Australia investigates alleged Chinese plot to install spy MP

Australia investigates alleged Chinese plot to install spy MP

Australian intelligence officials have confirmed they are investigating allegations of a plot to plant a Chinese spy in the nation’s parliament.

The allegations – first aired by local network Nine – assert that a suspected Chinese espionage ring approached a Chinese-Australian man to run as an MP.

The Australian government has said it is taking the allegations seriously, following a rare public statement from the nation’s domestic spy agency.

China is yet to respond to the claims.

What are the allegations?

On Sunday, Nine’s 60 Minutes programme reported that suspected Chinese agents approached a luxury car dealer, Nick Zhao, ahead of Australia’s general election – which took place in May.

They allegedly offered him A$1m (£520,000; $680,000) to fund his run for a Melbourne seat as a candidate for the ruling Liberal Party, of which Mr Zhao was already a member.

Mr Zhao gave information about the alleged approach to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio) last year, Nine reported.

He was found dead in a hotel room in Melbourne in March. His death has prompted a coroner’s inquiry.

What other claims have been made?

Nine has also reported that a man claiming to be a Chinese spy has applied for asylum in Australia, in an unrelated case.

Wang “William” Liqiang has reportedly given authorities information about operations in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, saying he was “personally involved” in espionage work.

Wang "William" Liqiang photographed for The Age newspaper
Wang Liqiang told Australian media on Saturday that he had been a spy for China

Mr Wang also told 60 Minutes that he was aware of several Chinese spies operating in Australia and attempting to influence politics.

Chinese officials have dismissed Mr Wang’s claim, and say that he is an unemployed fugitive who was convicted of fraud.

What has been the response?

In a statement, Asio director-general Mike Burgess said 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.

He said he would not comment further in line with “long-standing practice”, but added: “Hostile foreign intelligence activity continues to pose a real threat to our nation and its security.”

MP Andrew Hastie, who heads the parliament’s intelligence and security committee, told 60 Minutes he had been aware of the “very, very concerning” allegations for months.

“[It is] like something out of a spy novel happening in Melbourne with impunity,” he said.

Government ministers described the allegations as concerning but stressed Australia’s “important economic relationship” with China, its largest trading partner.

“It has to be a relationship between sovereign nations and we will continue to call out any issues and deal with any issues as they arise,” Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said.

What’s the background?

There is an ongoing debate about Chinese influence in Australian politics and society.

Some politicians have accused Beijing of trying to infiltrate Canberra through donations and other means. Others, however, believe the allegations are fuelling xenophobia and harming relations between the two countries.

Australia passed new laws last year aimed at countering foreign interference in the country.

At the time, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” – an assertion that has been consistently denied by Beijing, which has sometimes accused Australia of having a “Cold War mentality”.

Earlier this year, a newly elected Chinese-Australian MP, Gladys Liu, faced intense scrutiny after her past links to Beijing-associated groups were revealed by Australian media. She strongly denied having any divided loyalties, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison asserted she had been the victim of a “smear” campaign.

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