Former Liberal candidate guilty over Chinese influence plan

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Australia’s first trial to test foreign interference laws has resulted in a guilty verdict over a $37,000 hospital donation.

Victorian businessman Di Sanh Duong, 68, faced a month-long jury trial in Melbourne’s County Court, accused of preparing for or planning foreign interference.

Di Sanh Duong outside court in Melbourne in May 2022.Credit: David Estcourt

He became the first person charged under federal laws created in 2018 that ban covert foreign interference in domestic politics.

Prosecutors argued at the trial that Duong planned to gain political influence by cultivating a relationship with former federal multicultural affairs minister Alan Tudge on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.

He did so by arranging for Tudge to receive a $37,450 donation on behalf of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, money he had raised as president of the Oceania Federation of Chinese Organisations, the jury was told.

Duong started raising the money for COVID-19 supplies, including gloves and masks, to be exported from China, but he was unable to secure shipment and instead handed over a cheque.

Duong appeared at a press conference held by then federal minister Alan Tudge and presented a $37,450 cheque to the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Commonwealth prosecutor Patrick Doyle, SC, told the court the Communist Party would have seen Duong, a former Victorian Liberal Party candidate and Chinese community leader, as “an ideal target” to work as an agent for its United Front Work Department.

“A main goal of this system is to win over friends for the Chinese Communist Party; it involves generating sympathy for the party and its policies,” Doyle said.

He said during the trial that Duong told an associate he was building a relationship with Tudge, who “will be the prime minister in the future” and would become a “supporter/patron for us”.

Tudge’s office organised a media opportunity at which a novelty cheque was handed over at the hospital in June 2020.

The former minister told the trial he was concerned about “ugly racism” faced by the Australian Chinese community after the pandemic took hold.

Duong pleaded not guilty and denied all allegations about foreign interference.

His barrister, Peter Chadwick, KC, said the donation was a genuine attempt by Duong to help frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic and combat anti-China sentiment.

“The fear of COVID hung like a dark cloud over the Chinese community in Melbourne,” he told the jury.

“It’s against this backdrop that Mr Duong and other ethnic Chinese members of our community decided that they wanted to do something to change these unfair perceptions.”

However, the jury disagreed and returned a guilty verdict on Tuesday afternoon after more than a week of deliberations.

Duong will remain on bail with stricter conditions, including that he must report daily and cannot leave Victoria.

He will return to court for a pre-sentence hearing in February.


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