In March, a 32-year-old father and luxury car dealer, Bo “Nick” Zhao was found dead in a suburban Melbourne motel room. Police investigated, but were unable to determine the cause of his death.
Now, reports have emerged that Zhao, prior to his death, had been approached by a “Chinese espionage ring” which offered him 1 million Australian dollars (US$679,000) to run as a candidate for a parliamentary seat in Melbourne.
Zhao had reportedly been facing legal and financial troubles since 2016. He had been charged with fraudulently obtaining loans to buy luxury vehicles and at least one of his car dealerships had collapsed. It’s reported that he was then approached by another Melbourne business figure who offered to put $1 million into a business for him, in return, he wanted Zhao to run for federal parliament.
Zhao reportedly told the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) of the offer. Months later, he was dead.
Zhao’s death, as well as other explosive revelations about how Beijing’s spies are manipulating Taiwan’s elections, infiltrating Hong Kong’s democracy movement and operating with impunity in Australia was first published by the Nine Network in an interview with former Chinese spy, Wang “William” Liqiang, over the weekend.
Federal MP Andrew Hastie, who chairs Parliament’s intelligence and security committee, described Zhao as “a perfect target for cultivation” by an overseas spy agency.
“A guy who was a bit of a high-roller in Melbourne, living beyond his means, someone who was vulnerable to a foreign state intelligence service cultivating [him],” Hastie told Nine.
According to reports, ASIO suspects the man who approached Zhao was a “senior Chinese intelligence operative” named Brian Chen. For many years, Chen has been moving between Melbourne and Asia, but the last time he passed through Melbourne airport he was interrogated by authorities on his links to the Chinese government and was accused of being a spy. He has not returned since and is now believed to be living in Hong Kong.
Wang told Nine that he is aware of multiple Chinese spies operating in Australia right now. Among them, he said, was Huang Xiangmo, a Chinese billionaire who was barred from Australia for his links to the Chinese Communist Party.
Xiangmo, who is being investigated for making dubious political donations, has been pictured alongside some of Australia’s most senior political figures, such as former Prime Ministers Julia Gillard, Malcom Turnball and Kevin Rudd. Nonetheless, Wang dismisses Xiangmo as insignificant compared to the Chinese spies Australia should be targeting.
Wang claims he moved to Hong Kong in 2014 to work for a private company, but the firm, he said was a front for a Beijing intelligence agency. “I have personally been involved and participated in a series of espionage activities,” he told ASIO in a sworn statement.
He said during the five years he worked as an agent there, one of his key areas of operations were Hong Kong universities. He claims his organization had “infiltrated into all universities, including student associations and other student groups and bodies.” He would recruit students using scholarships, travel grants, alumni associations and an education foundation.
“I influenced them with patriotism, guiding them to love the country, love the Party and our leaders, and fight back strongly against those independence and democracy activists in Hong Kong,” he told Nine.
He said he was personally involved in organizing the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015 and was tasked with buying other countries’ weapons to “steal U.S. intelligence from them.”
Wang said his work in Taiwan was the “most important work – the infiltration into media, temples and grassroots organisations,” he said.
He said his operation successfully meddled in the “nine-in-one” elections in Taiwan in 2018, leading to victories for pro-Beijing candidates. Before fleeing to Australia, Wang said he was given a South Korean passport and was ordered to commence an operation on the ground in Taiwan to influence the 2020 presidential elections with the aim of bringing down president Tsai Ing-wen.
And now, Wang is offering “troves of intelligence information” to Australia’s counterespionage agency in hope of seeking political asylum – a move likely to fan the flames between Beijing and Canberra.
Australia has long grappled with how to counter Chinese power in the region. In June last year, the Australian parliament passed a package of new laws aimed at preventing foreign interference. Though government officials said they were not aimed at any country, the Chinese government responded by cancelling visas for Australian business leaders and suggested that the country’s politicians are motivated by xenophobia and racism.
ASIO director-general of security Mike Burgess issued a statement on Sunday night addressing the claims brought forward by Nine’s report and said that they contain “allegations that ASIO takes seriously” and that he was “committed to protecting Australia’s democracy and sovereignty.”
“Australians can be reassured that ASIO was previously aware of matters that have been reported today and has been actively investigating them. However, in accordance with long-standing practice, I will not comment on this particular operational matter, including any detail of the individuals involved,” the statement said.
Former ASIO boss Duncan Lewis said Australia’s political system was under assault from Beijing, warning that the Chinese government was seeking to “take over” Australia’s political system through its “insidious” foreign interference operations.
Hastie said this is really significant and that Australians should be very concerned. “This isn’t just cash in the bag given for favours, this is a state sponsored attempt to infiltrate our parliament using an Australian citizen and basically run them as an agent of foreign influence in our democratic system,” he said.
Taiwanese police have since detained and questioned a Chinese businessman and his wife who were identified by Wang as spying for China and interfering in Taiwan’s democratic elections.
Chinese officials have dismissed the allegations, saying Beijing does not meddle in the internal politics of other countries. Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang accused people and media outlets of having “become seized with imaginary fears.”
Geng said the alleged spy at the centre of the revelations was a fugitive suspected of fraud and was travelling on forged documents.