Kevin Rudd

New details on Rudd's 'Chinese controller'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am


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Details have emerged about the Chinese businessman at the centre of a row over his connections to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who once jokingly referred to him as 'my Chinese controller'.

The Hong Kong-raised CEO of Beijing AustChina Technology, Ian Tang, could not be reached for comment on this article, but in a report published last year in a Shanghai trade journal, Mr Tang told of his determination to forge links between China and Australia, the country where he studied and lived for seven years in the 1980s.

This has culminated in the planned construction of the AustChina Friendship Building, on the site of the Beijing Friendship Store, in partnership with Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun.

'I love Australia, and I believe the building can become an important bridge between China and Australia,' Mr Tang was quoted as saying in last May's Australia China Connections, a business bulletin.

Questions have been raised in Australia about the motivations of Mr Tang, who paid for 16 overseas trips for Mr Rudd and fellow Labor Party officials between 2005 and last year, when they were in opposition.

Despite his former obscurity, Mr Tang's Beijing AustChina Technology has been described as the fourth-biggest corporate political donor in Australia.

Most controversial of the all- expenses-paid trips was a visit to Sudan, where Beijing and mainland businesses have been criticised for propping up a regime accused of human-rights abuses in Darfur.

But a spokesman for Beijing AustChina said Mr Rudd's trip came with no strings attached. 'He was categorically not there to do business for AustChina, although we paid for his airfare. We have no business in Sudan or indeed anywhere in Africa.'

Asked to characterise the nature of the links between the prime minister and Mr Tang, the spokesman said: 'Mr Tang obviously has a very professional relationship with Mr Rudd, which has developed over a number of years.'

Mr Rudd told Parliament this week that his 2006 trip to Sudan was so he could see for himself the crisis in Darfur.

The government attempted to turn the tables on the row by revealing that Mr Tang had given generous donations not only to Labor but to the opposition National Party.

Mr Tang donated A$155,000 (HK$1.1 million) to the Nationals in the months prior to last year's federal election and shared the same table as party leader Mark Vaile and his wife at a party conference in August.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Mr Tang was sent to Australia for much of his education, first at high school in Melbourne and then at the city's Victoria University, where he studied commerce.

He then returned to China, where he hoped to set himself up as an import-export entrepreneur.

After dabbling in importing everything from orange juice to dried flowers, he founded AustChina in the late 1990s with two partners, an Australian and a New Zealander. The firm has an office in Hong Kong.

'I did lots of small things and lost a lot of money, but it was very good experience of doing business between Australia and China. Because of those years I learned so many things about business and culture,' Mr Tang told Australia China Connections last year.

The AustChina Friendship Building will be Mr Tang's most ambitious project to date, costing 8 billion yuan (HK$8.83 billion). He told Australia China Connections that the building would be Australian-themed, housing Australian companies.

'It is not about the money, it is about the significance of the symbol,' Mr Tang said of the project, due for completion next year.

According to the interview, the project would be 60 per cent owned by Mr Ho and 40 per cent by Mr Tang's AustChina Investment and Development Company.

One of Mr Rudd's trips paid for by AustChina was to deliver a speech in 2006 in Beijing at the launch of the construction project.

A trade official from the Australian embassy in Beijing has written to the city's former mayor, Wang Qishan , asking for his help in moving the project forward 'in line with project timelines', Fairfax newspapers reported yesterday.

For his part, Mr Tang is well aware of the importance of political connections when doing business in China. His company's website includes a section called 'Government Support', which boasts that the firm 'has established close working relationships with key decision-makers and figureheads in government agencies in both Australia and China'.

In the section are photographs of Mr Tang and other AustChina executives with politicians including former Australian prime minister John Howard and former opposition leader Kim Beazley, as well as Beijing's former World Trade Organisation negotiator, Yu Longtu.

Mr Rudd will be back on the mainland next week, but this time on official business paid for by the Australian taxpayer.