Spying, meddling and even torture allegations are riling China’s relations with some of the world’s top democracies just as Beijing seeks to convince nations that its 5G technology can be trusted.
In Australia, it was reported Sunday that China offered a Melbourne-based car dealer a bribe to run as a parliamentary candidate before he was found dead in March. The previous day, media reports in selected Australian outlets said that a man who spied for China in Hong Kong and Taiwan offered intelligence information to Australia and wanted political asylum.
On Monday, just hours after China’s Foreign Ministry described the defector’s claims in Australia as “bizarre,” Xuehua “Ed” Peng -- who became a naturalized American citizen in 2012 -- pleaded guilty to a US criminal charge of spying for Beijing’s security service.
And last week, the UK accused China of torturing a former employee of its consulate in Hong Kong while seeking information about whether the British government was supporting pro-democracy protests.
The incidents play into fears that China is becoming bolder in undermining democracies under President Xi Jinping, one of the country’s most powerful leaders in decades. While Beijing has consistently denied the claims made in Australia and elsewhere, the suspicions threaten to impact trade relations and the operations of tech giant Huawei Technologies Co.
‘Out and Proud’ ::
“The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t want democratic governments to be viable,” said Michael Shoebridge, a former intelligence official in Australia who is now a director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “The way the Chinese are operating under Xi shows they are becoming ‘out and proud’ in their attempts to infiltrate democracies.”
Beijing’s more assertive foreign agenda prompted four of the largest democracies in the Indo-Pacific region -- the US, Japan, India and Australia -- to this year elevate so-called Quad talks to ministerial level. They plan to present a united front on regional security issues, a move that Beijing has complained could stoke a new Cold War.
The US has also sought to convince nations around the globe to avoid Huawei for its 5G networks, arguing that China wasn’t a reliable partner. Last month, Germany’s spy chief said that Huawei “can’t fully be trusted” to participate in its 5G network due to its “very high level of dependence on the Communist Party and the country’s intelligence apparatus.”
Last weekend, newspapers including The Age said an alleged spy, Wang Liqiang, sought asylum in Australia. He had offered secret information including the identities of China’s senior military intelligence officers in Hong Kong, as well as details on political interference operations in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, the report said.
Wang said he was personally involved in the 2015 kidnapping and abduction of Hong Kong bookseller Lee Bo to the Chinese mainland, and operated under cover in the city as a businessman for a company that was a front for Chinese intelligence agencies, it said. China has said the man is a fugitive found guilty of fraud.
Then on Sunday the Nine Network reported that suspected Chinese operatives had offered A$1 million ($690,000) to a luxury car dealer, Bo “Nick” Zhao, to run as a candidate for a parliamentary seat in Melbourne. Zhao, 32, approached the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation with the claims and was later found dead in a Melbourne hotel room, it reported.
That report was also denied by China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang in Beijing on Monday.
“No matter how bizarre the plot is and how their tricks are refurbished, lies are always lies,” Geng told reporters. “We have never been and are not interested in interfering in others’ affairs.”
Gao Zhikai, a former Chinese diplomat and interpreter for ex-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, said in an interview that few countries could claim innocence when it comes to spying games.
‘Until Mankind Disappears’ ::
“Espionage started from the beginning of history and will continue until mankind disappears from the world,” Gao said. “Everyone needs to be vigilant and every country needs to protect its own secrets as much as it can. But to accuse another country of espionage as if it itself is an angel is a fallacy no one should believe in.”
Indeed, the US has its own spies. The government said Monday it uncovered the Californian spy’s identify through a double-agent operation in China that started in March 2015. According to prosecutors, Peng, 56, worked as a guide for Chinese tourists in the San Francisco area.
Peng was snared in a sting operation in which he allegedly hid envelopes with $10,000 to $20,000 in cash in hotel rooms and returned later to pick up memory cards containing classified security information that had been planted by US agents. He would later fly to China with the cards to deliver them to his handlers at the Ministry of State Security, prosecutors alleged. Prosecutors are recommending a four-year prison sentence under the plea deal.
At least three former US intelligence officers have been convicted in recent years of spying for China. Last year, the Justice Department launched a China initiative targeting trade-secret theft, hacking and economic espionage.
China’s denials about spying are to be expected, according to Shoebridge from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“Like President Vladimir Putin in Russia, China is using deniability as a cover,” he said. “The louder that they deny it, the more they’re pointing to the fact that they’re probably doing it.”