Black ops, abductions and betrayal – a man identified as a Chinese operative who defected to Australia has provided an unverified but chilling glimpse into the life of an apparent spy who came in from the cold.
In interviews with Australian media, Wang “William” Liqiang described how he gave Canberra a trove of intelligence on Beijing’s espionage and political interference activities in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Australia – operations that Wang says he was personally involved in.
The young man seemed an unlikely recruit – hailing from a middle-class family in the southeastern Fujian province, he studied oil painting at university.
But he told Australian news outlets The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, and the TV programme 60 Minutes of his almost accidental slide into the vortex of covert ops, which he initially embraced as a patriotic duty before fear and revulsion compelled him to betray his country.
“To be honest, for a Chinese this was attractive. It paid well and I also felt that I was doing things for the country,” he was quoted saying.
“At the time the word ‘spy’ didn’t cross our minds. We just thought those things were the tasks we needed to do for the country.”
Beginning work in 2014 with a listed Hong Kong company that he says was a front for Chinese military intelligence, Wang said those tasks involved organising the infiltration of universities and media to counter the city’s pro-democracy movement, including through physical or cyber-attacks against dissidents.
Wang told Australian media he personally helped organize the October 2015 kidnapping of Lee Bo, owner of a Hong Kong bookshop that Beijing said distributed dissident materials.
Four other bookshop employees were also spirited away to the mainland that year.
‘Will be dead’
But Wang told Australian media the final straw was an order to deploy this year – under a fake South Korea passport – to Taiwan for covert interference in their 2020 elections, with the aim of toppling President Tsai Ing-wen, whom Beijing despises for her anti-China views.
Wang related staring at the faked passport and feeling as though he stood on a personal precipice, at the bottom of which he saw “a person without (a) real identity.”
Disgusted by China’s ruthless methods, Wang said he turned his back on his homeland, defecting to Australia where his wife was studying and living with their toddler son.
But the personal price will be heavy.
Wang claims his and his wife’s families are loyal Communist Party members – his father was a regional party official – and could now face retaliation.
“Once I was found out, then my safety would be at stake. What would my family, my young son do? Who could protect me?” he said.
“I know very well that China’s Communist Party can never be trusted. Once I go back, I will be dead.”
The first official reaction came late Saturday from Shanghai police, who issued a statement describing Wang as a 26-year-old “unemployed” fugitive who defrauded a business partner of 4.6 million yuan ($653,000). Australian media said he was 27 years old.
Wang was given a suspended 15-month prison sentence in 2016, police said. He was also accused of forging his Chinese passport and Hong Kong residency document.
China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Wang claimed he arrived in Australia in April, spending months moving from house to house, frequently changing his routine and always looking over his shoulder.
The Sydney Morning Herald said Wang was eventually contacted by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
Wang said he gave ASIO a sworn statement in October saying: “I have personally been involved and participated in a series of espionage activities.”
The Herald said that, for now, Wang remained in limbo, awaiting a determination on his request for political asylum.
Wang said he hopes his revelations can help energise the fight for human rights and democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“China’s view of life and the world simply cannot create outstanding talents because it is totalitarianism, it is dictatorship,” Wang was quoted saying.
“I hope that my child and my family can… do something for human beings. I feel that in Australia this can be achieved.”
But he adds: “I really have no idea what this will bring to the rest of my life.”
Meanwhile in DC
A former CIA officer who may have devastated US intelligence collection in China by giving up its network of informants to Beijing agents was sentenced on Friday to 19 years in prison.
Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a naturalized US citizen who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency from 1994 to 2007, was arrested in January 2018 for illegally possessing classified US defense information, which prosecutors alleged he turned over to Chinese intelligence agents.
His indictment said that he was living in Hong Kong in 2010 and began accepting payments from Chinese agents who asked him for sensitive information on the CIA.
But in May, Lee, 55, pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to aid a foreign government, while insisting the government never proved he gave the Chinese any information or accepted $840,000 from the Chinese, as alleged.
“Lee betrayed his own country for greed and put his former colleagues at risk,” said Timothy Slater, assistant director in the FBI’s Washington field office.
“The seriousness of his betrayal and crime is demonstrated by today’s sentencing.”
The case has driven much speculation about what really lies beneath, because it took the government six years from first investigating Lee to arresting him.
But media reports tied it to the catastrophic destruction of the CIA’s web of informants in China between 2010 and 2012.
The New York Times reported in 2017 that the Chinese killed “at least a dozen” sources the CIA had inside China and imprisoned at least six others.
A hunt for a “mole” in the agency led to one person, a “former operative” who in 2017 was living elsewhere in Asia, the Times said.
Lee had been a case officer in China and other countries during his CIA career, which gave him knowledge of its covert collection methods and sources on the ground.
When FBI investigators first honed in on him in 2012, he was living in Hong Kong and had sought to be rehired by the CIA.
The FBI at the time searched his luggage and found data on the US spy agency’s human sources and information they had provided, as well as meeting locations, phone numbers, and secret facilities.
“The information would have been of immense value” to Chinese intelligence, the indictment said.
It also said that between 2010 and 2012 he had received hundreds of thousands of dollars and “taskings” for information from two Chinese agents.
But prosecutors and the CIA never directly accused Lee of betraying the agency’s China network.
They have also never acknowledged publicly that the network was exposed and brought down, though some intelligence experts have confirmed it.
Lee was the third American former intelligence official in a little more than a year convicted of offenses related to spying for China.
Additionally, a Chinese national and former Monsanto employee has been charged with industrial espionage and stealing trade secrets, US officials said.
Haitao Xiang was arrested in June 2017 at an airport with a one-way ticket to China and in possession of software developed by the American agribusiness giant to help farmers improve crop yields, the Department of Justice said in a Thursday statement.
The 42-year-old had worked at Monsanto and its subsidiary the Climate Corporation for nearly 10 years.
The indictment alleges another instance of the Chinese government encouraging “employees to steal intellectual property from their US employers,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Washington was trying to use the case to back its accusations that China steals technology from US companies.
“We resolutely oppose the US side’s attempts to use the case, which we regard as an ordinary, isolated incident, to hype up claims of China’s organized and systematic attempts to steal intellectual property from the US,” Geng said at a regular briefing Friday.
Xiang faces up to 15 years in jail and a $5 million fine for each of the three counts of espionage against him, along with hefty jail terms and fines for three counts of theft of trade secrets.