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International relations

Australia investigates Chinese spy ring allegation

Intel agency looks into claim Beijing tried to recruit parliamentary candidate

Australia's Parliament House in Canberra: Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the allegations “deeply disturbing and troubling" while there was no word from the Chinese embassy about the matter.   © Reuters

SYDNEY/TAIPEI/BEIJING (Financial Times) -- Australia’s intelligence agency is investigating claims that a Chinese espionage ring attempted to recruit an agent to run as a candidate in the last federal election in a bid to install a spy in the nation’s parliament. 

In a highly unusual move, Mike Burgess, Asio’s director-general of security, released a statement late on Sunday outlining that the agency was taking the allegations seriously and had been investigating the matter for some time. 

The allegations aired on news programme 60 Minutes allege a Melbourne car dealer named Bo “Nick” Zhao informed Asio last year that he had been approached by a member of the spy ring. He said he was offered A$1m ($679,000) in donations to run as a candidate of the governing Liberal Party.

In March, Zhao, an Australian citizen of Chinese descent, was found dead in a Melbourne hotel room. Local police were unable to determine how he died. 

The 60 Minutes programme also featured an interview with Wang Liqiang, an alleged Chinese defector, who is seeking asylum in Australia after making claims about Chinese spying operations in Taiwan and Hong Kong. 

Shanghai police responded by releasing a statement claiming that Mr Wang was a convicted fraudster, calling him a “fugitive suspect” in a fraud investigation. They added he had been found guilty in a separate fraud case three years earlier.

Mr Wang’s allegations are not directly related to the case of Zhao, who was a Liberal party member in the federal electorate of Chisholm, in Melbourne’s suburbs. 

Asio’s Mr Burgess said he could not comment on the particular operational matter detailed in the programme, including any detail of the individuals involved. 

“Given that the matter in question is subject to a coronial inquiry, and as not to prejudice our investigations, it would not be appropriate to comment further,” he said. 

But Mr Burgess said hostile foreign intelligence activity continued to pose a threat to Australia and its security. Asio, he said, would confront and counter foreign interference and espionage. 

“As the director-general of security, I am committed to protecting Australia’s democracy,” he said. 

Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said on Monday the allegations were “deeply disturbing and troubling”. “Australia is not naive to the threats that it faces,” he told reporters, without commenting on the specific allegations.

Andrew Hastie, a Liberal MP who chairs the Australian parliament’s intelligence and security committee and has been briefed on the matter, said the allegations by Mr Zhao amounted to “a state sponsored attempt to infiltrate our parliament” by using an Australian citizen as “an agent of foreign influence in our democratic system”. Mr Hastie was recently denied a visa to visit China.

The Chinese embassy in Canberra did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Financial Times. 

The Chisholm constituency, which has a large Chinese-Australian electorate, was won by Liberal MP Gladys Liu in May. 

Ms Liu became embroiled in a political controversy in September over her alleged links to Chinese propaganda organisations.

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