A Canberra Liberals election candidate and adviser to leader Alistair Coe has reportedly served as a director of a Chinese Communist Party-linked organisation which some experts say aims to influence foreign governments.
The Liberals have denied Robert Johnson was ever a director of the organisation, saying he only attended some community events organised by the group in 2014 and 2015 and has been disassociated with them since.
According to a Chinese government website, Mr Johnson, also known as Jiang Jialiang, was in 2014 appointed to the ACT branch of the Association for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China.
Mr Johnson's appointment as director was reported on the official website of the organisation's parent body, the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification.
A report this year from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute described the parent body as an organ of the United Front Workers Department, a CCP central committee organisation which exists to advance the party's goals in China and overseas.
The content on the council's website was no longer able to be accessed from Thursday afternoon.
In the article, Mr Johnson is reported as saying he would mobilise more young Chinese to participate in the anti-independence and reunification movement.
A number of other Chinese language media articles from 2014 to 2016 refer to Mr Johnson attending ACT branch meetings.
Mr Johnson's reported connection to the group indicates he has strong ties to the CCP's overseas influence network and is trusted to operate in Australia in line with Beijing's interests, according to China expert professor Clive Hamilton.
Professor Hamilton suggested Mr Johnson's candidacy in ACT Legislative Assembly election and role inside Mr Coe's office may be part of the CCP's targeted attempts to place trusted people in positions of political influence across the western world.
Mr Johnson has worked as a special adviser to Opposition Leader Alistair Coe since early 2019.
He travelled with Mr Coe on a trip to China in March 2019, during which they met with local government officials.
The Liberals said it was a self-funded trip to help build greater personal relationships.
A spokesman for the Canberra Liberals denied Mr Johnson had ever been a director of the group.
"Mr Johnson attended some community events organised by the group in 2014 and 2015 and has been disassociated with them since," he said.
"Any suggestion of a relationship between Mr Johnson and the Chinese Communist Party is rejected."
Mr Johnson's family has also been a party to a legal proceeding.
His company was last year ordered to pay almost AUD$120,000 in a Chinese civil judgment over a dispute about an agreement to run a school.
According to Chinese court records, Mr Johnson's company Fujian Wen AO rented a property from the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and signed an agreement with the Beijing company to jointly run the school.
The project fell through and the Beijing company wanted Fujian Wen to pay their losses.
Fujian Wen said the project was dumped when the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office suddenly cancelled the lease, according to the legal report.
Mr Johnson appears to have appealed the outcome, and in March 2020 a retrial was ordered by a higher court.
"Mr Johnson's family has been a party to a legal proceeding that was overturned earlier this year," the Canberra Liberals spokesman confirmed.
"Due to court delays resulting from coronavirus, the matter has not yet been finalised."
The Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China is considered the peak body for local organisations and individuals which are part of the wider United Front movement.
Huang Xiangmo, the billionaire property developer and prolific political donor who has been banned from living in Australia, was a former chairman of the Australian council.
The Australia Security Intelligence Organisation reportedly cited Mr Huang's association with the council as one of the grounds for cancelling his visa in 2018.