A Melbourne-based Chinese businessman who has aligned himself to prominent Liberal Party MPs is facing deportation after being assessed by ASIO as a national security risk, an ABC investigation can reveal.
- Melbourne businessman Huifeng “Haha” Liu is challenging a government deportation order after an adverse ASIO security assessment
- Mr Liu is a Liberal Party donor and has links with Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar and backbencher Gladys Liu
- He co-founded a community assistance group which has an agreement to receive funding from and share information with the Chinese consulate in Melbourne
The businessman, Huifeng “Haha” Liu, is a Liberal Party donor and former soldier in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who developed links with federal Liberal MP Gladys Liu and Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar.
Mr Liu is contesting the deportation order after the Federal Government rejected his application for permanent residency when security concerns were raised.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has also confirmed it is investigating Mr Liu as part of the joint ASIO-led Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce, but declined to comment further.
Mr Liu told the ABC he believed ASIO had assessed him as a security risk because he was the president of a popular Australian-Chinese neighbourhood watch organisation which had an agreement to take instructions from the Chinese consulate in Melbourne.
The group, the Australian Emergency Assistance Association Incorporated (AEAAI), acts as a middleman in police incidents and legal cases involving Chinese speakers.
The association has promoted itself as a grassroots community platform to its more than 55,000 members from the Chinese diaspora in Australia on the Chinese social media platform WeChat.
It has more than 1,000 volunteers who promise to race to the scene of incidents across Australia in a matter of minutes.
According to confidential documents obtained by the ABC, the AEAAI was promised funding from the consulate and agreed to report back on criminal incidents, emergencies, accidents and “security risks” involving Chinese citizens deemed to require consular assistance.
The AEAAI was promoted publicly by Gladys Liu (no relation), who has close links to Mr Liu.
Ms Liu helped the 52-year-old develop a relationship with Victoria Police and, by Haha Liu’s account, translated for him at events with MPs and business leaders.
He also watched from the public gallery in the House of Representatives as Ms Liu delivered her maiden speech in July 2019 as MP for the federal seat of Chisholm in Melbourne’s east.
Mr Liu has also ingratiated himself with Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, the MP for the neighbouring seat of Deakin, who invited him to Parliament House to join him at his table for the 2017 Budget night dinner.
Mr Sukkar posed for photos, embracing and drinking with the political donor at a series of exclusive events between 2016 and 2018.
The Assistant Treasurer sent a Christmas card thanking him for his “friendship and support” in 2017, six months after the consulate announced its agreement with Mr Liu.
Geoffrey Watson SC, a former counsel assisting for the NSW Independent Commission for Corruption (ICAC), called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to crack down on what he described as foreign influences within the Liberal Party.
“This shows that a person who’s now thought maybe to be a person of malign influence has got access to government at the highest level, to Mr Sukkar, a minister,” he said.
Mr Watson said it was time for Mr Morrison to sack Gladys Liu in response to the revelations.
“Gladys Liu has now been tied to several instances of inappropriate influence,” he said.
“I am stunned that she still holds the confidence of the Prime Minister and that there haven’t been actions to separate her from the Government and even from the Liberal Party itself.”
Close contact with Liberal Party figures
The allegations about the nature of Mr Liu’s activities come as he mounts a Federal Court challenge against the Immigration Minister and ASIO in a bid to remain in Australia.
The court granted him a stay on his deportation order after the minister rejected his application for a significant investor permanent residency visa on character grounds in September.
“I’ve done nothing wrong or against Australian law,” Mr Liu told the ABC at his Melbourne home. “The decision to revoke my visa was extremely unfair.”
Mr Liu has lived in Australia since at least 2014.
Sources close to Mr Liu have told the ABC he has been on ASIO’s radar since at least 2016, when he had one of several meetings with the agency.
The same year, he founded the AEAAI and appeared in a photograph attending the launch of a new Australian association for Chinese PLA veterans.
The visa decision and the ongoing ASIO-AFP investigation raise questions over whether the Liberal Party and some of its MPs developed a mutually beneficial relationship with Mr Liu.
Gladys Liu and Mr Sukkar gave the Liberal Party donor access to the corridors of power, in Federal Parliament and at events with Cabinet ministers and government MPs.
In April 2017, Mr Liu and Mr Sukkar attended a private function hosted by a Liberal Party fundraising association called the Deakin 200 Club, of which the Assistant Treasurer is one of the founding members.
The Liberal Party’s 2015-16 public records show that in the lead-up to the July 2016 election, Mr Liu donated $20,000 to its federal Victorian division.
In June 2016, he attended a series of pre-election fundraising events headlined by then-foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop and former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott.
The same month, he officially launched the AEAAI and flooded his social media profile on the Chinese platform Weibo with photographs and posts about his encounters with senior Liberals.
He posted photos of the politicians autographing samples of products he was exporting to China. One photo shows Mr Sukkar and Mr Liu brandishing an autographed box of “hyaluronic acid collagen face masks”.
In another of the photos, former prime minister John Howard is seen autographing a box of “ultra anti-wrinkle face serum” at a function organised by the Liberal Party’s fundraising arm Enterprise Victoria at the exclusive Athenaeum Club.
In his Weibo posts, Mr Liu thanked Gladys Liu for translating for him with Mr Abbott, Ms Bishop and business leaders.
“Under the simultaneous interpretation from sister Liu, my speech was full of emotion,” he wrote. “Tony and I talked about the election, refugees, immigration policy, and security [issues].”
In 2018, Ms Liu attended a meeting with Haha Liu in Melbourne between the AEAAI, Victoria Police and Monash City Council to discuss community safety.
It was one of a series of meetings and community forums involving the AEAAI and Victoria Police in 2018 and 2019.
And in a gesture of her ongoing support, Gladys Liu has attended and spoken at the AEAAI’s annual conferences, including after her election as an MP.
Mr Liu also posted photos of events and dinners between 2016 and 2018 with Mr Sukkar, including while the MP was chair of Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.
“Tonight, I was invited to attend a private dinner hosted by the Assistant Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia Michael Sukkar,” Mr Liu said in a post dated April 27, 2017. “He kept telling others that I was his old friend …”
In a statement provided to the ABC, MP Gladys Liu said her only dealings with Mr Liu were in his capacity as president of the AEAAI.
“Outside of this we have no relationship,” her statement said. “Allegations made against Mr Liu are concerning and should be thoroughly investigated.”
She said she had never received “financial support” from Mr Liu and was unaware of the allegations against him until contacted by the ABC.
A spokesperson for Mr Sukkar said that although the minister and Mr Liu had attended a number of the same “local events”, this had not happened “in the past two- to three-year period”.
He declined to answer questions about specific fundraising events.
“Mr Sukkar has never had a private meeting or conversation with Mr Liu, who is known locally not to speak English,” the spokesperson said in a statement given to the ABC.
The statement also said that the card received by Mr Liu was one of about 5,000 “personalised Christmas cards” sent by Mr Sukkar each year.
Mr Liu also donated $1,125 to the NSW Liberals for tickets to a Premier in Conversation event featuring Gladys Berejiklian in November 2017
It is not known if Mr Liu made any other donations to the party.
The director of the Liberal Party’s Victoria division, Sam McQuestin, said Mr Liu’s “financial contribution … was disclosed to the Australian Electoral Commission in accordance with our obligations under the Commonwealth Electoral Act”.
Under federal electoral laws, donations under $14,300 do not have to be declared.
Mr Liu was also feted by the Victorian Labor Government, when Premier Daniel Andrews handed him an award at the 2018 retirement banquet for the outgoing parliamentary secretary for multicultural affairs, Hong Lim.
“MPs from all political parties are invited to numerous community and multi-cultural events where they are often asked to be photographed with attendees,” a spokesperson for Mr Andrews said.
Street crime fears
In 2016, Haha and Gladys Liu shared a common goal to mobilise large groups from Melbourne’s Chinese community on WeChat.
They both spread stories about street crime targeting the Chinese community.
At that time, Gladys Liu was a campaigner and prodigious fundraiser for the Liberal Party’s Victorian division.
Haha Liu, who started with a small fashion business in Melbourne in 2014, was building a profile as a well-connected leader and protector of the Chinese community.
According to a senior member of the AEAAI leadership committee interviewed by the ABC, Haha Liu often boasted of a close connection to Gladys Liu “to give other people the impression that he is a big guy”.
The ABC is protecting the committee member’s identity because he fears reprisals from the Chinese Government.
“He mentioned they were old friends for a long time,” he said. “He used to mention, ‘we have dinners together’. Sometimes, for some events, she would invite him.”
In 2016, Ms Liu told a journalist that Chinese Australians unhappy with Labor’s policies were flocking to the AEAAI’s groups on WeChat.
“People are so frightened about safety — and they relate that to immigration policy,” she said.
“People blamed Labor for letting immigrants — especially refugees — in. So, in response to the worsening of safety, people set up WeChat groups to scare the robber away. People are scared …
“They see that police are not protecting them.”
Mr Liu was beating the same drum, including in an article on local Chinese news site Yeeyi, the AEAAI’s official media partner.
“Mr Liu told reporters there are incidents happening every minute in Victoria …” the article said. “However, the police force in each Melbourne jurisdiction has only a few people.”
In an interview with SBS Mandarin, Mr Liu said, “we provide the police with the function of [assistance] because the police force is really limited right now.”
Gladys Liu’s anti-Labor campaign is credited with helping the Coalition to a razor-thin win in the 2016 federal election, held just days after the AEAAI was launched.
She targeted voters in the Melbourne electorates of Deakin and Chisholm, where the Liberals’ Michael Sukkar and Julia Banks won their seats.
When the Coalition’s election victory was close to being declared, Mr Liu attended media events and posed for photos with then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, Julia Banks, Mr Sukkar and Gladys Liu in Melbourne.
“The Australian news broadcasts were full of me and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull,” Mr Liu posted on Weibo on July 9. “Congratulations to the Liberal Party and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for his second term in office.”
A deal with the Chinese consulate
In November, Mr Liu stood down as president of the AEAAI after a fractious dispute with some of the association’s leadership team, who accused him of concealing his interactions with ASIO.
“I feel betrayed, I feel angry, I feel used,” said the AEAAI committee member interviewed by the ABC. “I think everybody, our normal members, have a right to know the truth behind this.”
In the four-and-a-half years since it was launched, the AEAAI has built its profile as a 24/7 community service where volunteers can be reached on WeChat, over the phone, on a new mobile app and in person.
Chinese citizens and Chinese Australians have been willingly giving the association’s volunteers sensitive and personal details about their lives.
The group, which is registered as a non-profit with charitable purposes, assists Chinese-speaking residents to cooperate with Australian police, judiciary and emergency services in criminal incidents, emergencies, accidents, disasters and disease outbreaks.
The AEAAI has gained coverage in the mainstream media recently with stories about its army of volunteers responding to missing persons cases, robberies, and delivering supplies to residents in home quarantine during the COVID outbreak.
But what the news stories didn’t say was that China’s Melbourne consulate had announced the AEAAI as its official “consular protection assistance agency” in July 2017, assisting in cases where Chinese citizens needed to deal with Australian authorities.
In the announcement of the deal, Mr Liu reportedly promised to “communicate closely” with the consulate.
Confidential documents obtained by the ABC reveal the AEAAI agreed to take instructions from the consulate, report to it on incidents involving Chinese citizens and provide “security risk information”.
A letter of appointment signed between the AEAAI and the consulate stipulated that “the association assigns volunteers in accordance with the Consulate-General’s authorisation and clear requirements on a case-by-case basis”.
It said volunteers should “assist the Consulate-General by going to the scene of an incident to understand the situation of the case, provide assistance within its capacity to Chinese citizens … and promptly report the case to the Consulate-General.”
The document, which also required volunteers to abide by Australian laws, was signed in July 2017 and renewed until at least July 2020, according to members of the AEAAI leadership committee.
As part of the arrangement, the consulate agreed to fund the AEAAI’s activities.
Internal communications obtained by the ABC show Mr Liu told the committee that the consulate instructed the AEAAI to establish a third-party entity to receive consular funds.
While the agreement deals with citizens living in Victoria and Tasmania, the AEAAI operates localised WeChat groups and volunteers in every state and territory.
Swinburne University China specialist Professor John Fitzgerald says Beijing sees its consular activities extending to all Chinese descendants, not only its citizens.
“While these consular offices have a duty to protect citizens from China, they have no duty and no right to interfere in Chinese-Australian community affairs,” he said.
“If they’re supporting an organisation which is setting out in effect to protect Chinese Australians, not just Chinese citizens, one has to ask why?
“That could be considered consular overreach … That’s the business of the federal or local police forces.”
The letter of appointment also stated the AEAAI should “provide security risk information to the Consulate-General in a timely manner, pass on relevant security warnings issued by the Consulate-General through WeChat groups, and assist the Consulate-General in carrying out preventive publicity activities”.
The agreement stipulated that designated contact persons at the AEAAI and consulate were to “communicate and report on each case” and “report to their superiors”.
Each night, an on-call night-shift volunteer “writes a formal report to be archived for future reference”, according to a 2019 AEAAI document.
The terms of the arrangement with the consulate have split the AEAAI community.
“He’s saying white but he is doing black,” claimed one committee member who did not wish to be identified.
“Haha has been telling everyone, especially the committee members, never take a political line, never choose your side, stay away from politics.
“But it seems like he’s maintaining a very good relationship with the Chinese Embassy and some local politicians.”
Mr Liu told the ABC he had not committed any crime.
“I have not harmed Australia and I have not broken any laws,” he said.
“If I have done anything wrong, I can accept this result, but I didn’t. I believe the law will give me the justice I deserve.”
China’s Consulate-General in Melbourne and Embassy in Canberra did not provide a response to questions sent by the ABC.
The AEAAI also declined to respond to the ABC’s questions.