Australia wanted to catch Chinese spies. Is this really who it had in mind?

New foreign interference laws raise tough questions about xenophobia

Police officers asked the man what he meant when he said that involving an Australian government minister in a charity event could benefit “us Chinese”. Was he talking about mainland China and the Chinese Communist Party, or the local Australian Chinese community? Depending on the answer, he faced up to 10 years in prison.

“You are understanding the Chinese is China. We always say, ‘I’m Chinese,’ that not mean, ‘I’m mainland China,’ ” said the man, Di Sanh “Sunny” Duong, who was brought in for questioning.

The officer pressed on, according to a tape played for a jury. Was Duong effectively building a relationship with the minister, “who you thought would be the future prime minister, to support the views of the Chinese?” Another officer asked, “Mainland China?”

When Australia’s broad-stroke foreign interference laws were passed nearly six years ago amid rising concerns about covert Chinese government meddling in Western democracies, they were heralded as trailblazing by the United States and other countries. Blockbuster prosecutions revealing sophisticated tactics seemed to be just around the corner.


But the first case, Duong’s, came to trial only in November and it was, by all accounts, a low-stakes affair. It involved throwing the weight of the Australian government against a suburban tombstone maker over diverging interpretations of two words (“us Chinese”), and aAUS$37,000 (about €22,000) donation to a community hospital that – prosecutors said – would at some point have become the basis for a pro-China pitch to a local member of parliament.

In December a jury found Duong (68) guilty of preparing for or planning an act of foreign interference. Late last month a judge sentenced him to two years and nine months in prison. He is expected to serve a year behind bars.

While the case received far less attention from Australian media than the passage of the interference laws, it has become a cautionary tale for the country’s large diaspora communities – nearly one third of its population was born overseas. In theory, the new laws were an effort to defend democracy against foreign influence. In practice, they have raised tough questions about when such intentions might drift into xenophobia or wasteful effort.

Duong did not testify at the trial and his lawyers did not call any witnesses. But in his only in-depth interview since his arrest, with the New York Times, he said that his patriotism toward China never conflicted with his loyalty to Australia and its interests. He saw himself as a scapegoat of geopolitical tensions, saying his prosecution was intended to send a message: “Don’t walk too close to China.”

For some experts Duong’s case, which started amid a diplomatic deep freeze between China and Australia and concluded as relations thawed, raised concerns that he had been effectively found guilty by association. To others, his interactions with Chinese officials were undeniable proof that he was working for Beijing.

Duong had a tendency to talk himself up. He bragged about the mundane, like his travels, and boasted of the ties he had built with officials in both Australia and China.

Born and raised in Vietnam, he fled in 1979, one of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese who left the country. After cobbling together a middle-class life in Australia, he often sought to portray himself as a man on the rise. He ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for the conservative Liberal Party in a state election in 1996. He worked his way up through the ranks of local Chinese community groups, eventually becoming the No 2 of the Global Federation of Chinese Organizations from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, an umbrella organisation with chapters around the world, as well as the president of its Oceania branch.

The groups, he said, allowed him to connect with officials in China, and to mingle with local Australian politicians and officials at the Chinese consulate in Melbourne, which did not respond to a request for comment on the case.

More than a year before his arrest, in another interview, Duong said that he often said to other Chinese-Australian community leaders: “If they talk about spies, they should put me, Di Sanh Duong, in the category of spies.”

He spoke about his ties to China, including his overseas adviser positions for four provincial Chinese bodies. So, he said: “Does that make me China’s lackey?”

Unbeknown to Duong, he was being investigated by Australian authorities. They regarded some groups he was involved in as organisations linked to China’s foreign influence operation. They wanted to know why he often travelled to China, made comments that echoed Beijing’s policies, and boasted about his friendship with a Chinese intelligence officer. His interactions with Chinese officials in Australia, including when he sent photographs of Falun Gong protesters to a consulate official, also came under scrutiny.

In 2020 Duong was charged under the foreign interference law, which criminalised any deceptive or covert behaviour intended to influence Australian politics or policy on behalf of a foreign government.

Duong’s community group had raised about AUS$37,000 and was donating the money to a Melbourne hospital to help treat Covid patients at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment was high in Australia. Duong had invited Alan Tudge, the immigration minister at the time, to be present when he handed over the money.

During the trial, which ran for three weeks last year and was partly closed to the public, prosecutors did not dispute that Duong had good intentions. But they argued – in light of his connections to Beijing and what prosecutors said was his association with China’s foreign influence operation – his ultimate motive was nefarious. He was, a prosecutor said, thinking about how he could, in the future, influence Tudge to the benefit of “us Chinese”.

Tudge’s offices said a background check it ordered on Duong did not raise any alarms. But prosecutors argued that Duong hid his connections to Chinese officials, even though his business card listed his provincial adviser positions.

Before donating the money, prosecutors said that Duong had been in regular contact with Chinese officials. He had been trying to enlist their help to source surgical masks from China, which he wanted to give to the hospital. These interactions, according to the lead prosecutor, Patrick Doyle, meant Duong had “a secret connection to the Chinese Communist Party”.

Not that those connections did any good: Duong never managed to get the masks from China.

As evidence of Duong’s intentions toward Tudge, prosecutors presented a years-old letter he wrote to a state-level Liberal Party official containing policy suggestions that the judge later described as “vague, impracticable and unlikely to be taken seriously”. His main thrust was that Australia should consider China as its primary strategic partner, not the United States. Prosecutors argued it was the kind of approach he might try again.

This was all proof, the Australian government argued, that Duong had been co-opted by a section of China’s influence-peddling operation known as the United Front Work Department.

“The way the United Front system works – and Duong’s role reflects this – is that it’s a lot more subtle,” Doyle said. “It’s a lot more nuanced than you’re either a spy or not a spy.”

The case, he said, was not in the realm of “spy novels, of James Bond films”.

The United Front system, Doyle told the jury, targets all ethnically Chinese people living overseas, not only to sway their beliefs, but also to turn them into agents to influence others. For the latter, specific types of overseas Chinese are prioritised: those who “have a strong allegiance to China as the motherland”, and those with influence and power.

Duong had both, especially the former, Doyle said. The United Front system ensured that Duong had “become exactly the sort of patriot” capable of and willing to act in ways, even without explicit instructions, that helped the Chinese government achieve its goals, he said.

Duong’s lawyer, Peter Chadwick, argued that his client simply liked to exaggerate his connections to rich and powerful people. Relationships with Chinese government officials were a necessity for someone who did business in China, like Duong, he argued. This “doesn’t mean that a person or an organisation are forever co-opted to do what the Chinese government says,” he said.

Duong seemed to draw more scrutiny because of his Chinese heritage, Chadwick said. He said: “I can’t help but wonder whether we’d be here if Duong was a person of Italian descent who repeatedly travelled back to the Italian motherland.”

Chadwick was reprimanded by the judge for “hinting that there’s a racial motivation”.

During the trial, Duong said in the interview that he believed that it was in both China’s and Australia’s best interests to be strategic partners. For someone who saw himself and his community as a bridge between the two countries, there was no such thing as being “too close” to China.

“We hope China and Australia’s relationship is always good,” he said. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times