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Despite the furore over new allegations of Chinese espionage and interference, experts are urging a cautious response, saying there are many questions yet to be answered. By Karen Middleton.

Security agencies investigating Chinese spy claims

Wang Liqiang on 60 Minutes.
Credit: Nine Entertainment

Australia’s security agencies are sceptical about a self-described Chinese defector’s claims of involvement in high-profile espionage and kidnapping activities, and are seeking to rule out the possibility he is a double agent.

Security sources say Wang Liqiang’s decision to launch his bid for asylum in the pages of the Nine newspapers and on current affairs program 60 Minutes has elevated the already high levels of caution among those assessing the veracity of his claims.

“People who do this work are naturally sceptical, clinical and dispassionate,” one senior source told The Saturday Paper, referring to the intelligence officers scrutinising the information Wang has provided to support his asylum claim.

“Lesson one of the week: You don’t defect through 60 Minutes.”

Another warns that nobody should “rush into any conclusions” about the allegations, adding: “It is highly unusual for an intelligence officer who defects … to go to the media.”

Wang has described espionage activities in both Taiwan and Hong Kong. He has said he was involved in what became known as the Causeway Bay Books kidnappings in 2015, in which five staff members of a Hong Kong bookstore went missing. They were widely believed to have been taken to mainland China and detained.

Wang also spoke about collecting data on dissident Chinese students and activists in Hong Kong and using this information to pressure them into silence.

He said he and others were enlisted to work for an investment company in Hong Kong that he alleged was a front for spying and other pro-China activities.

Freelance investigative journalist Anthony Klan reported on Wednesday that the company Wang named – China Innovation Investment Limited – had quietly shut down most of its Hong Kong operations three weeks ago.

The Nine media reports also revealed that a Melbourne luxury car dealer and member of the Liberal Party, Bo “Nick” Zhao, had approached the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) last year, alleging a Chinese agent had offered him $1 million to run as a political candidate in the outer-Melbourne federal electorate of Chisholm.

Nick Zhao was found dead in a Melbourne motel room in March this year.

Nine named the man who had allegedly approached him as Melbourne businessman Brian Chen, who denied knowing Zhao.

China has dismissed Wang’s allegations, saying he was convicted of fraud in China in 2016.

Security insiders say it is common for accused governments to declare defectors guilty of unrelated crimes.

Some say the fact that both Wang and Zhao named others adds to the veracity of their claims.

The chairman of parliament’s powerful joint committee on intelligence and security, Western Australian Liberal MP Andrew Hastie – who is an outspoken critic of Xi Jinping’s government – told 60 Minutes the story was “like something out of a spy novel” and that it amounted to “a state-sponsored attempt to infiltrate our parliament”.

After the program aired, ASIO’s director-general, Mike Burgess, took the highly unusual step of issuing an immediate public statement, saying his agency was taking the allegations seriously.

“Australians can be reassured that ASIO was previously aware of matters that have been reported today, and has been actively investigating them,” he said.

The Australian reported on Wednesday that investigators believe Zhao died from a prescription drug overdose, either accidental or deliberate, and have found no evidence he met with foul play.

The Saturday Paper has been told no link has been established between his death and his reporting to ASIO of being approached to become a Manchurian candidate.

The security agencies are deeply uncomfortable with having their scrutiny of the allegations playing out in public. There is also some frustration at Andrew Hastie’s high-profile participation in the television report.

But Hastie is not resiling from either his remarks about the two cases or his stance on China in general. He declined to comment further this week.

Since entering parliament in 2016, Hastie has made a series of public attacks on Chinese foreign interference and human rights breaches.

He and fellow backbench China critic Victorian Liberal senator James Paterson were recently refused visas to travel to China on a study tour arranged by China Matters, a private foundation aimed at fostering a more nuanced debate about the China relationship.

The Chinese embassy indicated visas would not be approved for the pair, after an October 23 report in The West Australian flagged the visit and quoted them as intending to raise their concerns while in China, including concerns about the detention of Australian writer Dr Yang Hengjun. China has urged the two politicians to repent.

Paterson says he intends neither repentance nor retreat. “I couldn’t sleep at night if I wasn’t vocal about these things,” he told ABC Radio on Wednesday.

Hastie and Paterson were in the audience this week as former Labor prime minister and China expert Kevin Rudd offered his analysis of the bilateral relationship and a caution regarding the Wang and Zhao allegations.

“I’ve just got one word of reflection, having been in office for a while: hasten slowly, assemble the facts, see what the hell is happening here,” Rudd said as he launched journalist Peter Hartcher’s Quarterly Essay Red Flag: Waking Up to China’s Challenge.

“My experience in government is not everyone who walks in your door is necessarily, shall we say, completely orthodox and accurate in what they may say to you. It’s important to be sober, measured, considered. Conduct the factual analysis and reach a conclusion. If there is a bona fide basis for political asylum, then, as I think [Anthony Albanese] said recently, asylum should be granted.”

Rudd said he was more concerned about relations in the longer term, distilling the priorities of Xi Jinping’s China and proposing how Australia should respond. He said Australia must set and regularly update a national China strategy that acknowledged China respected strength and consistency and was contemptuous of weakness.

Rudd said Australia should focus on substantive rather than imagined threats, diversify its own international engagement, consolidate the United States alliance and resume its previous role championing the needs of Pacific neighbours.

“The so-called Pacific step-up is hollow,” he said. “Without credible climate leadership from Australia it will be a dead letter.” He also said China had not interfered in the South Pacific during his term in office because his government had doubled aid flows and actively represented the region’s interests in pushing for global climate change action.

Rudd accused former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull of having been uncritical of China and taking only belated legislative action in 2017 to curb foreign interference and influence.

Turnbull hit back on Sky News, saying Rudd was “factually wrong”.

“It is disturbing that … on many occasions, when Australian governments since his time have stood up to pressure from the Chinese government, Kevin Rudd has not shown much sympathy or solidarity with the government of the country that he once led,” Turnbull said.

He said the latest covert interference allegations were disturbing but that agencies had been warning of such a risk for some time. He hoped the government was enforcing the foreign influence laws.

Australian National University professor of intelligence studies and international security John Blaxland said the allegations were “not beyond the realm of plausibility” but also urged caution.

“I remain a little bit wary,” Blaxland told The Saturday Paper. “I think there is a cuteness to it that leaves me a little bit sceptical.”

Blaxland recently published a SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats – on Australia’s engagement in what is now known as the Indo-Pacific region.

It calls for a new “national institute of net assessment” focused on Australia’s geostrategic circumstances.

He also points to Xi’s long-term ambitions, noting – as does Hartcher – ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s observation that the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.

“I think we need to think big and we need to think intergenerationally,” Blaxland said. “We need to think beyond the crisis, knee-jerk responses we’ve got in place.”

His ANU colleague Hugh White, who has written extensively on China, warned against further politicising the relationship.

White said the new allegations were “not incredible but not highly plausible” and that it was “better to wait until the facts are available” to pass judgement.

White also queried the wisdom of both the swift official statement from ASIO and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s acknowledgement that the reports were being taken seriously.

“I do think that’s unusual and a bit regrettable,” White said. “I don’t think it helps. The government is commenting in ways that at least don’t discourage the speculation. It’s an odd and possibly unproductive way to deal with the issue.”

He said it would have been better to simply say it did not comment on intelligence matters.

“There’s at least a suspicion that the government believes it’s in its interests to not be seen as going soft on this stuff,” White said.

He said Australia should search for ways to engage positively while pushing back on the negatives. “We have to handle this stuff really carefully.”

Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick has tried unsuccessfully to garner support for a senate inquiry into Australia’s relations with China. He will try again next week.

“Every day there is something turning up in the news about China and we don’t appear to have a coherent strategy,” Patrick told The Saturday Paper. “… I want us to be good partners on trade and hopefully on security as well. We have to work out where to engage fully and where caution is required.”

The former ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis told senate estimates hearings while he was in office that foreign interference and influence – rather than Islamic extremism – was the biggest threat to Australia.

At the time, he declined to identify which countries posed the greatest risk. But last week, now retired, he named China.

His successor, Mike Burgess, emphasised the extent of that risk in his statement on Sunday night.

“Hostile foreign intelligence activity continues to pose a real threat to our nation and its security,” he said. He insisted ASIO would continue to confront and counter it.

Clearly, the agency also has many questions for Wang Liqiang.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 30, 2019 as "Spy detectors". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.