Australian politicians say media revelations of China spying disturbing

By Lidia Kelly

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian politicians on Saturday described as disturbing media reports that a man seeking asylum claims to be an agent of Chinese intelligence services who detailed Beijing's efforts to infiltrate political systems in Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Resource-rich Australia's ties with China have deteriorated in recent years, amid accusations that its most important trading partner is meddling in domestic affairs, while Canberra fears that China seeks influence in the Pacific region.

"These are very disturbing reports," said Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, adding that government law agencies were dealing with the matter and would not comment on particulars of individual cases.

The defector, named as Wang "William" Liqiang by Nine network newspapers, gave a sworn statement to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, or ASIO, identifying China's senior military intelligence officers in Hong Kong.

He has also revealed details of how they fund and conduct political interference operations in Taiwan and Australia, the Age newspaper said.

Reuters reported that Australian intelligence determined China was responsible for a cyberattack on its national parliament and three largest political parties before the general election in May. China denies the accusations.

Wang said he was a part of an intelligence operation within a Hong Kong-listed company, which infiltrated universities and media, the Age said.

"I have personally been involved and participated in a series of espionage activities," it cited Wang as saying in his October statement to the intelligence agency.

The ASIO declined to comment, saying only that it did not comment on operational matters or individuals.

Australia's department of home affairs said it did not comment on individual cases.

"The purpose of protection visas is to safeguard people who cannot return to their home country due to a well-founded fear of persecution or risk of harm," a representative said, however, adding in a statement that each case was assessed on its merits.

China's Foreign Ministry did not immediately return requests for comment.

Wang also said there were plans to disrupt the presidential vote on the self-ruled island of Taiwan next year, the Age added.


TAIWAN INVESTIGATING

Taiwan's presidential office said the government was investigating, and would come down hard on any illegal behaviour, while a spokeswoman for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party called the information in Australian media a reminder of the threat from China.

"Whether it is the Chinese internet army or the Chinese government, it is using the democratic system of Taiwan to infringe upon our democracy," Lee Yen-jong said.

China considers Taiwan a wayward province and has never ruled out the use of force to bring it under Beijing's control.

Han Kuo-yu, the presidential candidate of Taiwan's main opposition, the China-friendly Kuomintang party, urged the government to immediately send a team to Australia to investigate.

If he had taken money from China's Communist Party, he vowed to resign from his post as mayor of the southern city of Kaohsiung, to which he was elected a year ago.

"In this year's presidential election, if Han Kuo-yu has taken even one cent, he will immediately drop out of the race,"

he told reporters.

Wang said the Chinese Communist Party under President Xi Jinping "infiltrates all countries in areas such as military, business and culture, in order to achieve its goal", the Age added.

He also gave Australia details of the kidnapping of a Hong Kong bookseller taken to the mainland and interrogated on suspicion of selling dissident materials, the paper said.

Anthony Albanese, the head of Australia's opposition Labor party, said Wang may have "a legitimate claim" for asylum and the government needed to protect national sovereignty. The party will seek a government briefing next week, he added.

Australia will always stand up for its national interest, Frydenberg said.

"The government makes no apologies for the measures we have taken to ensure that we have foreign interference laws in place."

The government set out guidelines this month, including the sharing of cyber intelligence with national security agencies, in a bid to keep foreign powers from exerting influence in Australia's universities.


(Additional reporting Cate Cadell in Beijing and Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)