Saturday, May 25, 2024

Secret Chinese spying operations

 Secret Chinese spying operations


Former spy for China's secret police reveals operations targeting dissidents in Australia and overseas


The inner workings of China's notorious secret police unit and how it hunts down dissidents living overseas – including in Australia – have been exposed by a former spy in a Four Corners investigation, raising tough questions about Australia's national security.

It is the first time anyone from the secret police – one of the most feared and powerful arms of China's intelligence apparatus – has ever spoken publicly.

The investigation also found the existence of an espionage operation on Australian soil only last year and the secret return of an Australian resident to China in 2019.

Spy speaks out

The spy — who goes by the name Eric — worked as an undercover agent for a unit within China's federal police and security agency, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) between 2008 and early 2023.

A man sits wearing glasses and a green jacket with a T-shirt featuring The Simpsons just seen underneath
Eric worked as a spy for China's 1st Bureau for 15 years up until last year.()

The unit is called the Political Security Protection Bureau, or the 1st Bureau. It is one of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) key tools of repression, operating across the globe to surveil, kidnap and silence critics of the party, particularly President Xi Jinping.

Eric landed in Australia and walked into the ASIO headquarters. 'I'm a Chinese spy,' he declared

"It is the darkest department of the Chinese government," Eric said.

"When dealing with people who oppose the CCP, they can behave as if these people are not protected by the law. They can do whatever they want to them."

Four Corners has chosen not to publish Eric's full name or the identities of his secret police handlers due to concerns for the 39-year-old's safety.

Eric fled China and arrived in Australia last year where he revealed his history to ASIO, Australia's domestic spy agency.

ASIO declined to comment for this story.

A large red flag with a yellow logo is seen behind some people who are de-identified
The unit Eric worked for is one of the CCP's key tools of repression.()

Eric revealed to Four Corners how China collects intelligence on those it deems enemies of the state – and in some cases the tactics it uses to see them return to China to face prosecution.

He was tasked by his handlers with hunting down dissidents across the globe, sometimes by using elaborate cover stories — once as a property executive and another as an anti-CCP freedom fighter — to try to gain their confidence and lure them to countries where they could be abducted and returned to China.

Four Corners has seen hundreds of secret documents and correspondence that back up Eric's story about his assignments and targets which covered China, India, Cambodia, Thailand, Canada and Australia.

'Secret agents in Australia'

In 2023, AFP officers raided a Sydney location and uncovered a Chinese espionage operation targeting Australian residents.

One of them was Edwin Yin, a political activist whose online videos have targeted President Xi and his daughter.

A man in a black T-shirt with his hair combed back in a darkened room.
Edwin Yin moved to Australia in 2018.()

The AFP spoke to Mr Yin after the raid.

"They told me ... they had disrupted an intelligence agency in Australia," he said.

"They acquired information and material that indicated the CCP was looking for me in Australia through this intelligence agency."

Four Corners understands the AFP's investigation is ongoing.

In 2021, Mr Yin was the victim of a physical attack in Melbourne that left him with a broken nose. Mr Yin thought the two men who attacked him, and a third who filmed it, were Chinese government agents.

"I don't feel safe in Australia," he said.

Two man lunging towards another man carrying a shopping bag. Another man is holding a phone
The attack on Mr Yin was caught on CCTV. ()

Eric was asked to target Mr Yin in 2018.

He told Four Corners he has no doubt Chinese secret agents currently operate in Australia, and that they rely on a network of support organisations and businesses. 

"In an area where there are secret agents, a support system is required so when the agents are dispatched there, they can receive the necessary support," he said.

"They certainly have established a support system in Australia."

YOUTUBEUnmasking the man who's been spying for China

China says it is seeking Mr Yin's return over several financial fraud allegations. Four Corners spoke to one of his alleged victims who maintained the crimes happened.

Mr Yin says he was framed.

China's global reach

Counter-intelligence experts said it was "political security" with which China's vast spying network was most concerned.

Holden Triplett previously led the FBI's office in Beijing where he regularly dealt with the Ministry of Public Security.

"The MPS portrays itself as a police service … but in my mind, they're anything but that," he said.

"Their job is to protect the party's status … and when I say status, I mean control … The party has to remain in control."

Under Mr Xi's rule, that control has become much tighter. Since becoming leader in 2012, Mr Xi has reordered the Chinese security and intelligence services and strengthened the party's grip on the Chinese population overseas.

A man in a suit and red tie looks to the side. Two men with facemasks are behind him.
Xi Jinping has paid close attention to the Chinese population overseas.()

"Now they're heavily engaged in the world, they need resources from all sorts of places," Mr Triplett said.

"So anyone within the Chinese population internally, or in the diaspora … that could threaten the party's control … that's what they would be investigating, opposing and disrupting if necessary."

MPS works with other elements of China's national state security including the country's foreign spy agency, the Ministry of State Security, and the CCP's main foreign influence arm, the United Front Work Department (UFWD).

The UFWD is tasked with increasing China's influence abroad and UFWD-associated community groups exist in virtually all countries where there is a significant Chinese population – including Australia.

"United Front work creates tall grass to hide the snakes," said former CIA analyst Peter Mattis.

"The MPS are some of those snakes."

Citizens returned

Mr Xi has used his anti-corruption campaigns Fox Hunt and Sky Net to return more than 12,000 so-called fugitives to China since 2014. Many were returned in covert operations without the knowledge or permission of local authorities.

As part of Fox Hunt, in 2014 two Chinese police officers covertly entered Australia to pursue and return a Melbourne bus driver. When it was made public the following year, it caused a major diplomatic incident and the Chinese government promised it would never happen again.

In 2019, Chinese officers came to Australia again and returned with a 59-year-old Australian resident.

A statue of a Chinese figure on a street at night
Thousands of Chinese citizens have been returned to China.()

"The MPS sent officials … to Australia to have a so-called heart-to-heart with a female who was then persuaded to come back," said Laura Harth, campaigns director at human rights NGO, Safeguard Defenders.

"They used the [Australian] Chinese consulate-general and embassy to help them."

Four Corners has established that the AFP did approve the 2019 visit, but the Chinese officers didn't follow the agreed protocol and the woman was escorted back to China by them without the AFP's approval.

Do you know more about this story? Contact Four Corners here.

Last month, Safeguard Defenders released a report documenting more than 280 cases of foreign citizens and residents being repatriated to China. The individuals are accused of committing economic crimes.

There were at least 16 successful individual extrajudicial returns from Australia between 2014 and 2023, according to the report, which relied on Chinese state media. Four of those returns took place last year.

"These successful operations — or even the attempts at operations that turn out not to be successful — are a clear violation of Australia's sovereignty," Ms Harth said.

A large building with a white gate and a red flag flying outside
The Chinese embassy in Australia. ()

A spokeswoman for the AFP said it "will never endorse or facilitate a foreign agency to come to Australia to intimidate or force foreign nationals to return home".

"Under Australian law, that is a crime," she said.

"It is an offence for foreign governments, or those acting on their behalf, to threaten culturally and linguistically diverse communities, or anyone else in Australia. This includes harassment, surveillance, intimidation and other coercive measures."

An Australian Government spokesperson said defending against malicious foreign interference was "a top priority".

"Australia's law enforcement and intelligence agencies assess, investigate, disrupt and where possible, prosecute acts of foreign interference."

"The ASIO and AFP-led Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce is actively investigating a range of foreign interference cases."

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

The Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Australia did not respond to detailed questions but after publication called Four Corners' investigation "malicious slander".
Is Canada's Trudeau working for China?

Poilievre says Trudeau is covering for Chinese spies at high-security lab, Trudeau accuses Poilievre of spewing conspiracies

CSIS says scientist fired from Winnipeg disease lab intentionally worked to benefit China

Feb 29, 2024
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to questions from the opposition during Question Period, Wednesday, February 28, 2024 in Ottawa.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to questions from the opposition on Wednesday, February 28, 2024 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Social Sharing

Facing questions about how scientists who were intentionally sharing information with China were cleared to work at a Winnipeg lab studying deadly diseases, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deflected criticism to his chief political rival and accused the Conservative leader of weaponizing national security.

During a Thursday news conference in Thunder Bay, Ont., Trudeau was asked how scientists working on high-security viruses at the Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Lab were able to collaborate with the People's Republic of China.

After a years-long fight for access, the federal government dumped hundreds of pages of documents about the dismissal of Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng. The two were marched out of the facility in July 2019 and were stripped of their security clearances. Their dismissals were announced in January 2021.

The documents show Canada's intelligence agency conducted multiple security screenings and determined Qiu "intentionally" shared scientific information with China, potentially putting people's health in jeopardy.

WATCH | Scientists fired from Winnipeg lab shared information with China, documents say 

Scientists fired from Winnipeg lab shared information with China, documents say

3 months ago
Intelligence documents detail why Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng were fired from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg in 2021.

"Dr. Qiu represents a very serious and credible danger to the government of Canada as a whole and in particular at facilities considered high-security due to the potential for theft of dangerous materials attractive to terrorist and foreign entities that conduct espionage to infiltrate and damage the economic security of Canada," wrote the Public Health Agency of Canada in 2020.

The RCMP says it's still investigating the matter. Trudeau said he's also asked his national security adviser to look into what happened at the lab and to make recommendations.

"We know ... that increasingly countries like China and others are trying to either influence or get secrets out of our country and that's why we have to continue to be extraordinarily vigilant ... to keep our research institutions safe," said Trudeau.

WATCH | National Microbiology Lab researchers should not collaborate with China, Poilievre says 

National Microbiology Lab researchers should not collaborate with China, Poilievre says

3 months ago
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says researchers at the Winnipeg-based lab should not be allowed to collaborate with China.

He then turned his attention to Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who held a press conference earlier in the day alongside MPs James Bezan, the national defence critic, and Michael Chong, the party's foreign affairs critic.

During that news conference, Poilievre accused Trudeau of allowing China to "infiltrate" Canada and covering it up by delaying the release of the documents.

He repeated claims that China backed the re-election of a Liberal minority government in 2021. A public inquiry will resume next month to investigate the breadth of Chinese interference in Canada's past two federal elections.  

Trudeau says Conservatives 'complete ghosts' on Ukraine

Trudeau accused Poilievre of not taking the issue seriously.

"Unfortunately, throughout this process we have seen the Conservative Party, specifically Pierre Poilievre, choosing to spew conspiracy theories and drum up political attacks, partisan attacks, on an issue that quite frankly should be bringing Canadians and parliamentarians together to try and solve this," he said.

"The quickness with which they're looking for partisan advantage is not just undermining Canadians' trust in the system, but interfering with the ability of Parliament to deal with this."

WATCH | Trudeau accuses Conservatives of weaponizing national security 

Asked about Winnipeg high-security lab, Trudeau accuses Conservatives of weaponizing national security

3 months ago
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he has asked his national security adviser to look into what happened at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg and make recommendations. He then pivots to criticize Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, accusing him of spewing conspiracy theories.

Trudeau called out Chong and Bezan as "complete ghosts" on the ongoing war in Ukraine, and on their caucus colleague Leslyn Lewis's petition to pull out of the United Nations.

"The choice to weaponize national security in a way that is rife with conspiracy theories and partisan attacks is a choice that I don't think is worthy of the kind of responsible leadership that Canadians deserve," he said.

Getting the documents released has taken years.

The government initially opposed releasing the bulk of the information, arguing that would be detrimental to national security. Trudeau instead said he would share the documents with the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), which is made up of MPs who are appointed by the prime minister and hold national security clearance.

In June 2021, opposition parties voted to declare the Liberal government in contempt of Parliament. The Liberal government then took the Speaker of the House of Commons to court to get a judge's confirmation that it has the legal authority to withhold documents requested by members of Parliament sitting on a Commons committee. 

Later, a special committee of MPs was set up to review the redactions. While the committee acknowledged some information should remain blacked-out due to national security concerns, it felt other information was being censored to protect government agencies.

The National Microbiology Lab is Canada's only biosafety level-4 lab, located in Winnipeg.
The National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg is Canada's only biosafety level-4 lab. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

"The committee feels the majority of the PHAC material should be lifted. The information appears to be mostly about protecting the organization from embarrassment for failures in policy and implementation, not legitimate national security concerns, and its release is essential to hold the government to account," the MPs wrote.

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