Chinese espionage in Australia—the big picture
26 Nov 2019|

Melbourne car dealer Nick Zhao may or may not have been approached by Chinese state operatives offering $1 million for the Liberal Party member to run for parliament. He’s dead and a coronial inquiry is underway. The new head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Mike Burgess, has said that ‘Australians can be reassured that ASIO was previously aware of matters that have been reported today, and has been actively investigating them.’ That’s good, if sobering, news because it tells us the allegations published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald and aired on 60 Minutes are credible.

And apparent defector Wang Liqiang may or may not be an intelligence operative who worked for the Chinese Communist Party to compromise and disrupt pro-democracy students and groups in Hong Kong and who ran similar activities to disrupt Taiwan’s democracy. Wang has also reportedly said spies from Beijing were ‘operating with impunity in Australia’.

On Zhao, details are sketchy, so we’ll need to hear the results of the coronial inquiry and ASIO’s investigation.

With Wang, however, his account of the Chinese state’s covert work to interfere in Hong Kong and in Taiwanese and Australian politics came with reams of public detail. What he’s revealed aligns well with things we already know about Chinese intelligence work. What’s new is that he’s added important details on individuals, companies, places, times and activities which can be followed up. For ASIO, this will provide leads to better understand and disrupt this covert and corrupting Chinese state activity.

We can be pretty confident Wang is who he says he is and the Chinese agencies, companies and operatives he worked with did what he says they did. That’s even more likely given the Chinese embassy’s rapid denouncement of Wang that quoted a hastily issued statement from Shanghai police after Wang’s allegations were first reported. There’s no record of his supposed fraud conviction before the statement was issued and it seems like the kind of coverup you’d expect when a Chinese intelligence operation is compromised.

What does all this mean? Put bluntly, it shows that outgoing ASIO boss Duncan Lewis was spot on when he observed in September that terrorism had plateaued as a threat, but foreign interference was ‘on a growth path’. He noted that, ‘Unlike the immediacy of terrorism incidents, the harm from acts of espionage may not be present for years, even decades, after the activity has occurred. These sorts of activities are typically quiet, insidious and have a long tail.’ That’s an insight our political leaders and the broader Australian public need to take to heart.

Let’s suppose the alleged plan to get Zhao into parliament had actually worked. He would’ve been a Liberal backbencher working diligently on constituency issues in the Melbourne seat of Chisholm and showing his potential. Two or three elections from now, he might have aspired to an outer ministry and later, perhaps, higher things. An ability to bring in plenty of cash to the party over that time, no doubt with help from his Chinese government handlers, wouldn’t have hurt. That’s the kind of ‘long tail’ damage Lewis was talking about.

Every Australian political party now needs to take the threat of Chinese covert interference in our democracy seriously and work with government agencies to reduce the prospects that our public debate and our parliamentary decision-making will be compromised. It’s not undemocratic for the Greens, the Liberals, Labor and the Nationals to take advantage of the knowledge and expertise of Australia’s national security agencies.

In the face of well-organised and lavishly funded interference from President Xi Jinping’s powerful authoritarian state it’s essential to protect the vibrancy and independence of our political system. It’s also worth noting that our Australian Chinese community is not even the most likely place to look for political figures who might be candidates for long-term cultivation.

Nowadays, it’s almost routine for former politicians and senior civil servants involved in the public debate on China to be performing advisory work for or receiving sponsorship from Chinese entities. Many of these entities are harmless, but some, no doubt, have close links to CCP institutions that these public voices and the Australian public need to understand, not dismiss. Remember it was the scandal around former Labor senator Sam Dastyari—not a Chinese Australian—that crystallised a series of events ending in the passage of the foreign interest transparency law by a thumping bipartisan majority in August last year. That law doesn’t yet cover politicians and their staff—a glaring gap that must now be closed.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann was right to say we would be ‘getting a bit ahead of ourselves’ to suggest the government complain to Beijing over the allegations about Zhao. Refreshingly, he went on to say that ‘issues will arise that need to be dealt with and where there is bad and inappropriate conduct, we will call that out and seek to have that addressed’. He emphasised that ASIO’s investigation needs to take its proper course.

In contrast to the case of Chinese state hacking into our parliament and three major political parties earlier this year, once this investigation is complete Burgess needs to take the same approach he took as head of the Australian Signals Directorate and come out of the shadows. That’d be best done with him sitting in a booth in parliament while Prime Minister Scott Morrison or Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton makes a public statement on the topic.

The sensitive and corrosive issue of Chinese state interference in our democracy needs to be handled in a calm and orderly way. At the same time, the government must be honest and open with the Australian people about the challenge we are facing and how it is being dealt with.