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