Jason Yat-sen Li, Labor candidate for Bennelong at Eastwood Mall, Sydney.

Jason Yat-Sen Li, Labor candidate for Bennelong. Photo: Sasha Woolley

There are many successful Chinese-Australians but for reasons I never have been able to fully understand, the media plucked Jason Yat-Sen Li from the loaded ranks of the talented Chinese and made him a celebrity. His profile reached its peak in 1999, when he was in his 20s, during the referendum campaign for a republic. Li was a cheerleader for the republic vote, which was roundly defeated and lost in every state.

Rudd's phone call to Li was based on several links. 

Suddenly, 14 years later, at age 41, Li has popped up again, and once again the media has tagged him a ''celebrity'', this time as the Labor candidate for the conspicuous marginal seat of Bennelong, where the Howard era came to an ignominious end in 2007. John Howard didn't know when to quit; the voters of Bennelong dealt ruthlessly with his vanity. They were ruthless with Julia Gillard, too, in 2010, when the seat went back to the Liberals.

When Kevin Rudd was preparing his return and his revenge this year, Bennelong, his trophy seat in 2007, was a natural target, with a narrow 3 per cent majority for the Liberal incumbent, John Alexander. It is also a seat with a heavy concentration of Asian voters - 28 per cent, mostly Chinese. After the original Labor candidate had to withdraw over matters related to ICAC, Rudd looked almost 9000 kilometres away for his candidate. He called Li in Beijing.

During the 2007 campaign, Labor shamelessly played the race card in Bennelong against Howard, emphasising Rudd's fluency in Mandarin, his links to China and his Chinese son-in-law. In a book about the 2007 campaign waged by former ABC journalist Maxine McKew, The Battle For Bennelong, journalist Margot Saville was given such access to McKew's campaign that on election day she was in the candidate's home when McKew was still in her pyjamas.

Saville writes about encountering ''a crack team of Chinese and Korean-speaking 20-somethings sent in by ALP head office''. Her book has numerous examples of the race-conscious strategy Labor deployed. Six years later, Rudd is playing the race card in Bennelong with bare-knuckled determination.

His candidate has deployed different calibrations when he speaks to the mainstream media and the Chinese media. This has been noticed by Chinese members of the Liberal Party, which has been translating stories from the Chinese-language media. In a recent edition of the Australian Chinese Daily, a translation reads: ''Local business leaders give all-out support to Jason Li and promise they will fund his campaign unlimited. So far, he has raised $400,000 in funding.

''Li said if he could gain over 60 per cent of Chinese votes he can win this campaign, become the first Chinese member in the House of Representatives, and let Chinese communities' voices be heard.

''Li said he is born and grew up in Australia, speaking fluent English, Mandarin and Cantonese. He knows the needs of both the mainstream of Australia society and Chinese communities, and has experiences in facilitating trade between Australia and China. If he can be the federal member for Bennelong he can be the bridge between Australia society and Chinese community. This will significantly benefit the Chinese communities in political, economic, cultural and social aspects.''

The campaign material on Li's election website also requires translation even though it is in English:

''I am a Sydney boy who was born and grew up in the suburbs.''

Translation: I've been parachuted into this seat by Labor.

''We will buy a home in the electorate and we care about the cost of living.''

Translation: I have never lived in the electorate.

''I am an entrepreneur running three companies that I founded.''

Translation: I am not running any company right now because I am running for Parliament.

One day Li was in Beijing, where he has a consultancy advising Australian companies doing business with China, and the next he was in Eastwood, door-knocking, making calls and doing interviews. Rudd's phone call to Li was based on several links, most obviously their mutual backgrounds dealing with China. Li's wife Lucy is a friend of Rudd's daughter Jessica. Jessica's husband, Albert Tse, an immigrant from Hong Kong, is a lawyer and banker, and the men know each other. Li also has a brother-in-law who has a chemist shop in the electorate.

Just as Li has leveraged his Chinese background and language to seek business opportunities in China, Australia's largest trading partner, he is now leveraging his ethnicity, this time in politics. Some Chinese voters in Bennelong will probably vote for Li because he is Chinese. Some non-Chinese voters may vote against him for the same reason, regarding him as a parachutist from Beijing. Most voters, especially those with mortgages, family plans and small businesses, will look beyond race and at policy, and the record of six years of Rudd-Gillard government.

Twitter: @Paul_Sheehan_