Australian authorities have received a “valuable” description of the alleged techniques and tactics of Chinese military intelligence from a fugitive who claims to be a Chinese spy.
In a sworn statement to Asio, the Australian intelligence agency, that was reviewed by the Financial Times, Wang Liqiang alleged the Chinese military’s General Staff Department was using two Hong Kong-listed companies to control media in the city and recruit agents among the territory’s students. He also described an operation he claimed to have been personally involved in to interfere in Taiwanese elections late last year in which the ruling Democratic Progressive party suffered a heavy defeat.
The allegations, first reported by Australian media The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes on Saturday, are being taken seriously by Australian authorities. A senior Australian official said the case of Mr Wang, who asked for protection for himself and his family in Australia, was being assessed by the Home Affairs department. “His intelligence value is great, although it’s greater in Taiwan and Hong Kong than Australia,” the official said.
The claims are likely to fuel anger among participants in Hong Kong’s months-long protest against Beijing and are set to stiffen resistance among Taiwanese to mainland China’s designs on the island democracy.
“I have been personally involved in and participated in a series of espionage activities that were in breach of principles of democracy and morality as well as activities intending to control media and public opinion,” Mr Wang said in his statement.
He said that after a fine arts education, pressure to make a living drove him to seek employment outside his area of study. He was taken on by a Hong Kong company he described as “in essence a China-funded company under the General Staff Department”.
According to Mr Wang’s account, he only gradually became aware that he was working for an intelligence operation as he was groomed by his supervisor, a man he described as a former official in Beijing’s defence industry bureaucracy and the chief executive of the two Hong Kong-listed companies.
Mr Wang said the organisation he worked for arranged the abduction of Lee Bo, a Hong Kong bookseller who fell foul of Beijing for distributing books critical of the Chinese leadership, to mainland China. The case contributed to undermining the Hong Kong public’s confidence in the “One Country, Two Systems” model under which Beijing rules the territory. According to the statement, a People’s Liberation Army officer who also held a position at a Hong Kong media group received orders in December 2015 from the military leadership to “take” Mr Lee from his bookstore’s warehouse and bring him to the Chinese province of Zhejiang.
Mr Wang also said part of the organisation’s operation was recruiting students at Hong Kong universities to spy on their fellow students and report any politically suspicious discourse or behaviour.
Mr Wang cited the collection of military information and the procurement and theft of weapons technology useful for China and the “elimination” of dissidents inside the Communist Party who were sheltering in Hong Kong as other important tasks of the spy network.
In his statement to Asio, he said that after the abduction of Mr Lee, doubts and fear started mounting over the work he was doing. The bookseller operation left him “shocked […] that the organisation with such powerful background could exercise such brutal impertinence in Hong Kong which boasts of the so-called democracy and freedom”, Mr Wang said.
He continued with the work for another three years. “From August 2018, I personally conducted […] online operations of the 2018 Taiwan nine-in-one local elections,” he said, adding that more than 200,000 social media accounts were created to attack the Democratic Progressive party of Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen whom Beijing wanted to see defeated.
According to Mr Wang, more than 20 internet companies were created with the Hong Kong group’s backing to conduct targeted internet attacks, and more than Rmb1.5bn was given to Taiwanese media as donations or investment.
Mr Wang said orders to conduct a similar operation to interfere in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election convinced him he had to get out. He said his minders had prepared a set of fake documents for him, including a South Korean passport with which he would have been able to enter Taiwan visa-free, and instructed him to travel to Taipei in May.
In April, he said he visited his wife, who studied in Australia, and their infant son, with the intention to never come back.
The FT could not immediately reach Mr Wang for an interview. The Chinese government was not immediately available for comment. It was not possible to contact China’s State Security Ministry because it does not have any publicly available contact information.
A senior Australian official and another person familiar with the matter confirmed the document seen by the FT was the sworn statement he made to Australian intelligence.
The Australian Home Affairs Department, in charge of both Asio and immigration services, declined to comment.
The Australian official said Mr Wang’s account had been passed on to the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network, which includes the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand, but not with intelligence services in Taiwan or Hong Kong.
Officials in the Taiwan government in charge of national security said they were not aware of the case.
Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd in Beijing