Australian court jails man for foreign interference in favor of China

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An Australian court on Thursday handed down the first sentence under a new foreign interference law over a plot to influence a federal minister for China's benefit.

Di Sanh "Sunny" Duong, who was convicted in December of "preparing for, or planning, a foreign interference offense," was sentenced by Victorian County Court Judge Richard Maidment to a maximum of two years and nine months in prison, eligible for release after 12 months.

Duong was the first person in Australia to be found guilty of a foreign interference offense since Parliament passed the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill in 2018. The offense carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

The sentencing followed a speech on Wednesday evening by the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Mike Burgess, who warned that "more Australians than ever before" are the targets of espionage and foreign interference."

The "threat is deeper and broader than you might think," he said.

The judge said Duong's offense was aggravated because he "exploited" his position as a member of the Victorian Liberal Party and his good standing in the community to gain access to his target, Alan Tudge, a parliamentarian for the same party who was the federal minister for cities, urban infrastructure and population.

In 2020, the Vietnam-born businessman and prominent member of the Australian-Chinese community contacted Tudge with an offer of 37,450 Australian dollars ($24,400) to support Australia's efforts in combating COVID-19. The money was raised through the Oceania Federation of Chinese Associations from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, of which Duong was the president.

The cash was later donated to the Royal Melbourne Hospital at a high-profile media event in which Duong presented a novelty check while standing next to Tudge.

The judge said it was precisely because of Tudge's political position that Duong sought to involve him in the charitable donation. The gift, although presented as an altruistic gesture, was part of a covert plan to curry favor with the politician and potentially persuade him in the future to "influence Australian government policy in a manner favorable to the Chinese Communist Party," the court heard.

Maidment noted that Duong was in contact with Chinese officials in Australia and China during the period, including some he "knew or believed were operatives of the Chinese Ministry of State Security."

Duong had a "high level" of moral culpability and had shown no "sign of contrition or remorse or acknowledgment of any criminal responsibility," the judge added. "No sentence other than a sentence of imprisonment is appropriate."

Duong, who resigned from the Liberal Party after his arrest in November 2020, dabbed tears away from his eyes after being told of his sentence via an interpreter.

Maidment said there is a broad need to deter the type of offense for which Duong was convicted. Following the ruling, he said he had not known of Burgess' speech earlier and they had no influence on his decision.

During the hearing, the court heard that Duong had been "co-opted" into China's United Front Work Department (UFWD), a Communist Party unit tasked with extending the party's influence over outside groups, according to Wai Ling Yeung, a Perth-based researcher on China's influence in Australia.

"Outside of China, the UFWD often targets diaspora groups, retired politicians and diplomats, foreign political parties and multinational corporations in an attempt to influence the decision-making of foreign governments and societies," said Yeung.

Clive Hamilton, author of "Silent Invasion: China's Influence in Australia," said Duong's activities were just "the tip of an iceberg" in terms of China's espionage and influence activities in Australia, but Thursday's sentence sent a "sharp message" to foreign intelligence agencies and their operatives in the country.

"The authorities are watching you and are willing to send you to prison," he said.

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