Australian authorities are investigating claims a man who mysteriously died in March this year had been approached by a Chinese espionage ring to stand for the country's national parliament.
Sources with knowledge of the alleged plot understand the suspected intelligence group offered one million dollars to fund the campaign of Liberal Party member and Melbourne car dealer Bo “Nick” Zhao, 32, to run for the seat of Chisholm.
Mr Zhao reported the alleged plot to ASIO, Australia’s intelligence agency, and was later found dead in his hotel room. Local investigators are yet to determine a cause of death.
Scott Morrison. the Australian prime minister, said Monday that allegations were "deeply disturbing and troubling, " and that "Australia is not naive to the threats that it faces."
"The government has never been more determined to keep Australians free and safe from foreign interference," Mr Morrison told reporters. "I would caution anyone leaping to any conclusions about these matters."
ASIO director-general of security Mike Burgess issued a statement in which he said the agency "takes seriously" the allegations reported by Australian newspapers The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald about Mr Zhao.
It is also looking into claims by defector Wang Liqiang, who has told Australian authorities he worked as a Chinese spy in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“Australians can be reassured that ASIO was previously aware of matters… and has been actively investigating them. 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,” Mr Burgess said. Government backbencher Andrew Hastie, also a member of the Liberal Party, was briefed on Mr Zhao’s death as chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security.
He told the 60 Minutes program that the case was “like something out of a spy novel happening in Melbourne with impunity”. Mr Hastie, a combat veteran with the elite Special Air Service, said Australians should be “very concerned” about the alleged plot.
“This isn’t cash in a bag… this is a state-sponsored attempt to infiltrate our parliament,” he said.
Paul Monk, the former head of China analysis for Australia's Defence Intelligence Organisation told Sky News: “The Putin government in Russia have murdered several people who have spilled the beans… and the Chinese community intelligence is more ambitious and larger than that of Putin”.
Gladys Liu, who was the Liberal Party’s eventual - and successful - candidate for the seat of Chisholm in May, confirmed in September that she held membership of the Guangdong Overseas Exchange Association, linked to China's foreign interference operations, within 24 hours of claiming she could not recall being a part of it.
Ms Liu issued a statement in which she said she held an honorary role with Association in 2011 but no longer had any association with it. At the time, the organisation reported directly to Beijing's State Council.
On Monday crossbench senator Rex Patrick said a "shadow" continued to hang over Ms Liu.
“There is a shadow and where there's a shadow, light can solve issues to make sure that people are absolutely confident in MPs,” he told local media.