A Chinese spy believed to be the first operative from the country to blow his cover has revealed unprecedented details about how he says Beijing’s spies are infiltrating Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
Wang “William” Liqiang, is seeking asylum in Australia after where he has offered a trove of confidential information about alleged Chinese political interference operations in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia.
In interviews with the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes, Mr Wang described how he was tasked by military intelligence officials to collect information related to pro-independence activists in Hong Kong.
The city’s universities, two of which have been the scene of fierce standoffs between riot police and protesters over the past two weeks, were a key focus of operations. Mr Wang claimed his organisation had “infiltrated into all universities, including student associations and other student groups.”
He was responsible for recruiting mainland students by luring them with scholarships, travel grants and an education foundation.
“I influenced them with patriotism, guiding them to love the country, love the Party and our leaders, and fight back strongly against those independence and democracy activists in Hong Kong,” he told the Age.
Some students were directed to pretend they supported the independence movement in order to spy on activists and make their personal data public.
In another alarming claim for the island of Taiwan, Mr Wang said his Chinese handlers issued him with a fake South Korean passport to travel there to manage a “cyber army” and to support China’s campaign to infiltrate its political system and meddle in its municipal and presidential elections.
China wants to annex Taiwan, a democracy of 23 million which operates like any other country with its own government, military and currency.
Taipei has consistently accused Beijing of trying to sway its January presidential election – by poaching from its small group of remaining formal diplomatic allies and by switching off lucrative income from Chinese tourists.
Mr Wang went further, alleging that his intelligence operation was in contact with media executives as part of a systematic influence campaign to topple candidates Beijing considered hostile, including Tsai Ing-wen, the current president.
A spokeswoman for Ms Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party said that the information was a reminder of China’s interference. .
“We solemnly appeal to the Taiwanese public to face up to the fact that whether it is the Chinese internet army or the Chinese government, it is using the democratic system of Taiwan to infringe upon our democracy,” the spokeswoman, Lee Yen-jong, said.
Mr Wang’s political asylum bid is likely to inflame existing tensions between Australia and China over Canberra’s assertions that its most important trading partner is meddling in domestic affairs. Canberra also fears that China seeks undue influence in the Pacific region.
The attempted defection follows a recent warning from Duncan Lewis, the retired ASIO chief, that Beijing was seeking to use “insidious” foreign interference operations to hijack the country’s political system.
Mr Wang is currently hiding in an undisclosed location in Sydney. Australia’s department of home affairs said it did not comment on individual cases.
Anthony Albanese, the opposition leader, said the reports were “of real concern” and that Mr Wang may have “a legitimate claim for asylum.”
The Age reported that Mr Wang admitted to ASIO, the Australian intelligence agency ,that he had “personally been involved and participated in a series of espionage activities” and said that he had met the head of a deep-cover spy ring operating with impunity in Australia.
He fears he will face certain detention and possible execution if he returns to China.
China’s Foreign Ministry and ASIO declined to publicly comment on his unverified claims, which apparently include the identities of China’s senior military intelligence officers in Hong Kong, and sensitive details about how Beijing covertly controls listed companies to fund intelligence operations.