Anti-China witch hunt intensifies with Csergo arrest

Apr 20, 2023
Bernard Collaery, barrister for Alexander Csergo, speaks to media outside the Downing Centre Local Court in Sydney, Monday, April 17, 2023. Alexander Csergo, 55, is set to face court charged with reckless foreign interference. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi) NO ARCHIVING

In the Csergo case the big question is: does the prosecution have any evidence of a real crime and not just a breach of the ridiculous Reckless Foreign Interference law?

How dangerous is it to meet a couple of foreigners and have a private cup of coffee?

Can you quickly turn to your phone, do a Google search, and answer a question that the foreigners have posed?

Suppose they ask you if you know of any companies mining for lithium in Australia that might be worth investing in? Or whether the iron ore price is likely to hold up?

What if, knowing that you are a business consultant, or a journalist, they offer you a sum of money to write a paper on key matters of interest for their business dealings? The paper would, of course, be expected to include sources supporting your opinions, conclusions and recommendations.

If you do provide this paper, let me warn you, you might be in breach of Section 92.3 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 and the Offence of Reckless Foreign Interference.

And here’s another question: does it make any difference if your coffee shop acquaintances are American or Chinese?

This is an easy one. I can help you here: you bet it does.

Americans may be every bit as self-interested as the Chinese and may be dragging us into one catastrophic war after another, but our intelligence agencies won’t prosecute you under Section 92.3 of the Criminal Code Act even if you pass on Australian state secrets to them.

At this point in time we don’t know the full details of the prosecution case against businessman Alexander Csergo. What we do know is that he is accused of engaging in reckless conduct that would either support intelligence activities of a foreign principal, or prejudice Australia’s national security.

Solicitor Conor McCraith, for the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions said Mr Csergo had returned to Australia from China with a “shopping list” of matters pertaining to Australia’s national security interests, and the defendant failed to notify authorities, as a reasonable person would have.

Defence barrister Bernard Collaery told the court the various documents which his client used were “largely from open-source documents.” He said both ASIO and the AFP had “gone right through his laptop” and WeChat messages, and confirmed all the work was from publicly available material.

We also know that this case is a continuation of an anti-Chinese campaign that previous Coalition governments drove. Sadly Labor leaders did not have the backbone to stand up and resist the crusade.

This showcase arrest of Mr Csergo has echoes of the raid on the home and parliamentary offices of former state Labor backbencher Shaoquett Moselmane in June 2020.

At the time, the Australian Federal Police said they were seeking information relating to allegations of a foreign influence plot. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was heavily involved in the Moselmane raid.

The raid was given widespread publicity and damaged Mr Moselmane’s reputation. He was suspended from the Australian Labor Party, only being reinstated in November 2020 when it became clear that he had no case to answer.

The Coalition’s anti-Chinese campaign has also had unintended consequences. Under the ludicrous requirements of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act, former cabinet ministers were required to register any activity undertaken ‘on behalf of’ a foreign principal.

Many did so.

But one, former Labor Foreign minister and Attorney General Gareth Evans, rightly responded to a request to register with a curt letter saying he regarded the communication as a joke, albeit one in very poor taste.

Nine others registered. Three former prime ministers, Abbott, Turnbull and Rudd, two one-time would-be prime ministers Nelson and Downer and four ordinary ex-cabinet ministers Bolkus, Alston, Hill and Crean came out.

Turnbull revealed that he gave the keynote address to the Korean Jeju Forum in May 2019 and another speech at the Taiwan Yushan Forum in October 2020. Both speeches were hardly secret at the time of delivery and both are publicly available on the web.

Like Evans, Rudd responded to a request to register with a blunt letter to the department. As a former prime minister Rudd had given interviews to government owned media outlets such as the BBC, Radio NZ and Chinese state-owned media. His letter, posted on the register website, said his lawyer’s advice was that he had nothing to register. “I am not an agent of foreign influence and any such suggestion is forcefully rejected. I engage internationally as an individual, a scholar, a commentator, a former leader and in my roles with non-government and UN-affiliated institutions – never as an agent on behalf of any foreign government.”

In the anti-China campaign, the kids’ short video platform, Tik Tok, has also become a target.

But as Tik Tok was targeted, the real breaches of US national security were occurring right under the noses of US authorities on the US-owned Discord. As the Washington Post has pointed out, in the two weeks after US lawmakers harangued the CEO of TikTok, classified documents were making their way into public view, not as a result of any foreign adversary’s sinister plot, but via Jack Teixeira, a young member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, using Discord. The leaked material was then passed on via U.S.-owned Twitter!


For more on this topic, we recommend:

ASIO and AFP have questions to answer

The witch-hunting of Moslemane and Zhang

Principled conduct? Shaoquett Moselmane and the NSW ALP


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