The Australian minders of Chinese defector William Wang Liqiang (王立強) have been urged to “double up” protection duties as experts raise significant fears about his safety.
Chinese state media have sought to discredit Wang as a convicted “fraudster,” liar and a fake after he revealed his role within Chinese intelligence and his bid for Australia’s protection on Saturday last week in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers.
The Chinese government released a notice from the Shanghai Public Security Bureau stating that it is investigating him for fraud, and released an online court record suggesting that a fraud conviction was recorded in 2016.
“He denies those allegations,” George Newhouse, Wang’s lawyer in Australia, told the Guardian.
Wang is staying in an undisclosed location in Sydney. He is in the country on a tourist visa and has formally applied for asylum.
Guardian Australia has been told that he holds significant concerns for his and his family’s safety.
One of the experts who helped investigate Wang’s claims, Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Alex Joske, said that there is reason to doubt the allegations aired by the Chinese government about his fraud conviction.
He said it was clear from the Chinese police statements that Wang is now “a target.”
“He’d be a target of the Chinese government and we can see from the allegations that the Chinese government has made, those accusations from the police, that they are trying to go after him,” Joske said.
John Blaxland, a professor of international security and intelligence studies at Australian National University, said that the extraordinary revelations of China’s actions, if accurate, are unlike anything Australia has seen “in a generation.”
Significant protective precautions must be taken to guard Wang against retribution, he said.
“If I was his minders, I would be looking to double up on protection duties, and he must have minders. I’m assuming that someone is looking out for him and there are some protective measures in place.” he said.
“There’s a lot of egg being thrown around and it’s stuck on a lot of people’s faces,” Blaxland added.
The concerns for Wang come after the death of Bo “Nick” Zhao (趙波) in a Melbourne hotel room in March — an incident that passed almost unnoticed at the time.
Nine newspapers on Monday reported allegations that Zhao had been approached by Chinese businessmen in Melbourne to run for federal parliament, effectively as an agent of Beijing.
Zhao, a 32-year-old auto dealer who had run into financial difficulties, was found dead by a cleaner in a hotel room in Glen Waverley on March 3.
Former colleagues remember him as quiet, but determined.
Yvan Lieutier, who worked with Zhao through a Heidelberg car dealership for five months, said that he was a “very quiet” young man, but one who was “was pretty ambitious for his age.”
He was approached to run for parliament at the beginning of this year, and reported the approach to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) several weeks before his death.
A cause of death has not yet been established and Victoria police have referred Zhao’s death to the coroner.
“Local police prepared a report for the coroner in relation to the death of a 31-year-old man in Glen Waverley on 3 March 2019. As this matter is currently before the coroner, it would not be appropriate to comment further at this time,” police said in a statement.
The Coroner’s Court of Victoria confirmed that their investigation into Zhao’s death is “open and ongoing,” but that no decision has been taken on if, or when, a public hearing might be held.
Blaxland said that the reports of Chinese influence, if accurate, are “grave.”
“If what we are reading is correct, then we face a challenge the likes of which we have not seen in a generation, but having said that, I think it’s very important to not respond in a shrill manner — to be level-headed, but to view our interests holistically and with the long term in mind” he said.
Australia is caught between the competing interests of its economic and national security relationships, Blaxland said.
“It’s very hard to reconcile the two. What we’ve seen manifest in the last few days is exactly just why it’s so hard to reconcile them, because they are working in opposite purposes,” he said.
Australia’s response to China should be made through diplomatic channels, via the Australian Foreign Investment Review Board, and through its advocacy with partner countries on Huawei, Blaxland said.
Feng Chongyi (馮崇義), an associate professor of China studies at University of Technology Sydney, said that Wang’s claims require further investigation by Australian intelligence authorities.
“The claim by Mr Wang confirms many things that have been reported and discussed over the last two years,” Feng said.
“It is crystal clear that the Australian government and public should have done more and should do more to address Chinese interference. We already have effective new laws [targeting foreign interference], but those laws should be implemented with greater vigor,” he said.
Zhao’s death needs “to be investigated very thoroughly,” he said.
Feng said he believes political concerns over Australia’s economic relationship with China are the most significant factor in an unwillingness to push back harder against Beijing.
“The intelligence officials of Australia understand what is happening, but political leaders need to do more to address this, even if those actions might offend the Beijing authorities and may cause some commercial loss or lost business deals. Australia should put human rights and democracy before commercial interests,” he said.
ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess issued a statement saying his agency “was previously aware of matters that have been reported ... and has been actively investigating them.”
“Given that the matter in question is subject to a coronial inquiry, and as not to prejudice our investigations, it would be inappropriate to comment further,” Burgess said.
He said allegations of foreign interference are treated seriously, and that hostile foreign powers pose a significant threat to Australia.
“As the director-general of security, I am committed to protecting Australia’s democracy and sovereignty,” Burgess said.
“Hostile foreign intelligence activity continues to pose a real threat to our nation and its security. ASIO will continue to confront and counter foreign interference and espionage in Australia,” he said.
Wang has said that he is a spy seeking to defect to Australia, and is willing to reveal secrets of Chinese efforts to infiltrate and influence Australia’s political system.
He alleged, too, that he engaged in espionage activities in Taiwan and Hong Kong, including helping to organize the October 2015 kidnapping of Lee Bo (李波), a major shareholder of Causeway Bay Books, who was targeted by Beijing for allegedly distributing dissident materials.
Wang said that Beijing covertly controls listed companies to finance intelligence operations, including surveilling dissidents, co-opting media organizations and running “cyberarmies” to shift political opinion.
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