Australian lawmaker resigns roles over Chinese dealings

An Australian lawmaker resigned from his leadership roles in the opposition party on Thursday over scandals involving a wealthy Chinese businessman and political donor that have raised accusations of China buying influence.

Senator Sam Dastyari had been deputy whip in the center-left Labor Party and chairman of a parliamentary committee examining the future of journalism before resigning over his dealings with Chinese Communist Party-linked businessman Huang Xiangmo.

Fairfax Media reported this week that Dastyari gave Huang counter-surveillance advice when they met at the businessman's Sydney mansion in October last year. Dastyari suggested the pair leave their phones inside the house and go outside to speak in case Australian intelligence services were listening, Fairfax reported.

Dastyari has not denied the reports but said he had no knowledge about whether Huang was under Australian surveillance at the time.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten demanded Dastyari's resignation from his leadership roles late Wednesday after media broadcast audio of the senator misleading Chinese journalists last year on the Labor Party's policy on the South China Sea territorial disputes.

Australia maintains that China should respect international law, and an arbitration ruling last year found China's broad claims to the sea were legally baseless. But Dastyari told Chinese reporters at a news conference in Sydney attended by Huang that Australia should observe "several thousand years of history" by respecting Chinese claims over most of the South China Sea. The phrasing mirrors China's stance.

Dastyari told the Senate on Thursday the recording "shocked me because it did not match my recollection of events."

"I want to be absolutely clear: I could not be a prouder Australian," the Iranian-born migrant told the Senate.

"I find the inferences that I'm anything but a patriotic Australian deeply hurtful," he added. "Nonetheless, I'm not without fault."

Government lawmakers on Thursday called on Dastyari to quit Parliament because he had been prepared to help a foreign national avoid Australian security surveillance.

The Australian Security and Intelligence Organization, the nation's main spy agency, said in October it is was unable to keep up with the growing level of "harmful espionage and foreign interference" operations being carried out in Australia. ASIO also said foreign governments have been attempting to covertly "shape the opinions" of the Australian public and media.

In 2015, ASIO cautioned against accepting political donations from Huang because he was suspected conduit to the Chinese Communist Party.

Huang did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

With concerns over Chinese political influence in Australia and Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, an Australian parliamentary committee recommended in March a ban on political donations from foreign companies and individuals.

Unlike the U.S. and many other countries that ban foreign donations, Australian law has never distinguished between donors from Australia and overseas.