MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia is investigating allegations that China tried to install an agent in a parliamentary seat in Canberra, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization said in a rare statement, adding it was taking the matter seriously.
FILE PHOTO: Tourists walk around the forecourt of Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo
The spy agency issued the statement late on Sunday after allegations were aired on Australian television that a suspected Chinese espionage ring offered A$1 million ($679,000) to pay for a Melbourne luxury car dealer, Bo “Nick” Zhao, to run for a seat in Australia’s federal parliament.
“The reporting on Nine’s Sixty Minutes contains allegations that ASIO takes seriously,” ASIO Director-General of Security Mike Burgess said in the statement.
“Australians can be reassured that ASIO was previously aware of matters that have been reported today, and has been actively investigating them,” he said.
Officials at China’s embassy in Canberra were not immediately available for comment.
Zhao told ASIO about the alleged approach from another Melbourne businessman about a year ago, the Sydney Morning Herald said in the joint report with 60 Minutes and The Age newspaper, citing Zhao’s associates and Western security sources.
Zhao was found dead in March in a Melbourne motel room.
ASIO’s Burgess said he would not comment further and that the matter was subject to a coronial inquiry. He said he was committed to protecting Australia’s democracy and sovereignty.
“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,” his statement said.
Resource-rich Australia’s ties with its most important trading partner China have deteriorated in recent years, amid accusations that Beijing is meddling in domestic affairs.
The latest allegations followed separate reports that a Chinese defector who said he was an intelligence operative gave a sworn statement to ASIO detailing how China funds and conducts political interference in Taiwan, Australia and Hong Kong.
Responding to those reports, police in China’s financial hub of Shanghai said on Saturday that the “so-called China spy” was a 26-year-old convicted fraudster from the eastern province of Fujian.
Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Daniel Wallis