In February 2020 Australia was told that an unnamed foreign country had established an enormous intelligence operation there, and that foreign intelligence activities in Australia had reached levels surpassing anything seen during the 1947-1991 Cold War. These revelations had some weight because they were delivered by Mike Burgess, the new head of ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organization), which is similar to the American FBI or British MI5. The new ASIO chief was somewhat different than his predecessors in that his entire career was intelligence related. Before taking the ASIO job he spent 20 years with ASD (Australian Signals Directorate), which is similar to the American NSA. He actually retired from ASD in 1995 after 18 years and spent 22 years in non-government jobs, mostly involving cyber-security. Then in 2017, he returned to government work as head of ASD for two years. Appointing Burgess to head ASIO (for a seven year term) was somewhat controversial because previous chiefs were deliberately chosen from among non-intel backgrounds. That meant career military, diplomatic and other government veterans. Before Burgess ASIO had been run by a retired army general with a background in special operations.
What seemed to make Burgess the ideal candidate this time around was his long experience with “Five Eyes”, the post-World War II intel cooperation group consisting of the U.S., Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Five Eyes Intel agencies shared an unprecedented amount of intelligence on foreign threats during the Cold War. The main threat was Russia (Soviet Union) and its allies, especially the Warsaw Pact and China. After the Soviet Union, and most other communist governments collapsed between 1989 and 1991, the Five Eyes gradually shifted its primary attention to China, Islamic terrorism and cyber-security. Burgess had a lot of experience dealing with all three threats and his work with Five Eyes gave him a broader perspective. His recent disclosure that Australia was subject to enormous foreign intelligence activity and efforts to manipulate Australian public opinion government decisions was based on his extensive knowledge of all these foreign activities.
The Five Eyes nations do not always agree on how to interpret and react to foreign intel activities in their own countries or those of the other four. Then there is the agreement to maintain secrecy about Five Eyes efforts, if only because a lot of these intelligence collecting operations were successful in part because opponents, from the Cold War to the present, often did not know how many of their secret operations were not so secret. Australia was a unique case because of the economic growth of China since the 1980s was a key element in the decades of sustained economic growth Australia has enjoyed. Australia was a major source of raw materials and other goods for China. In return, China expected “respect”, which often meant muting criticism of less savory Chinese activities. That led to the current revelations by Burgess of unprecedented intel and manipulation by a foreign power that he did not name but was clearly China. Australia, or at least Australian media, has been less reticent about naming names and countries responsible. While some of that was just headline mongering to pay the bills, a lot of these news stories had a basis in truth. Burgess was apparently seeking permission to go public with some of what Australian intel and law enforcement already knew without the bothersome requirement of being discreet about identifying the country behind a lot of it.
An example of how this works occurred two months after Burgess took over ASIO. In November 2019 an Australian resident from China named Liqiang Wang, known locally as William Wang came forward and claimed to be a Chinese intelligence officer who wanted to defect and obtain asylum. This was a first for China, which has thousands of such intel professionals operating in Western nations overseeing rapidly expanding Chinese espionage operations. China has lost some of these operatives in the past and ASIO soon concluded that Wang was involved with these Chinese operations but at a much lower level than he claimed. Wang is still in Australia and apparently being protected from threats that are unpublicized. China wants Wang returned to China, as a common criminal. This is an approach China takes for any Chinese citizen they want removed from the public eye.
Wang brought with him some knowledge of Chinese intel and influence operations in Australia and elsewhere in the region. The problem was verifying enough of it to support what cannot be verified. Many items that Wang brought up, and were made public, were not exactly top secret but did annoy the right people in China and other East Asian countries where China also has major espionage and influence operations.
Like many Cold War era defectors from the Soviet Union, Wang will always be at risk of prosecution or assassination by China. Defectors or simply detractors like this can do major damage to foreign intelligence operations. Wang provided revealing, but not really unknown, details about Chinese intel operations inside Australia. This included aggressive efforts to control public opinion and protect Chinese interests. Before Wang came forward, Australia had detected Chinese efforts to use economic clout, combined with clandestine media and public opinion manipulation to keep Australia compliant and cooperative with whatever China wanted, even if some of these goals were not in Australis’s best interests. Wang offered similar information about Chinese clandestine operations in neighboring nations as well as the current crisis in Hong Kong. Again it appears that Wangs’ disclosures were merely the insights of a low-level operative who could better connect many of the pieces that foreigners had a hard time doing.
Of more immediate interest was details of how China planned to interfere with national elections in Australia and Taiwan. Wang named some names and revealed how Chinese controlled companies acted as recruiters of Australians who might be inclined to adopt pro-Chinese attitudes or a less anti-Chinese outlook. Much of this had long been suspected by some Australian officials but without evidence, those suspicions were never a real threat to Chinese intel operations. It is now believed that ASD and ASIO did have a lot of evidence, but lacked permission to act on it. Wang described how Chinese Cyber War operations (hacking and Internet media influencers) worked in Australia and Burgess had a lot of experience trying to cope with that. Wang also provided details of how this worked in Hong Kong where those subversive operations played a major role in triggering the current popular demonstrations. Wang was thought to be providing details that could lead to indictments and prosecutions of Australians who were actively working for China. Wang insisted that these operations have over the years used the same playbook that is applied throughout the world, especially in the United States and Europe. One thing is for certain, all this has proved devastating for Chinese clandestine operations. Wang himself sounds too good to be true but the new ASIO chief came forward with the confirmation of several Wang accusations against China.
Chinese espionage efforts are increasingly being detected in many Western countries. In the last few years, the United States has been indicting, prosecuting and convicting a growing number of Chinese-born men (and a few women) conspiring to commit, or who had already carried out, economic espionage in the United States. Some of these suspects are naturalized American citizens but a growing number are Chinese citizens here on legitimate visas. This is the sort of thing Wang claims has been going on in Australia.
By 2012 most American officials had come to openly admit that a whole lot of American military and commercial technical data has been stolen via Chinese Internet (and more conventional) espionage efforts as described by Wang. Details of exactly all the evidence of this are unclear, but apparently, it was pretty convincing for many American politicians and senior officials who had previously been skeptical. The Chinese efforts have resulted in most major American weapons systems having tech details obtained by the Chinese, in addition to a lot of non-defense or dual-use technology. It’s not just the United States that is being hit but most nations with anything worth stealing. Many of these nations are noticing that China is the source of most of this espionage and few are content to remain silent any longer.
It’s no secret that Chinese intelligence collecting efforts since the late 1990s have been spectacularly successful. As the rest of the world comes to realize the extent of this success, there is a growing desire for retaliation. What form that payback takes remains to be seen. At the moment more scrutiny is making it more difficult for the Chinese to operate but is not stopping them.