Australia’s latest firestorm of media reports on China’s overseas intelligence activities has left more unanswered questions than solid information. In the wake of these new claims — and China’s predictable denials — what are the takeaways?
This was closely followed by explosive claims that PRC intelligence services had attempted to induce a debt-stricken 32-year-old car dealer Nick Zhao to run for parliament. Authorities found Zhao dead in a motel room in March.
Sensational reports prompt pushback
The reports drew a statement of concern from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and an assurance from Australian security authorities that they were “previously aware” of the issues. Director-General of Security Mike Burgess issued a rare public statement confirming that “matters that have been reported” were under investigation — though it’s unclear precisely which allegations this referred to.
Analysts, journalists and bloggers quickly raised doubts about Wang’s story as originally reported. These ranged from Wang’s young age and fine arts background to his lack of foreign language ability. Former Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop questioned Wang’s credibility in light of his decision to go public, and a retired Taiwanese spymaster hastily pronounced him a fraud.
The initial media framing set Wang up to be discredited by calling him a “Chinese spy,” when by his own account he does not meet general definitions of the word. In his July sworn statement to the Australian government, Wang presented himself as having performed various low-level tasks on behalf of a front company for PRC military intelligence in Hong Kong.
Wang said his employer had participated in kidnapping Hong Kong dissident booksellers; intimidating and monitoring pro-independence Hong Kong students; acquiring foreign military technology; interfering in Taiwan’s elections; and embezzling corporate funds in Hong Kong.
Wang said he personally “acted as liaison person” between his boss and another intelligence official involved in the booksellers’ kidnapping, “relay[ed] tasks” to Chinese students at Hong Kong universities and did “online operations” in Taiwan’s 2018 elections. He claimed the company had ordered him to head to Taiwan to help manipulate pro-Beijing media when he decided to flee to Australia, where his wife was studying.
Spy or not, Wang’s story is consistent with existing research
Wang’s claims are consistent with past research on PRC intelligence work, particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan. These activities, documented since the 1990s in work by Nicholas Eftimiades, James Mulvenon and Tai Ming Cheung, include using Hong Kong-registered companies to acquire military technology.
Academic research also documents how PRC intelligence operations seek to suppress political dissent abroad. Jie Chen’s new book details how PRC agents may have infiltrated the overseas Chinese democracy movement, as part of a broader strategy to fragment the movement. However, past studies have generally found this to be the responsibility of civilian, rather than military intelligence.
Numerous reports have documented interference in Taiwanese politics through the methods Wang described. A 2013 report by Mark Stokes highlighted the important role of Chinese military intelligence in “public opinion warfare” aimed at Taiwan. More recently, Russell Hsiao documented evidence of disinformation campaigns during Taiwan’s 2018 elections.
Could Wang simply have fabricated his story from publicly available materials? His asylum appeal, after all, refers explicitly to Clive Hamilton’s polemic, “Silent Invasion,” indicating familiarity with Australia’s intense debates over the CCP’s overseas political activities.
However, Wang did provide specific, verifiable details. Two individuals Wang named were prevented from leaving Taiwan after the reports emerged, suggesting that he may indeed have revealed important information.
What about the parliamentary infiltration story?
The alleged multimillion-dollar plot to plant an agent in the Australian Parliament is a murkier, secondhand story. If true, it would carry far weightier implications for democratic politics than either Wang’s case or that of Australian Sen. Sam Dastyari, who was forced to resign in 2017 after warning a Chinese donor his communications might be under surveillance. But verification appears unlikely.
The story centered on the claims of another young man with potentially complex motivations. Before he died, indebted luxury car dealer Nick Zhao (Zhao Bo) allegedly told Australia’s domestic security agencies that Melbourne businessman Brian Chen (Chen Chunsheng) had offered him a seven-figure sum if he would run for parliament in the seat of Chisholm. Other Australian media subsequently reported that Zhao had been in custody facing fraud charges at the time.
In contrast to Wang’s case, Zhao’s claims reached the media indirectly — and probably posthumously — via what the reports described as unnamed “associates” of Zhao and “multiple Western security sources.” The indirect information further complicates the evaluation of the parliamentary infiltration story.
Brian Chen reportedly has businesses in the sales of government security equipment in partnership with a subsidiary of China’s state-owned defense company, Norinco. Chen confirmed to reporters that Australian intelligence agencies suspect him of being a PRC security operative — a claim he denies.
Like Wang, Zhao may have had personal reasons to maximize his own value to the Australian government. At the same time, the debts that landed Zhao in legal trouble may have made him an attractive target for PRC recruitment.
An attempt by Chinese intelligence to plant an agent in a foreign parliament would constitute a qualitatively new level of interference, more comparable with Europe during the Cold War than Asia in the 21st century so far. However, the story is unlikely to ever be confirmed — in a follow-up report, the journalists who originally broke the story quote anonymous sources as saying the investigations of Mr. Chen had “moved on” from the alleged parliamentary infiltration plot.
These are sensational accusations, and much remains unknown. As Adam Ni and Yun Jiang have noted, the pushback these types of stories generate can undermine public confidence in media. But the reports themselves also risk raising public panic over real issues that require careful and methodical investigation.
Andrew Chubb @zhubochubo is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Lancaster University.