The Director-General of Security, Mike Burgess, has released a statement confirming ASIO has been “actively investigating” allegations of several instances of China’s government actively interfering with Australia’s democratic process.
The allegations refer to reports of an Australian national, Nick Zhao, who was reportedly being planted in the Liberal Party by the Chinese government before he was found dead earlier this year in a Melbourne motel, as well as a Chinese spy, Wang Liqiang, defecting to Australia and providing sworn statements to ASIO about Beijing's interference in foreign governments.
"The reporting on Nine’s 60 Minutes contains allegations that ASIO takes seriously," the release from Burgess said.
"As the Director-General of Security, I am committed to protecting Australia’s democracy and sovereignty.
"Australians can be reassured that ASIO was previously aware of matters that have been reported today, and has been actively investigating them.
"However, in accordance with long-standing practice, I will not comment on this particular operational matter, including any detail of the individuals involved.
"Given that the matter in question is subject to a coronial inquiry, and as not to prejudice our investigations, it would be inappropriate to comment further. Hostile foreign intelligence activity continues to pose a real threat to our nation and its security. ASIO will continue to confront and counter foreign interference and espionage in Australia."
Zhao, a car dealer, was apparently known to several MPs, including Andrew Hastie, chairman of the Parliament's intelligence and security committee.
"I heard that he was a 32-year-old Melbourne resident cultivated by the Chinese government to run as a Liberal Party candidate in the Commonwealth Parliament," Hastie said in the report.
Zhao is alleged to have told ASIO about the plot, before being found dead in his hotel room in March.
Meanwhile, following Wang's attempted defection to Australia, he has unsurprisingly been labelled a conman by Beijing, and is wanted by Chinese authorities for fraud.
It's understood that Wang has outlined a number of espionage missions he has personally undertaken across the globe, and alleges that China has ordered overseas assassinations in several countries, including Australia.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison's office also issued a statement regarding the allegations of foreign interference and espionage.
"We have taken strong action to equip our intelligence and security agencies to protect Australians and our institutions, including appointing the first National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator, establishing the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme and establishing the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce," the statement said.
These stunning reports come after the last director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Duncan Lewis, issued a stern warning to the country, noting foreign interference as the biggest threat to our shores.
“It’s my view that currently, the issue of espionage and foreign interference is by far and away the most serious issue going forward,” the retired director-general said in a speech at the Lowy Institute Forum.
“Terrorism has never been an existential threat to established states – for weaker states, yes, but for a place like Australia, terrorism is not an existential threat to the state. It is a terrible risk that our populations run and it is a very serious matter which must be addressed every day: the counter-espionage and foreign interference issue, however, is something which is ultimately an existential threat to the state.”
The former ASIO boss also noted that it is important to conduct counter-measures to foreign interference in a diplomatic manner.
“You can very quickly get to the point where you can vilify the many for the actions of the few … in the counter-espionage and foreign interference space, one needs to be careful that we don’t vilify some of our minority communities here, who are doing wonderful work, and are great Australians,” Lewis said.
“I think getting this balance between zeroing in on those who would wish us harm but at the same time not vilifying the rest of their demographic or their community is very important.”
Foreign interference has been a clearly recognised issue by Parliament for years, as shown in their own words in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.
“The government is concerned about growing attempts by foreign governments or their proxies to exert inappropriate influence on and to undermine Australia’s sovereign institutions and decision-making,” the Foreign Policy White Paper reads.
“Such attempts at foreign interference are part of a wider global trend that has affected other democracies. Foreign interference aims to shape the actions of decision-makers and public opinion to achieve an outcome favourable to foreign interests.
“Likewise, ensuring Australia’s business interests and intellectual property are not subject to theft through espionage is important to our national interests. The government endeavours to prevent state-sponsored actions that harm our economic and commercial interests.”