China wants to “take over” Australia’s political system with an “insidious” and systematic campaign of espionage and influence peddling, Canberra’s former spymaster warned in an interview published yesterday.
Duncan Lewis, who resigned in September after five years as director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, said that China could target anyone in political office, with the effects potentially unknown for years.
“Espionage and foreign interference is insidious. Its effects might not present for decades and by that time it’s too late,” Lewis told the Sydney Morning Herald in his first interview since leaving office.
“You wake up one day and find decisions made in our country that are not in the interests of our country,” he said in unusually blunt comments from a former senior intelligence official.
“Not only in politics, but also in the community or in business. It takes over, basically, pulling the strings from offshore,” he added.
Lewis singled out incidents of Chinese agents making large contributions to Australian political parties as part of a wide-ranging influence-peddling campaign that also targeted media and the country’s universities.
He cited the case of Australian Labor Party powerbroker Sam Dastyari — dubbed “Shanghai Sam” — who was forced to resign after taking tens of thousands of dollars from a Chinese Communist Party-linked donor.
“It’s quite clear to me that any person in political office is potentially a target. I’m not trying to create paranoia, but there does need to be a level of sensible awareness,” Lewis said.
His comments are likely to stir already heated debate about Australia’s relations with China and be seen as a rebuke of vocal Sinophile figures like former Australian prime minister Paul Keating.
Keating has branded Australia’s security agencies “nutters” for their allegedly hawkish stance on China and slammed the “pious,” “do-gooder” media for sensationalist reporting on Chinese influence operations.
Officials have said that China’s growing efforts to influence politics overseas through donations, investment and “united front” community groups have grown apace since Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) took power.
The effects in Australia have long concerned the White House, which has repeatedly warned Canberra against being complacent.
However, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison — whose government has introduced a foreign agents register for lobbyists and expelled a prominent Chinese donor — said that he was confident Australia could “maintain the integrity of our system.”
“We have all the systems in place and we have the legal system in place to ensure that Australia’s interests are always protected,” he said.
Lewis said that the help of Australia’s large ethnic Chinese community was “vital in the work against foreign covert influence,” much like Muslim-Australians who have aided in the fight against terrorism.
While running the spy agency, Lewis, who also held senior military positions and served as Australia’s ambassador to Belgium and NATO, frequently warned of the dangers of foreign espionage, but avoided singling out China for criticism.
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