But their involvement with CCP-aligned organisations highlights the success of the Chinese government in monopolising local Australian Chinese community and political groups. This often leaves candidates seeking the Chinese-Australian vote no choice but to attend events and accept titles organised by Beijing’s satellite groups.
An analysis of these activities by Charles Sturt University public ethics professor Clive Hamilton — a strident critic of foreign political interference in Australia — has revealed both candidates have been honorary presidents of community groups in which other prominent members are connected to the CCP.
Records show that at a fundraising function for Ms Liu’s campaign last year, guests included members of a Melbourne Chinese community group officially endorsed by the Chinese government’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.
The OCAO is an agency of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, whose job it is to “manage relations” with influential groups and individuals outside of China.
Also present at the fundraiser was a business association which backed a 2016 protest against The Hague’s ruling against China in the dispute over sovereignty of the South China Sea.
Last December, Ms Liu and Ms Yang were also special guests at a seminar in Box Hill for potential Chinese members of Australian political parties. The seminar was jointly organised by several groups that form part of the United Front’s broader network.
Ms Yang and Ms Liu have also been listed as honorary presidents of the Australian Jiangmen General Commercial Association and the United Chinese Commerce Association of Australia, whose fellow VIPs include a range of pro-Beijing figures.
It is possible that Ms Yang and Ms Liu were bestowed the titles without their approval or knowledge of the groups ties. One of the association’s key figures was a member of the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, a lobby group linked to billionaire political donor Huang Xiangmo.
Professor Hamilton argued the candidates’ connections raised valid questions about Beijing’s influence at a time when the Communist Party was actively encouraging “trusted” people around the world to join political parties and seek elected office – a policy known as huaren canzheng, or “ethnic Chinese political participation”.
“We should be very concerned if our open democratic processes are being exploited by an authoritarian foreign power to gain influence in our political system,” said Professor Hamilton, the author of the controversial book Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia.
However, his comments could prove sensitive at at a time when Australia’s relationship with Beijing – and the lack of diversity in politics – are contentious.
Last month, for instance Labor’s Senate candidates for NSW, Jason Yat-sen Li, called for Parliament to adopt targets for ethnic representation, saying Chinese Australians had been muzzled by allegations of foreign political interference out of fear of being labelled “a stooge for the Communist Party”.
When asked about her activities and connections, Ms Yang, a former local councillor and mayor, deferred all questions to the ALP’s head office, whose spokeswoman declined to comment, other than to say: “This is nonsense”.
Ms Liu, a former adviser in the Baillieu government and a prolific Liberal Party fundraiser, confirmed she had become honorary president of the Australian Jiangmen General Commercial Association, and was previously an honorary president of the United Chinese Commerce Australia.
But the Liberal Party refused to answer any questions about who had attended or donated at her many fundraising events.
Chisholm was the only seat the Liberals snatched from Labor at the 2016 election and is one of the electorates Scott Morrison must hold to remain in power. More than one in five of its voters speaking either Mandarin or Cantonese.
But with Liberal-turned-independent MP Julia Banks now contesting senior Liberal Greg Hunt’s seat in Flinders, whichever candidate wins Chisholm on Saturday will make history by becoming the first Chinese-Australian woman elected to Federal Parliament’s lower house.
The Chinese government appears to be watching the competition closely. One report on Communist Party platform chinaqw.com urges readers: “Participate in the election. This is the first time in the history of Congress that the two major parties are represented by Chinese women.”
Asked if his views about foreign influence could deter Asians from entering politics, Professor Hamilton said: “We need more Chinese Australians in parliament – there aren’t enough. However, if there are questions about the allegiance of MPs, then it needs to be raised.”
Farrah Tomazin is an Investigative Reporter for The Age, with interests in politics, social justice, and legal affairs.
Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter for The Age. He’s won seven Walkley awards and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.