Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison Reuters

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday, November 25, called the claims involving China's attempts to politically interfere in the federal parliament "deeply disturbing" and stated the country's counter-espionage agency is investigating the matter.

"I find the allegations deeply disturbing and troubling," Morrison was quoted as saying by Reuters adding that the case has boosted Australian security agencies in countering foreign interference. "Australia is not naive to the threats that it faces more broadly," he added.

Chinese 'plot' to install spy in federal parliament

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) stated that an investigation into the alleged Chinese plot to install a spy in the federal parliament had been launched prior to the reports on newspapers and the interview aired on "60 Minutes" on Sunday. "Australians can be reassured that Asio was previously aware of matters that have been reported today, and has been actively investigating them."

According to Chinese defector, Wang "William" Liqiang, he asked the Australian government to grant him political asylum along with his wife and son after he disclosed high-grade details about contentious activities conducted by Beijing claiming he was personally "involved and participated in a series of espionage activities."

Reports revealed the Chinese intelligence offered a "seven-figure sum" to a Melbourne luxury car dealer, Bo "Nick" Zhao, in exchange of spying for China by running for a seat in Australia's federal parliament.

Zhao had approached Asio about proposing to conduct espionage after he was approached from another Melbourne businessman about a year ago, according to the joint aired report by "60 Minutes" and "The Age" citing Zhao's associates and Western human sources.

However, Zhao was found dead in a Melbourne hotel in March. The police investigation of his death has been unable to find any lead to conclude how he died, according to the report.

"Unprecedented" foreign interference

Wang stated that he met a Chinese human source in Australia who suggested to be conducting operations through a front company in one of the country's energy sector. "He told me at the time he is based in Canberra. I know his position is very important," he said.

US Defence
Representational Image. US Department of Defence

Australian intelligence had earlier stated that the number of spies in the country has increased multifold since the cold war and the threat of foreign interference is "unprecedented".

Asio has not commented on Zhao's death except stating that the case required coronial inquiry. Calling "hostile foreign intelligence activity" posing a "real threat to our nation and its security", Burgess said, "Asio will continue to confront and counter foreign interference and espionage in Australia."

Chinese espionage operations

Wang has provided Australia's security agency details of Chinese military officials in Hong Kong and described details of how Beijing funded and conducted operations in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, according to Nine TV.

 A police officer gestures at the photographer as security patrol outside the headquarters of China's banking regulator, to prevent planned protests by investors who lost money from collapsed peer-to-peer (P2P) online lending platforms, in Beijing, China
Representational Image REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

Other reports including the ones published in Sydney Morning Herald newspaper said Wang "revealed in granular detail" about how Beijing uses a list of covertly controlled companies to fund intelligence operations which include surveillance and profiling of dissidents and co-opting media organisations.

Morrison said Wang's allegations and request for asylum will be assessed for its merits, based on any "reasonable fear of persecution in their home country".

China slams 'unemployed' fugitive

China has denied Wang's claims of working as an intelligence officer saying, "the so-called 'Chinese agent' reported by foreign media... is unemployed and is a fugitive." Chinese police in a statement on Sunday accused him of fraud saying "his Chinese passport and Hong Kong resident document were "forged" and authorities were "further investigating the case."

China's state media Global Times on Monday said, "Chinese people would intuitively know that Wang sounds like an opportunistic liar, probably a swindler." Citing his age, the editorial argued that had Wang been in a national security department, he would have been "in a training or intern programme."

"If Australia's intelligence agency really believed Wang, it would have taken secret counter-espionage actions instead of letting the media expose it," the Global Times said.