Dr Zhu with prime minister Julia Gillard in February 2013. Photo: TEI Dr Zhu at a Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference meeting in Beijing, March 2014. Photo: TEI
Dr Zhu with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in November 2015. Photo: TEI
He’s risen to national attention as the Chinese businessman who forked out for Senator Sam Dastyari’s travel bill.
But the story of Minshen Zhu is far bigger than just the NSW Labor powerbroker.
Dr Zhu is a man with links to the communist government in China, helping trigger renewed debate about political donations and the rising importance of Chinese money in Australia.
He has emerged as a prolific and well-connected donor to the major parties, with his company contributing more than $230,000 to Labor and the Liberals since 2010, according to Australian Electoral Commission records.
This includes more than $186,000 to the national arm of Labor between 2010 and 2015, and $44,000 to the NSW Liberal Party between 2013 and 2015.
As owner of private education provider Top Education Institute, Dr Zhu has met an impressive array of Australia’s most powerful politicians.
Photos show these high-flying, cross-party acquaintances include Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Scott Morrison, Kim Carr, Bob Carr, Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop in various roles across government and opposition.
In the Senate on Thursday, Attorney-General George Brandis acknowledged the businessman was well-known in political circles.
“Indeed, many of us have met Mr Minshen Zhu and had dealings with the Top Education Institute but it appears only Senator Sam Dastyari has accepted money from him in settlement of a personal debt,” Senator Brandis said.
Fairfax Media this week revealed Senator Dastyari had asked Top Education Institute to settle a $1670 expenses bill after exceeding his parliamentary entitlements.
While pointing to Dr Zhu’s closeness with the Chinese Communist Party, the Attorney-General insisted political donations were not an issue, just the payment of a private debt as was the case with Senator Dastyari.
Top Education Institute, the company Dr Zhu established in 2001 and PricewaterhouseCoopers invested in earlier this year, specialises in law, business and accounting qualifications costing between $8500 and $80,000.
In November, he met Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for a dinner related to the institute’s newly established law school.
In April, he discussed the merits of law degrees with Senator Brandis.
In September 2014, he attended an event with then immigration minister Scott Morrison hosted by the Federal Forum, a fundraising body established by the Liberal Party to replace the ICAC-investigated Millennium Forum.
From 2012 to 2013, he was appointed by the Gillard Labor government as a member of the Chinese Ministerial Consultative Committee advisory body.
Wielding influence in China, Dr Zhu has been a delegate representing ‘Overseas Chinese’ at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
The CPPCC is often dismissed as a body with no real power in the autocratic state but is nevertheless a prominent government forum bringing together representatives from business, political organisations and civil society from across China.
In Australia, Dr Zhu is a senior adviser at the University of Sydney’s Confucius Institute, one of many such university facilities worldwide established and sponsored by the Chinese government’s Office of Chinese Language Council International, known as Hanban.
Roughly eight of these universities have shuttered their Confucius Institutes amid concerns they were too closely directed by Beijing or restricted academic freedom.
Both sides of politics have shown reluctance to tighten Australia’s political donations system but the latest revelations have set off renewed scrutiny.
Conservative senator Cory Bernardi has called for an investigation and reform and Labor frontbencher Stephen Conroy has urged the prohibition of foreign donations.
Top Education Institute said they are “currently investigating the matter [of Senator Dastyari’s travel bill] and have sought external legal counsel to provide opinion”.
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