PERTH, Australia (AP) — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Monday that allegations of a Chinese plot to plant an agent into Australia’s Parliament are “deeply disturbing and troubling.”
The Nine Network on Sunday aired explosive accusations that suspected Chinese operatives had offered Melbourne luxury car dealer Bo “Nick” Zhao 1 million Australian dollars ($679,000) to run as a candidate for a parliamentary seat in Melbourne.
The 32-year-old was found dead in a Melbourne hotel room in March after reportedly approaching ASIO, Australia’s counterespionage agency. Police have been unable to determine how he died.
“The government has never been more determined to keep Australians free and safe from foreign interference,” Morrison told reporters. “I would caution anyone leaping to any conclusions about these matters.”
ASIO director-general of security Mike Burgess said late Sunday that the allegations are serious.
“Hostile foreign intelligence activity continues to pose a real threat to our nation and its security,” he said. “ASIO will continue to confront and counter foreign interference and espionage in Australia.”
Parliamentary intelligence committee chief Rep. Andrew Hastie called for an investigation into Zhao’s death.
“This isn’t just cash in a bag, given for favors. This is a state-sponsored attempt to infiltrate our Parliament using an Australian citizen and basically run them as an agent of foreign influence in our democratic system,” he told the Nine Network.
Earlier this month, Hastie said he and fellow Liberal Party member Sen. James Paterson had been barred entry to China for a study trip because of their criticism of the Chinese government.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Monday that some Australian politicians, institutions and media outlets have “reached a state of hysteria and extreme nervousness.”
“No matter how bizarre the plot is and how their tricks are refurbished, lies are always lies,” Geng said at a regular briefing. “We have never been and are not interested in interfering in others’ affairs.”
He urged Australian officials and journalists to adopt a healthy attitude toward China in the interest of bilateral relations as well their own ”physical and mental health.”
The latest revelations come days after a self-confessed spy seeking asylum in Australia reportedly gave ASIO inside intelligence on how Beijing conducts its interference operations abroad and revealed the identities of China’s senior military intelligence officers in Hong Kong.
Wang “William” Liqiang provided detailed accusations of China infiltrating and disrupting democratic systems in Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. He would be the first Chinese intelligence operative to blow his cover.
Wang claims he acted under cover as an employee of a Hong Kong-listed company, China Innovation Investment Ltd., which said in a notice to the stock exchange on Sunday that reports of its involvement in espionage were “purely false.”
The company also denied Wang had ever been employed by it or any of its associates and was considering taking legal action.
However, in a notice posted Monday, it said company officials Xiang Xin and Kung Ching had been stopped at Taiwan’s Taoyuan Airport for questioning and were cooperating with investigators.
“In fact, Mr. Xiang and Mrs. Kung knew nothing about the issues exposed in the News Reports. Wang Liqiang was never an employee of the Group. The News Reports were all fictitious and forged,” the statement said.
China attempted to discredit Wang, saying Sunday that he is a convicted fraudster wanted by Shanghai police.
“He’s in Australia. And we have the rule of law in Australia,” Morrison said of Wang, who is living in Sydney with his wife and infant son on a tourist visa. “And as a result then you can expect the same protections to apply to anyone who is living in our country, whether on a visa or any other arrangement.”
The Australian government has been trying to neutralize China’s influence by banning foreign political donations and all covert foreign interference in domestic politics.
Resource-rich Australia relies on China for one-third of its export earnings.