labor foreign minister and ex-NSW premier Bob Carr.
Mr Carr has previously hit back at accusations over ACRI’s academic independence and argued other academic institutes receive funding from foreign nations and US defence companies.
“To balance such agendas Australia deserves one think tank that sees hope and possibility in a partnership with China,” he wrote in Fairfax media last year.
A UTS spokesman said the university was focused on securing Dr Feng’s release.
“Our current focus is to maintain a two-way dialogue with the Chinese authorities to ensure we understand the latest situation with respect to Associate Professor Feng and to seek a positive outcome,” he said.