BRIAN TOOHEY. Reports of China spies and takeover plots are fanciful (SMH 5.12.2019)

According to the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation’s official history, Jurika claimed there was “not one chance in 10 million” of any effective action against communism until Ben Chifley’s Labor government was removed. In 1949 , however, Chifley took the unprecedented peacetime step of sending in troops to break a strike. Communist unions were prominent in the strike by 23,000 coal miners.

In 1960, ASIO’s head Brigadier Charles Spry warned there were up to 60,000 “potential subversives” in Australia. The subversives, including 5000 communists, would supposedly destroy the existing political system. In fact, they were merely exercising their right to free speech and freedom of association.

In an interview published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on November 22, the former head of the ASIO, Duncan Lewis, another ex-military officer, warned that the Chinese government is seeking to “take over” Australia’s political system through its “insidious” foreign interference operations.

It would be completely out of character for almost any politician, public servant, military officer, judge or journalist to succumb to the influence of a Chinese intelligence agency. These people have minds of their own. The idea that enough would become Chinese puppets to be able take over Australia’s political system is ludicrous. It is worth noting that China deployed large numbers of agents of influence in Hong Kong for many years and got nowhere.

Exaggerated fears of Communist agents are not confined to Lewis. There is the fanciful notion –  published in The Age and the Herald and urged on by the chair of the parliamentary committee on intelligence and security Andrew Hastie – that a Melbourne car dealer Bo Zhao could have won preselection for a Liberal Party federal seat in 2019.  Zhao had earlier been charged with fraudulent financial dealings, his car dealership was in administration and he was heavily in debt. There was no way he could become the Liberal Party candidate.

Yet Hastie thought Zhao was a “perfect target for cultivation” by a foreign intelligence service. He would have been a disaster.

Zhao reportedly told ASIO that an alleged Chinese agent, Brian Chen, had offered to fund him into a Liberal seat in Parliament. Chen, who denied Zhao’s account, has zero chance of getting the disgraced car dealer a seat. Over-excited journalists described Zhao as a spy. While ASIO says it is investigating, nobody has presented any compelling evidence that he is a spy. After Zhao died in a motel room in March 2019, Victoria Police stated there were no suspicious circumstances.

Some news reports also claimed on September 24 that a young Chinese citizen Wang Liqiang was an important spy who’d sought asylum in Australia. Even one of Wang’s strongest supporters, China analyst Alex Joske, says he was not a spy. A wide range reports suggest he was a bit player at most or simply someone who cobbled together publicly available information to support his bid for asylum.

China undoubtedly engages in espionage and foreign interference. So do many other countries including Australia, which notoriously bugged the newly independent Timor-Leste’s cabinet offices. Both China and the US spend heavily on influence operations. The cost of China’s covert influence operations are secret, but some US funding is disclosed.

An assistant secretary of state, Victoria Nuland, told a conference in 2013 that the US had spent $5 billion since 2001 trying to gain a favourable political outcome in Ukraine. The effort finally appeared to bear fruit in 2014 when a new Ukrainian government emerged after the overthrow of an elected pro-Russian president. A BBC analysis of a leaked phone call showed that Nuland intervened heavily in decisions about who should hold key positions in the new government. A Ukrainian comedian later won a new election.

As Australia’s biggest export customer, China has a right to apply legitimate influence in policy areas such as trade. The same can’t be said of its clandestine influence efforts, which include harassing people of Chinese origin in Australia and making illicit political donations.

Lewis is rightly concerned about political funding. Although bans now apply to foreign donations, a Rudd government minister, John Faulkner, proposed banning all donations above $1000. The proposal was never implemented, but now should be to remove excessive influence peddling from any quarter. Lobbying efforts to influence government policies should be publicly declared. To promote transparency, participants in the national debate, other than private individuals, should declare their sources of funding.

Yes, it’s important to counter covert foreign attempts to suborn the loyalty of public officials and governments. Beyond that, Australians should jealously protect their democratic right to embrace a vast range of enriching influences from overseas.

Brian Toohey is author of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State.

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6 Responses to BRIAN TOOHEY. Reports of China spies and takeover plots are fanciful (SMH 5.12.2019)

  1. Jerry Roberts says:

    Agree with Malcolm Crout, although his voice is more moderate than mine. In the closing credits of “Kundun” screened recently by SBS it was interesting to see the director was Martin Scorsese who dedicated this beautiful production to his mother. The movie depicts the childhood of the Dalai Lama, his meetings with Mao and reluctant escape over the mountains to safety in India.

    Mobo Gau (10 December) tells us about life inside China. I’m sure Buddhism will out-last the Chinese Communist Party. Whether Christianity in Australia will survive the ham-fisted efforts of our Government to play politics with religious discrimination laws is another matter.

    Australian businessmen who have signed deals in China will tell you about the central importance of Taoism in Chinese life. Chinese capitalists are more interested in the birthdays of their Australian partners’ grandfathers than they are in the thoughts of Chairman Mao or President Xi.

  2. Charles Lowe says:

    Forget about the principal focus.

    The supremely critical matter lies in Faulkner’s (now) so prescient observation:

    “The then Rudd government minister, John Faulkner, proposed banning all donations above $1000. The proposal was never implemented, but now should be to remove excessive influence peddling from any quarter.”

    What Faulkner proposed is what is absolutely necessary for us to adopt as soon as practicable. His thesis is the single best defence of effective Australian democracy I’m aware of. Anything else – and I mean anything else – pales into complete insignificance.

    Albo MUST pursue this. Beyond any other loyalty.

  3. I’m interested in timing as a sign of complicity.
    I don’t pay very close attention but it seems to me that when it is a planted or planned story by the “Govt faction of the day” [the LNP] they are ready with a response.

    When something really just breaks in the media as a ‘surprise’ they take quite a few days and a lot of pressure to respond or come to a position.

    Did that happen this time?

    I’m reading Secret – What a marvellous career- such a thread to the stories. Must say I can still remember my mother showing me the National Times, and talking in glowing terms about Toohey. I remember where I was standing and the tone of her voice. She was not overly political in identity but she was very appreciative of your work. Thank you. #Closepinegap

  4. Malcolm Crout says:

    All of this is speculation based on joining dots. Sure, the behaviour of several bureaucrats and politicians are milking an opportunity but there is still plenty of smoke and a glimmer of embers for concern.
    To ignore the potential or real threats presented by China is folly. We should not be complacent. I would rather have measured over reaction than no reaction where we find our underwear around our ankles at a critical moment in time.

    Let the intelligence community do it’s work without the constant naysaying from commentators on all sides. There is plenty of evidence that China is interfering in Universities and pollical issues via donations just for starters and let’s not even think of the number of China owned businesses or properties in Australia as the steady sell off quietly gathers pace. I wonder if any opportunities for similar buyups are available in China? #sarc
    We are dealing with a totalitarian state with a different view of the rules. History has plenty of examples where national alien aggression seemed implausible until it became invasion, so I fully support the Hastie Committee and ASIO etc. What I don’t support is using the fear of China to impose restrictions on Australian citizens. That’s the real problem. If China have any grumbles they can pack up and mover elsewhere, but we’ll be stuck with these draconian rules imposed by the numb skulls in Government. Try and get them repealed!

  5. Rex Williams says:

    “Australians should jealously protect their democratic right to embrace a vast range of enriching influences from overseas.”

    True. But is it too late already? There has been enough legislation created by the current sheep-filled parliament of recent times to make any saint appear to be an indictable sinner.

    Unless we see a positive outcome very soon in the matter of ‘Witness K’ and Bernard Collaery and some genuine action to protect Julian Assange from the hateful Americans, any one of this trio able to buy and sell all of our elected members when it comes to nationalism, it will be seen to be too late.
    The secret “legal” action by Porter and his LNP agitators should be laughed out of court. The public and the watching world is now well aware of the real criminals, many still strutting the corridors of power.

    As for the people like Hastie and Lewis and all the protected troublemakers in this country, all probably US influenced, managed and possibly receiving their instruction via the office of Marise Payne, the new Julie Bishop speakalike, such people totally depend on maintaining or adding to the destabilising climate they have generated.

    It’s called Survival Techniques 1-01

    They create it, feed it, hone it daily and very badly need it to flourish……just for them to survive.

  6. Neil Walsh says:

    One thing, the CCP is extraordinarily competent. I can’t imagine Zhao being a tasty target as this article says. The Chinese government doesn’t do itself favours a lot of the time, but this China-baiting really is mad. However, we – the Lambies of the world – appear to be catching some of the periodic insanity that Hofstedter spoke about in America. Knowledge, erudition and decorum might assist.

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