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Huang Xiangmo: alleged agent of Chinese influence exiled from Australia now on Hong Kong electoral body

·6 min read

Huang Xiangmo, the billionaire property developer exiled from Australia as an alleged agent of Chinese influence, has been elected unopposed to a powerful Hong Kong electoral body on an avowedly pro-Beijing platform, promising loyal “patriots” would govern Hong Kong and quoting a key Communist party official and ally to president Xi Jinping.

Huang, whose $140m dispute with the Australian tax office reached the high court last week, said in his electoral campaign for the Hong Kong election committee he would ensure Beijing-loyalist “patriots administer Hong Kong”.

Huang has declined opportunities for interview with Guardian Australia. He has denied the foreign influence allegations which are unrelated to the tax case.

Hong Kong’s new election committee, overwhelmingly filled in non-competitive elections by pro-Beijing candidates, will wield vast influence over Hong Kong’s government: choosing the island’s chief executive and hand-picking 40 of its legislature’s 90 members.

As well, the number of electors to the election committee was slashed by almost 97%, from 246,440 to 7891, under reforms that strengthened Beijing’s control over the body.

Huang was elected unopposed as one of 59 candidates for 59 positions representing “grassroots associations”.

Many of the grassroots associations were barely known to the public in Hong Kong and are regarded as satellite organisations of the pro-Beijing New Territories Association of Societies. Huang was nominated by one of these – the Kowloon Federation of Associations – according to local media.

Huang’s election candidacy form – nominated under his legal name Huang Changran – does not identify a grassroots organisation, nor a political affiliation or occupation.

He said on the form his electoral message was to:

“Support the implementation of ‘patriots administer Hong Kong’.”

“Promote sound and sustained practice of ‘one country, two systems’.”

Huang’s campaign platform has direct similarities to speech given by a senior Chinese government and Communist party official, Xia Baolong, a key ally of president Xi Jinping.

Xia, secretary general of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said in an address in February that Hong Kong must “fully implement principle of ‘patriots administering Hong Kong’: promote sound and sustained practice of ‘one country, two systems’”.

The phrase “patriots administer Hong Kong” is only loosely defined, but is the oft-cited guiding principle for the Hong Kong and Chinese governments’ overhaul of the electoral system. It was used as the de facto policy for selecting candidates for nomination to the election committee.

Candidates seen as insufficiently “patriotic” because of their pro-democracy positions or support for independence were excluded from running.

Candidates were strictly vetted by an eligibility review committee, and subject to approval by the Hong Kong Committee for Safeguarding National Security, and review by the national security department of the Hong Kong police.

For 1500 positions, only two candidates not seen as openly pro-Beijing were allowed to contest the election. Only one was elected.

Huang, a billionaire property developer whose prominent developments include the troubled One Circular Quay development in Sydney, had his Australian visa cancelled in 2019 on advice from Asio over fears of foreign political interference, allegations he has denied. He donated at least $2.7m to the Labor and Coalition parties before his visa was cancelled while he was out of the country.

New South Wales’s Independent Commission Against Corruption heard evidence in 2019 that Huang had given an illegal $100,000 donation to the New South Wales Labor party delivered in cash in an Aldi shopping bag to the party’s general secretary.

Huang was banned from donating under NSW state law because he was a property developer. It was alleged the donation was masked by being funnelled through a series of fake donors. He has denied any wrongdoing or being the source of the cash.

As far back as 2015, the then head of Asio, Duncan Lewis, warned both Labor and the Coalition against accepting any more money from Huang, arguing his close links with the Chinese Communist party meant his beneficence would come with expectations of access and influence. Lewis said at that time Huang was not accused of any crime and the parties were under no obligation to refuse the donations.

Related: Hong Kong seeks to resurrect legislation to further crush dissent

Of particular concern was Huang’s long-running involvement with the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, which has been accused of being a front for Chinese government efforts to expand its global influence.

Unrelated to his political donations, in December 2019, the Australian tax office obtained a judgment against Huang in the federal court for $81.2m in unpaid taxes along with $59.3m in interest and penalties, arguing Huang “grossly understated” his income in order to avoid tax.

He has described the tax office as a “despicable tool for political persecution”, saying “unknown dark forces” and an Australian “deep state” had conspired against him.

In 2019, the ATO sought to freeze Huang’s assets worldwide in order to recoup the debt, including a bar on selling a $12m mansion in Mosman held in his wife’s name.

The federal court heard Huang pulled nearly $50m out of Australia in the year after his residency visa was cancelled, moving money out of the country at more than twice the rate of previous years.

A federal court judge upheld the global freeze order, before the full bench of the same court overturned it, saying the order could not be extended beyond Australia.

Last week, the tax office’s appeal against that ruling, seeking to reinstate the global freeze order, reached the high court. Huang was not present in the courtroom in Canberra to hear his barrister, Bret Walker SC, argue that the freezing order over Huang’s overseas assets was not legitimately made because it could not, realistically, be enforced.

Walker argued there was nothing suspicious in Huang moving money overseas, and that the “bringing in of capital from overseas … and then the repatriation of some or all of the investment and its returns, is really the history of this country since settlement”.

“It would be a bizarre proposition that there was something a priori suspicious about a person moving assets from Australia, particularly when the person is someone who has brought assets to Australia.”

The tax office told the court Huang, a Chinese national, had not been in Australia since 2018, and had taken steps towards “severing his ties with Australia”. His remaining Australian assets “do not seem to be enough to satisfy the tax liability”.

“He is likely to be a person of substantial wealth,” the solicitor general Stephen Donaghue QC, acting for the ATO, said.

“He has significant business interests in the PRC, including Hong Kong, and the structures and operations to allow him to easily move assets between jurisdictions.

“These circumstances demonstrate [the respondent] has both a motive and the means to dissipate his Australian assets.”

The high court has reserved its decision. Guardian Australia sought to contact Huang for interview this week, but has received no response.

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