The agent, or “puppeteer”, had hired someone in Australia and endowed him with hundreds of thousands of dollars from an offshore bank account in an attempt to “shape the jurisdiction’s political scene for the benefit of the foreign power,” Burgess continued. “It was like a foreign interference start-up.”
The head of ASIO – akin to the FBI in the United States – was careful not to mention the foreign power, the political party targeted or the location in Australia. But like a blurb for a spy novel, its deliberately vague account of the foiled plot only sparked additional interest. And just months away from what promises to be a close federal election, the speech immediately became fodder for the government’s ferocious attacks on the opposition.
“We now see evidence that the Chinese Communist Party – the Chinese government – has also made a decision on who it will support in the upcoming federal election,” Defense Minister Peter Dutton told parliament the following day. “And they chose this guy, the leader of the opposition, as their candidate.”
The attacks – which critics have likened to a Cold War-era scare campaign – escalated after local media reported the plot involved China targeting federal Labor candidates in NSW , ahead of this year’s elections.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the ruling Liberal Party on Wednesday went so far as to refer to Labor leaders as “Manchurian candidates” – a comment he was later forced to withdraw.
The alleged plot and subsequent political haywire dominated headlines for more than a week in Australia, where anti-China sentiment has risen in recent years amid a chilling economic and diplomatic stalemate. Beijing launched an informal trade war against Canberra in early 2020 after officials Down Under called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
The relationship soured further in September when Australia announced a deal with the United States and Britain to secure nuclear-powered submarines capable of challenging China’s rapidly growing navy.
China has denied the latest allegation, but it follows a string of other alleged Chinese interference plots that have targeted both major parties in Australia over the past five years.
With Morrison’s conservative coalition trailing in the polls, critics have accused him of politicizing intelligence in a way that is not only misleading but could do more damage.
“The coalition government argues that the opposition is acting as a Manchurian candidate in China. It is simply untenable. It plays China’s game,” said John Fitzgerald, professor of Chinese politics and history at Swinburne University. “Australia is falling on itself in a kind of partisan blame game. No one wins except China.
Labor said it had done nothing wrong, and in his speech Burgess noted that the targeted candidates had no knowledge of the plot. Yet it is Chinese Australians, already the target of growing hate crimes, who could be most affected by the attacks.
“Trying to score political points on the idea that one side of politics has been bought off by China is very detrimental to the community and detrimental to social cohesion,” said Natasha Kassam, an expert at the Lowy Institute and former Australian diplomat to China who interviewed Chinese communities in Australia.
“We have seen so many Chinese-Australians withdraw or withdraw from public life because they feel they are being treated unfairly or subject to additional scrutiny,” she said. “If the Leader of the Opposition is not barred from suggestions that they have been bought off by China, what would any ordinary Australian of Chinese descent think?”
Australia and China were on good terms as recently as 2015, when they struck a free trade deal. But in 2017, the Conservative prime minister who pushed the deal through parliament, Malcolm Turnbull, warned against Chinese interference. That same year, a Labor senator announced he was resigning after accepting money from a Chinese businessman.
In 2019, ASIO announced it was investigating an alleged Chinese plot to infiltrate Parliament after a Liberal Party member who was allegedly approached by Chinese agents was found dead in a hotel room in Melbourne. – an incident later ruled a suicide. And in 2020, a Chinese-Australian with Liberal links became the first person charged under new foreign interference laws. Di Sanh “Sunny” Duong, who said he was charged with conspiring with the Chinese Communist Party, has denied the allegations and is awaiting trial.
In his speech, Burgess said he was deviating from the normally dry format of an annual threat assessment because, with the federal election about three months away, it was “important to explain what interference actually looks like. Politics”.
Some have disputed its timing, which echoed James B. Comey’s decision to publicly announce that the FBI was renewing its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails days before the 2016 US election.
“I think history will probably judge that ASIO’s Chief Executive made a serious error of judgment in releasing this report at this time, so close to an election, because in doing so, albeit without disclosing any detail, he naturally opened an avenue for a multitude of speculation without providing meaningful details about who was involved and all that, but also about the real gravity of the situation, ”said Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.
The day after Burgess’s speech, Morrison moved through Parliament from talking about taxes to warning that Labor leader Anthony Albanese was backed by “those who seek to coerce Australia”.
Albanese called the comments “nonsense” and said Burgess never raised concerns about Labor candidates, which the ASIO leader later confirmed. Turnbull, the former Liberal prime minister, called the attacks “reckless” and a sign of Morrison’s “desperation”.
But the issue took on new life a day later when the Sydney Morning Herald quoted several unnamed security sources as saying the plot involved China targeting Labor candidates in New South Wales – the most populous state in the world. country.
Two federal lawmakers, a Liberal and a Labor, confirmed the outline of the plot to the Washington Post. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss national security issues.
The story threatened to overshadow a visit last week by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken for a meeting of the Quad, a bloc of Indo-Pacific democracies created to counter China’s growing regional influence.
On Monday, Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching named Chinese-Australian political donor Chau Chak Wing as a “puppeteer”. Burgess declined to confirm or deny his claim which, because it was made in Parliament, is exempt from Australia’s defamation laws.
“I am shocked and disappointed by Senator Kimberley Kitching’s baseless and reckless assertion,” Chau said in a statement. “I am a businessman and a philanthropist. I have never been involved or interested in interfering with the democratic electoral process in Australia.
Five years of tensions have left Australians much more wary of China, said Kassam, the former diplomat, “so you can make these very specific claims in Parliament or on breakfast TV and they will resonate in a way that they didn’t a few years ago.”
Still, the Labor Party has largely embraced the government’s policies towards China, including the submarine deal, she said. And while a Labor victory later this year could provide a ‘circuit breaker’ for the rocky relationship, the conspiracy allegation could also lead to a Labor government feeling the need to demonstrate its national security credentials by holding a line. hard.
In its rush to win a political victory, the Australian government ignored its own intelligence chiefs, including Burgess’s own warnings about infighting, said Fitzgerald, the China policy expert.
“It’s critical that we don’t let fear of foreign interference undermine stakeholder engagement or stoke community division,” Burgess said in his speech. “If that happened, it would have the same perverse corrosive effect on our democracy as foreign interference itself.”