The asylum claims of a self-confessed Chinese spy may be based
on deceit, but its real-world ramifications run far and wide
s the strategic rivalry between the US and China against a backdrop of the escalating trade war has intensified, accusations that China has been meddling in the domestic politics of the US and other Western countries have gained momentum since 2018.
At the frontline of these allegations is Australia, where China has been frequently portrayed as conspiring to meddle in and control Australia’s political system. This is why when Wang Liqiang, a self-proclaimed Chinese spy went on 60 Minutes, a popular TV news program, it immediately made the front pages of mainstream Western media. Wang claimed to have directed espionage activities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, and said he was a high-level operative for China’s intelligence agency.
Wang’s revelation was widely reported to be “explosive,” offering details of China’s oversea espionage activities. Some even compared it to the defection of Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov in 1954, the most significant spy case in Australian history.
But despite the fanfare in the Western media, a closer look at Wang’s story appears to find little to substantiate his claim. Analysts from both within and outside the intelligence community have expressed significant misgivings.
According to Wang’s account and public records, the 27-year-old former art student majored in oil painting at the Anhui University of Economics and Finance from 2011 to 2014. Shortly after graduation, he said he moved to Hong Kong to work for China Innovation Investment Limited (CIIL).
Wang claimed that CIIL serves as a regional center of China’s military intelligence. He said he was recruited in 2015 personally by Xiang Xin, CIIL’s chief executive who Wang said headed China’s regional espionage operation, as a “core member” of Xiang’s team. In the following years, he was tasked with espionage activities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, Wang said.
To many, Wang’s spy career sounds dodgy, as he seemingly lacks any of the right
credentials to be recruited as an intelligence operative. For example, Wang, who married in his early 20s and had a child in 2017, at an age much younger than average university-educated Chinese, is believed to be the least desirable type of candidate to be a spy.
According to Lieutenant General Wong Yen-ching, former deputy chief of Taiwan’s Military Intelligence Bureau, even if Wang was recruited, it is unlikely that China’s intelligence agencies would have allowed his wife and child, who live in Australia, to have gone abroad to live. Wong also said that based on his own experience, Wang’s apparent inability to speak English makes his claim even more dubious.
Wong listed 10 major impossibilities in Wang’s claims, including his lack of military rank, something common among Chinese intelligence officers, and the claim that he worked on multiple fronts regarding Taiwan, Hong Kong and Australia, a taboo for any intelligence operation. In general, Wong said Wang was simply too young and his background too weak to be recruited by military intelligence.
On Twitter, John Power, a journalist from the South China Morning Post, pointed out that the South Korean passport Wang said Chinese intelligence had provided him appeared to be of amateur level, as the English name listed in the passport, “Wang Gang,” a two-character male name, simply does not match its Korean translation, which is a three-character female name, and if translated into English, would be something like “Cao Jing Mei.”
Other than his apparent weak credentials, the lack of concrete information in Wang’s spy story raises other questions. Many Western media outlets claimed that Wang exposed “details” of China’s espionage activities. But missing from Wang’s claims are exact details.
For Wong, the former Taiwanese intelligence officer, Wang offered nothing new from existing news reports and speculation made about China. “It is likely that Wang just compiled this information from news clippings,” he said.
The only verifiable information provided by Wang was his claim that he had witnessed a meeting between Xiang Xin and a group of Australian state and local lawmakers led by Huang Xiangmo, a Chinese billionaire who made the headlines in 2018 after being denied residency in Australia on national security grounds.
As overseas trips made by Australian lawmakers are a matter of public record, by crosschecking these records and the timing of the alleged meeting, one could establish whether the meeting took place, and which Australian lawmakers were present. Unfortunately, Wang did not name any Australian lawmakers, and was elusive about the exact timing of the meeting. It is also intriguing that no Australian media outlet, which are usually enthusiastic about digging out any dealings between Australian lawmakers and Beijing, appeared to be interested in this serious allegation and no one asked further questions about this meeting.
Given the lack of details or verifiable information, many Western analysts are skeptical about Wang’s story. James Kynge, a senior editor at the Financial Times, for example, tweeted that “a lot does not add up about this guy. His story reads like it’s been pulled together from press clippings. And then there is the lack of a real revelation.”
Former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop pointed out that the fact that Wang was let loose by Australia’s intelligence agencies raised “fascinating” questions. “In my experience if they were truly a spy from any nation who was engaged in such high-level espionage, that person would be enveloped in our intelligence community and would be nowhere near the media,” she said.
In response to Wang’s account, Beijing said that Wang was a convicted fraudster. In a statement issued by the Chinese Embassy in Canberra, Beijing said Wang was sentenced to one year and three months in prison for fraud by a court in Fujian Province, his birth province, in October 2016.
It added that Wang is currently wanted in connection with another fraud case by Shanghai police, which opened an investigation on April 9 into Wang for fraudulently obtaining 4.6 million yuan (US$652,000) from a person surnamed Shu through a fake investment project in February. Beijing also said that Wang left for Hong Kong on April 10 using a fake Chinese passport and a Hong Kong permanent resident ID.
On November 27, Chinese State media released a video of Wang being tried for fraud and admitting his crime in a Fujian court in 2016. Video taken of court proceedings is a standard procedure in Chinese trials. According to the Chinese version of the story, Wang has lived most of his life in the Chinese mainland, and only recently fled to Hong Kong after the police launched an investigation into him. To many, Wang is just one of the many who have fabricated stories in order to obtain residency in Western countries.
“I’ve seen so many similar cases,” Wong Yen-ching told media in Taiwan. “Many mainlanders pretended to be democracy activists, and all they wanted was a picture of them taking part in a protest so they could apply for political asylum in the West.”
This practice is particularly prevalent in the US, where making fabricated claims of potential political prosecution by the Chinese government is considered the expressway to a green card, often the only way to stay in the US and an open secret among the overseas Chinese community.
In a 2012 investigation called Operation Fiction Writer launched by US immigration authorities, 3,500 immigrants, mostly Chinese, were found to have won asylum status based on fraudulent claims of persecution, made possible by local lawyers and agents. At the end of 2018, US authorities were reportedly still reviewing more than 13,000 cases of successful asylum applications handled by the convicted lawyers and agents.
As more information becomes available, many in Australia also started to question the authenticity of Wang’s story. According to a report made by the newspaper The Australian on November 28, Wang was put in contact with Australian agencies in early October by Andrew Hastie, head of the parliamentary intelligence committee of Australia who is well-known for his anti-China agenda. But before Australian authorities could make a considered assessment of Wang’s claims, Hastie decided to bring the case to the media.
In the aftermath of the highly publicized allegation, an article written by Sharri Markson in the Daily Telegraph on November 30 cited multiple unnamed sources within the Australian intelligence agency, which said they don’t believe Wang is a Chinese spy “at the level that would add value” to Australia, based on “his young age and the absence of details in the information he provided.”
The article suggested that “it is more likely he was using the guise of a spy as a construct to get asylum or residency in Australia.” Ironically, after Wang declared he wanted to defect, the article conceded that “the Australian government will have little choice but to grant Wang a protection visa,” given the potential consequences of sending him back to China. It warned that whether true or not, Wang’s case will inevitably cause a diplomatic rift between China and Australia.
Wang Liqiang in court
While the real impact on the relationship between Australia and China is yet to be seen, the case has caused major ramifications across the Pacific in Taiwan. Following Wang’s claim, Taiwan authorities detained Xiang Xin, who Wang said was his boss, and his wife Kung Ching at a Taiwan airport. Both Xiang and CIIL have refuted Wang’s allegations, saying that Wang was never an employee at the company.
In the meantime, Taiwan’s ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) started to push for an anti-infiltration law, citing the urgency following the allegation made by Wang. But for the more pro-Beijing opposition Kuomintang Party (KMT), the move is nothing more than a political tool for the DPP to “paint red” its political opponents ahead of the island’s upcoming general election in January 2020.
Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP currently has a comfortable lead of about 20 points in polling over her KMT opponent Han Guo-yu, which was unthinkable just a year ago, when the DPP suffered a landslide defeat in local elections with Tsai’s popularity trailing far behind Han. But as anti-government and anti-Beijing protests struck Hong Kong and continued for more than five months, Tsai has experienced a rebound in popularity by actively portraying herself as the only guardian of Taiwan’s democracy.
On November 30, Chinese authorities announced the arrest of Taiwanese man Lee Meng-chu on charges of illegally providing national secrets and spying for foreign forces, and a Belizean named Lee Henley Hu Xiang on charges of funding criminal activities that harmed national security.
The name of the Belizean man suggests he may be an ethnic Chinese. Belize is one of 15 countries which still maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei rather than Beijing. It is unclear whether the arrests are in retaliation for Taipei’s detention of Xiang Xin and his wife.
But as the mutual allegations of spying activities continue to unfold, what is clear is that regardless of whether Wang is a spy or a fraudster, his story will continue to have fallout in regional geopolitics at a time of growing distrust between China and the West, as well as across the Taiwan Strait.