This Week in Asia

According to Chinese tradition, the first day of the Lunar New Year is one of the most sacred occasions. It is when Chinese around the world gather with their loved ones to celebrate and pray for an auspicious year ahead.

But the first day of the Year of Pig, which fell on February 5, was anything but auspicious for Huang Xiangmo, a Chinese billionaire who has been calling Australia his adopted country and has invested billions of Australian dollars in the country since 2011.

The Australian media chose that day to break the story that the government had rejected his application for citizenship and revoked his permanent residency while he was overseas, sending shock waves throughout Chinese communities in Australia and beyond.

This came just two months after the arrest in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and daughter of its founder Ren Zhengfei, at the behest of the United States.

Interestingly, she was arrested on the same night - December 1 - that Chinese President Xi Jinping and his American counterpart Donald Trump met to thrash out a trade truce on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Xi and Trump meet after the G20 summit in Buenos Aires - on the same day Meng Wanzhou was arrested. Photo: Reuters

The timing of these events may be entirely coincidental and the reasons behind Huang's and Meng's nasty experiences starkly different. But in essence, they have been punished over their perceived links with the Chinese government and because they are seen as symbols of China's rise on an international stage dominated by the US and its Western allies.

To put it more bluntly, their punishments are nothing short of two massive slaps in the face of the Chinese government. The timing is just the icing on the cake.

Beijing's reactions have been ill advised, to say the least. More importantly, and more broadly speaking, the Chinese authorities have been woefully unprepared to push back against the increasingly united front of the Western countries, led by Washington in an effort to counter China's rising political and economic influence.

As a result, the vast Chinese diaspora and an increasing number of private Chinese businessmen trying to make their mark on the world have been caught struggling between two formidable forces.

Even more ominously, the two cases have set a dangerous precedent: what happened to Huang and Meng could happen to others.

Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. Photo: AP

In Meng's case, the US charged her and Huawei with defrauding banks to evade US sanctions on Iran and stealing trade secrets from an American competitor. But both the Chinese government and Huawei denied the charges, saying they were politically motivated. Many Chinese people see the charges as US attempts to suppress China's technological advance.

Strong reactions from the Chinese government and people are understandable, particularly over America's infamous long-arm jurisdiction, which enables US authorities to use extraterritorial powers to ensnare foreign nationals suspected of violating the country's domestic laws.

But Beijing's decision to resort to its old tactics by arresting two China-based Canadians, apparently in retaliation, is counterproductive. Doing so serves only to advance the narrative of the Western countries, that a more powerful China refusing to play by international rules can act arbitrarily and bring harm to international norms and values.

In Huang's case, his residency was revoked and he suffered the humiliation of being unable to return to his home in Sydney primarily because he was painted by the Australian media and the government as an agent of Chinese political influence.

According to Australian media reports, the cancellation of Huang's visa was based upon a recommendation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country's key spy agency, on the grounds that Huang was "amenable to conducting acts of foreign interference" and had in the past shown a "willingness" to engage in such actions.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) headquarters in Canberra. Photo: EPA

As the official reasons for the cancellation are shrouded in secrecy, media speculation has focused on Huang's background heading an Australia-registered organisation that promotes the peaceful reunification of the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.

The organisation was reported to be linked with the United Front Work Department, the Chinese Communist Party's primary vehicle to woo and influence overseas Chinese.

He also has relatives and business interests in China, and he gained prominence in Australia's political circles by donating generously to both major political parties and through networking.

But as Huang has rightly pointed out in interviews and a statement, in more than two years of investigating him, ASIO had concluded that he had not violated any Australian laws and that his closeness to China - where he grew up and made his wealth - did not constitute any wrongdoing.

After all, an Australian with Greek heritage would be doing no wrong if they showed an affinity for Greece.

As the implications of Huang's case reverberate through the diverse Chinese communities of Australia, more than 120 community groups published an open letter on the front pages of Australian Chinese-language newspapers protesting against the decision to exile Huang. One particular sentence summed up their concerns: "What happened to Mr Huang Xiangmo today may happen to any of us tomorrow."

As one media commentator pointed out in The Saturday Paper last week, if ASIO's case against Huang was based upon his involvement with organisations affiliated to the United Front Work Department, then thousands of Chinese Australians should be concerned about how the government views their membership of various community groups.

With concerns rising, the ASIO director general of security, Duncan Lewis, was compelled to reject allegations that his agency was targeting the Chinese community and to affirm that Chinese Australians had nothing to fear.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who renounced Australian citizenship to become a US citizen. File photo

But ASIO's vague reasons that Huang was "amenable" to foreign interferences prompted another media commentator to make a wry comparison between Huang's treatment and that of Rupert Murdoch. Back in 1985, Murdoch renounced his Australian citizenship and became a naturalised US citizen.

Even so, his influence remains such that he can still call the shots over Australia's political system through his media empire - critics use as an example his drive to have Malcolm Turnbull removed as the prime minister. But hardly anyone batted an eyelid over that example of "foreign interference".

Meanwhile, the Chinese government's reaction to Huang's case has been curiously muted. On February 11, the first working day after the Lunar New Year holidays, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, after being asked directly to comment on Huang's case, claimed she had no relevant information, despite the blanket coverage in Australian and international media the previous week.

Then she trotted out the usual diplomatic line about China never interfering in others' internal affairs and expressed hope that Australia could "handle the relevant issues involving this Chinese citizen in a fair, just and non-discriminatory way".

Huang and his supporters, including those 120 community groups in Australia, would no doubt be disappointed at the Chinese government's lack of warmth and support. Given that the cancellation of Huang's visa is entirely within the purview of the Australian government, the Chinese government may feel its hands are tied despite the apparent slap in its face.

But it could have been more supportive by saying something along the lines that China would welcome Huang and his investments back.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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