Shanghai police said the fugitive who handed Australian intelligence a detailed description of alleged Chinese intelligence activities in Hong Kong and Taiwan was a convicted fraudster.
It was the first time Chinese authorities reacted to the claims of Wang Liqiang, a Chinese citizen who is asking for protection from the Australian government after fleeing to the country in April.
Mr Wang went public this weekend with claims that he took part in spying, cyber and influence operations for the Chinese military over the past five years. A senior Australian official told the Financial Times the case was being taken seriously by authorities. “His intelligence value is great, although it’s greater in Taiwan and Hong Kong than Australia,” the official said.
On Saturday night, Shanghai police said Mr Wang was a “fugitive suspect” in a fraud investigation and had been found guilty in a separate fraud case three years earlier.
“In February 2019, Wang Liqiang swindled more than Rmb4.6m from someone surnamed Shu with a fake car import investment scheme,” the Jing’an district police said in a statement. It added that police had begun an official investigation into the case on April 19.
The police statement claimed that Mr Wang had travelled to Hong Kong on April 10 and that a People’s Republic of China passport and a Hong Kong permanent resident card that he was carrying were fake.
The details of the Shanghai police statement could not immediately be independently confirmed. Chinese authorities have a history of trying to undermine the credibility of critics by publishing information that could discredit them.
The Shanghai police statement inaccurately characterised part of Mr Wang’s claims. It said that Mr Wang had claimed to have conducted spying work using three fake identity documents. But Mr Wang’s claim stated that he received the fake identity documents from the Chinese authorities only after he had already fled to Australia.
An online database of Chinese court documents does contain a verdict from the Guangze County People’s Court in Fujian province dated October 2016 in which a man called Wang Liqiang was found guilty of fraud and given a suspended prison sentence.
The Financial Times could not immediately confirm whether the man who has asked for protection in Australia and the one convicted in Guangze three years ago is the same person.
The dates Shanghai police gave for Mr Wang’s trip to Hong Kong and the start of the alleged new fraud investigation would have been immediately before he entered Australia in April.
The defection threatens to inflame tensions between Beijing and Canberra, which must decide whether to grant Mr Wang’s claim for asylum.
Last week Beijing barred two Australian MPs from visiting the country and recently suspended a decades-old joint human rights programme with Canberra.
One of those MPs, Andrew Hastie, who chairs the Australian parliament’s joint committee on intelligence and security, told media that Mr Mr Wang was “a friend of democracy” and urged the government to grant his asylum request.
On Sunday, Anthony Albanese, leader of the opposition Labor party, said Mr Wang could have a legitimate claim for asylum in Australia and would seek briefings from the government this week.
Additional reporting by Ryan McMorrow in Beijing