Di Sanh Duong arrives at the County Court of Victoria
Di Sanh Duong was found guilty of preparing an act of foreign interference within Australia. Image by Con Chronis/AAP PHOTOS
  • crime, law and justice

First person jailed under foreign interference laws

Emily Woods February 29, 2024

Photographers gathered for an innocuous media call at a Melbourne hospital, where a novelty cheque was handed over.

It was a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic and a group of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao community members poured more than $37,000 into what they thought was a charitable donation.

But the man who organised the cheque was using it on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party, to get closer to a federal cabinet member he believed would one day become prime minister.

Di Sanh “Sunny” Duong will spend his first night behind bars on Thursday, after a judge jailed him for becoming the first person guilty under Australian foreign interference laws.

The 68-year-old grabbed tissues to dab away his tears, after being handed a two-year and nine-month sentence at the County Court on Thursday.

He will be eligible for release after serving 12 months.

The noevlty cheque presentation (file image)
 Alan Tudge (left) and Sunny Duong (second from right) pose with the novelty cheque in 2020. Image by James Ross/AAP PHOTOS 

Duong was a member of Victoria’s Liberal Party and unsuccessfully ran as a state parliament candidate in 1996.

As a prominent member of the Chinese community, Duong was an ideal target to work as an agent for the CCP’s United Front Work Department.

He began his approach in 2019, when he sent the then-president of the Victorian Liberals and former state MP Robert Clark policy suggestions about China ahead of the federal election.

The following year, he approached federal cabinet minister Alan Tudge.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Duong started raising money from members of the Oceania Federation of Chinese Organisations from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, of which he was president.

He planned to spend the money on exporting medical supplies, including gloves and masks, from China to Australia.

Duong collected $37,450, but was unable to secure a shipment of the goods and instead decided to donate it to the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

He contacted Mr Tudge’s office in April 2020 to discuss the donation and arrange a media opportunity.

Alan Tudge (file image)
 Alan Tudge was a federal cabinet minister when Di Sanh Duong approached him. Image by Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS 

On June 2, 2020, Mr Tudge, Duong and a handful of reporters and photographers gathered at the hospital, touring the intensive care unit before the cheque was handed over in front of cameras.

This was done to cultivate a relationship with Mr Tudge, with the goal of influencing him in the future on behalf of the CCP.

Duong became the first person charged under laws, implemented in 2018 to prevent foreign interference with domestic politics.

He faced a trial in the County Court in 2023, where he was found guilty by a jury of preparing for or planning an act of foreign interference.

Duong’s lawyers claimed the money was raised only to help frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic and combat anti-China sentiment.

But Judge Richard Maidment rejected this on Thursday.

Duong deliberately selected Mr Tudge “as a target of the future foreign influence” due to his political power as a federal minister, the judge said.

“You believed that he could potentially be persuaded to influence Australian government policy in a manner favourable to the Chinese Communist Party,” Judge Maidment said.

“The attraction of this potential benefit was enhanced by your stated belief that Minister Tudge would, in the future, become the prime minister of Australia.”

Duong had exploited his status as a community leader, his good reputation, lack of prior criminal history, and Liberal Party ties to aid in the offending, Judge Maidment said.

He said a term of imprisonment was the only appropriate sentence.

Di Sanh Duong arrives at the County Court of Victoria
 Di Sanh Duong must spend at least 12 months behind bars. Image by Con Chronis/AAP PHOTOS 

The sentence fell on the same day as national spy agency ASIO revealed a former politician was recruited by a foreign spy ring.

Judge Maidment said the news was “impossible to ignore”, but made clear he had not been influenced by anything said in the press.

Duong, who was on bail throughout the court proceedings, was escorted out of the court by custody officers.

He will be placed on a four-year good behaviour bond, and must pay $3000, after serving at least a year of his sentence.