Op-Ed: Defecting Chinese spy in Australia — A big mess in progress

Posted Nov 23, 2019 by Paul Wallis
A Chinese spy who claims to have managed espionage activities in Australia has really stirred up a hornet’s nest of anti-Chinese responses. His testimony so far has confirmed many suspicions. The big question is what to do about it.
The defection of the apparent spy could cause further tension between Australia and China
The defection of the apparent spy could cause further tension between Australia and China
Wang "William" Liqiang made an approach to Australia’s counter-intelligence agency, ASIO, and is seeking asylum in Australia.
Wang claims to have been involved in quite a long list of activities, including information regarding:
• Military intelligence activities
• Kidnappings and rendition of kidnapped people to China
• Cyber army work online
• Energy sector operations
• Political donations (a very sensitive subject in Australia)
• Assassinations on Australian soil
• General espionage, unspecified so far
• Infiltration of Hong Kong protesters and Taiwanese groups
• Names and identities of Chinese operatives
Assuming all of this to be true, which hasn’t yet been confirmed, this is a virtual template of longstanding accusations against China. Documented proof of Chinese activities of this type are a godsend to the many anti-Chinese factions in politics, business, and the intelligence community around the world.
Nobody in Australia is too surprised at the depth and range of Chinese activities, real or alleged. We knew about most of these things years ago, without so much detail.
It’s also unclear what specifically motivated Wang, who’s a young guy, to this sudden decision to defect. It’s quite unlikely he just thought it was a nice day so he’d move to Australia. Wang is apparently a relatively senior Chinese operative, so why all this, and why now?
Forget the movies - It’s very much out of character for any agent to suddenly turn in the opposite direction. It’s also very likely to be a fatal move for real spies. Of the hundreds of thousands or millions of people are involved in intelligence worldwide, less than1% have so openly changed sides over the decades.
The Cold War, unenthusiastically revisited
Also surprising is the almost perfect Cold War template of activities Wang says the Chinese are conducting. This revelation comes at a time when China and Australia have a notably cooler relationship than usual, due to various issues across everything from the Uighur human rights issue to influence peddling, cyberespionage and most of the other usual suspects.
The current range of abrasive ongoing issues hasn’t made talking to China any easier, or, apparently any safer. Wang has effectively supplied confirmation of Australia’s various negative positions with China, just at the right time.
Exactly how modern China expects Cold War tactics to work in the modern environment would be interesting to know. On the face of it, every effort seems to be being made to provide Western countries with excuses not to do business with China. China is being very flat-footed in many areas. From the South China Sea islands to political interference, it’s hard to imagine a more openly hostile policy platform.
It’s also a pretty grotesque, almost farcical, situation. What’s surprising is the very clear lack of sensitivity on the part of China if these allegations are true. It appears nobody in Beijing takes the likely reactions to these revelations seriously.
China appears to assume it can operate without detection, and without consequences. China’s real power, however, is economic, not military or political. People want to do business with China, but can take or leave, mostly leave, the global campaign of covert nuisances. China is probably looking at the trade issues as their best protection against hostile responses.
Maybe, maybe not. It’s not like other countries don’t know about these activities, in fact they know quite a lot. So many blatantly hostile acts can’t go unnoticed. If Wang’s story is confirmed, it will give anti-Chinese elements in governments around the world a lot more ammunition on subjects they’ve been talking about for decades.
China, meanwhile, has stated that Wang is a “fraudster”, which indicates he’s at least known to the Chinese authorities in some way. Again, a mixed signal which, if refreshing for its departure from the “we know nothing” angle, could also be interpreted as a rather odd way of denying Wang’s allegations. They know all about him, he’s a fake, but what about the allegations?
Australia. China, the United States, the world, and a very unpredictable shared future
Australia is in the not-all-that enviable position of having the US as a major ally and China as a major trading partner. We also have very strong organic links through businesses and millions of family connections with both countries.
The last few years of US/China bickering haven’t helped disentangle and normalize the far too many issues constantly in view. US hostility to China started long before Trump, and it’s simply ramped up since. Chinese opacity on foreign policy and endless cyberwar issues have infuriated quite a lot of people worldwide, let alone in Australia, where plague-like numbers of issues are regularly reported.
The sheer ineptitude of some Chinese moves is another problem. A simple housekeeping exercise would be quite sufficient to tidy up many of the issues in Australia raised by Wang, but the big picture still looks grim.
For example:
• Why does China feel the need to indulge in these exercises at all? There are endless other ways of getting information and achieving influence without such antics.
• Geopolitical issues aren’t resolved by antagonizing other countries, particularly countries where being anti-Chinese is becoming fashionable. Quite the opposite, the antagonism simply cause hostile responses.
• The world isn’t anti-China, at least not yet. The American anti-Chinese groups were equally clumsy, and equally ignorant of trade and many other needs affecting other countries. They also seem to be ignoring the fact that creating an “us or them” scenario simply annoys people. They still are ignoring these things, much to the disgust of some of us allies. So why is China going to such lengths to prove its enemies have a case?
• The very regular claims of brutality and violence against so many different groups are a definite own goal for China. Assassinations and kidnappings are hardly recommendations for closer ties with other countries.
China of all nations should be aware that the future is coming, fast, and that the future is rarely predictable. Typically, the future is dangerous and includes many unexpected issues. In coming years, the global economy will change drastically, beyond recognition. Basic daily life, let alone trade, will be severely disrupted and converted into a totally different environment.
Sabre-rattling and espionage melodrama will have very little impact on this massive global existential reboot. Now is not the time for anyone to create hostilities. A myopic, dogmatic approach to the rest of the world cannot possibly help China.
China is committed to major economic infrastructure, and maintaining a strong domestic economy which can be totally and quickly disrupted by future economics and different ways of trading. Espionage and political social engineering may be nice hobbies, but are barely if at all relevant to critical emerging economic realities. Like the US, China’s current methods of doing business have a clear expiry date, circa 2030.
The China/US dichotomy could become totally obsolete pretty quickly. Time is running out for the super powers to get their act together. This idiotic new Cold War has to end, for everyone’s sake. Too many wrong moves are being made; too many digressions from practical world geopolitics are becoming immovable obstacles.
Mr Wang will have at least one future claim to fame – He’s encapsulated the entire range of issues affecting China’s relationship with the world. He has a fair chance of asylum in Australia, due to probable high risk if he returns to China. He also has a good chance of becoming an icon of the high-paying anti-Chinese groups around the world. Good outcome for China? Not very.