Australia’s anti-foreign interference laws are being tested for the first time, two years after their passage amid warnings of “unprecedented” espionage, amid a probe that has seen authorities raid the homes and offices of a China-friendly state MP and his former staffer.
Searches by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) last week on properties connected to New South Wales Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane and his former staffer John Zhang have focused scrutiny on Canberra’s sweeping counter-intelligence legislation introduced in 2018 amid fears of interference by Beijing.
While authorities have declined to comment publicly, Moselmane’s office is at the centre of inquiries by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) into whether the MP or his staff have been targeted by covert influence operations on behalf of Beijing, according to reports in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, citing anonymous sources.
The stakes are high, in Australia and beyond. A successful prosecution and conviction would add rare legal weight to allegations of Chinese interference in Australian politics and society after years of claims in media and academia, and bolster concerns around the world about Beijing’s growing influence. It would also inevitably place further strain on the increasingly fraught relationship between Canberra and Beijing.
Equally, a failure by authorities to produce sufficient evidence of undue interference would add fuel to accusations that Australia’s concerns about Chinese influence and national sovereignty have at times tipped into the realm of paranoia and Sinophobia.
“I do see this as a watershed case,” said Feng Chongyi, an associate professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, who was briefly detained and interrogated during a visit to China in 2017. “I tend to believe that ASIO and AFP have some solid evidence. Otherwise this action would do serious damage to their reputation. Of course this case will be watched closely around the world, particularly by China.”
It remains unclear what specific offences authorities suspect may have been committed, and by whom. Australia’s anti-foreign interference legal framework – which then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull justified as necessary due to existing laws that were “so unwieldy they have not supported a single conviction in decades” – created nearly 40 new offences, including stealing trade secrets for a foreign government or carrying out any covert or deceptive act to influence the political process on behalf of a foreign government. It also established a mandatory public register for foreign lobbyists.
George Rennie, a politics lecturer and lobbying strategies expert at the University of Melbourne, said “diplomacy lobbying” was common by countries including China and the United States, but there remained grey areas where “there are certain lines you can cross, and it’s hard to detect”.
Greg Barns, national criminal justice spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, said merely praising China or criticising Australia could not be considered a crime. But the law, he said, included offences “relating to the provision of information that is contrary to Australia’s interests or which benefits another country’s interests, which is of course extremely broad and nebulous”.
As well as intending to send a message to Beijing, the raids could reflect Canberra’s concerns about politicians being cultivated by “the prospect of lucrative lobbying contracts when they leave office”, said Clive Williams, a professor at Australian National University who served as Director of Security Intelligence.
Both Moselmane and Zhang are presumed innocent and neither have been charged with or accused of any crime.
On Monday, Moselmane strenuously denied any wrongdoing and said he had been told by authorities that he was not a suspect in the investigation.
“I have done nothing wrong,” he told a press conference in Sydney. “I have never jeopardised the welfare of our country and our people.”
Moselmane said the probe was focused on “certain other people, allegedly advancing the goals of a foreign government” and condemned what he described as a “political lynching”.
The AFP and ASIO declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations, while efforts by the Post to reach Moselmane and Zhang for comment were unsuccessful.
When asked about the case during his regular daily press conference on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said he would not comment on Australia’s domestic affairs, before accusing some Australian politicians of “paranoia, dominated by China-phobia and conjecture”.
“Under the guise of ‘values’, they often make groundless accusations against China in domestic politics, stigmatise and demonise … cooperation with China, and poison the atmosphere of bilateral relations,” Zhao said. “This is totally unconstructive and irresponsible.”
Zhao also claimed there was “irrefutable evidence” of Australian spying in China, without offering examples.
Both Moselmane, who migrated to Australia from Lebanon in the early 1970s, and Zhang have in recent years faced accusations of being too cosy with Beijing.
In April, Moselmane stepped down as assistant president of New South Wales’ upper house of parliament after The Sydney Morning Herald reported that he had penned an article on his personal website praising China’s President Xi Jinping for his leadership in battling the coronavirus. In 2018, he faced heavy criticism after he gave a speech in which he was quoted advocating for China to have “greater control of the global media” and lead a “new world order”.
The MP also came under fire after a yearbook published in 2014 named Zhang, his speech-writer and aide, as a participant in a propaganda training course organised by China’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.
Until last year, Zhang had also served as vice-chairman of the Australia China Economics, Trade and Culture Association (ACETCA), described by a number of analysts of Communist Party influence in Australia as closely linked to Beijing. The ACETCA has strongly rejected accusations it acts as a front for the CCP.
Moselmane and Zhang have also been named in Chinese media reports as a guest professor and researcher, respectively, at the East China Normal University in Shanghai. The university is home to the Australian Studies Centre headed by Chen Hong, an academic and regular critic of Canberra, who in 2018 hosted Moselmane for a discussion which took aim at Australia’s anti-foreign interference laws.
Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, said the authorities would be cautious about ensuring any case was watertight before going forward.
“I suspect that ASIO has prepared this case very carefully and with an eye to making sure that the first case it brings under the counter-influencing laws will succeed,” said Jennings, whose institute is part-funded by Australia’s Department of Defence, the US State Department and Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. “There is no driving operational imperative for them to jump the gun, so I expect they will bring a strong case to our legal system.”
Still, aspects of the investigation so far have raised concerns in some quarters. Media outlets notably had their cameras in place to capture Friday’s raids, suggesting the operation was leaked ahead of time.
“Reasonable questions are raised, such as whether the source of leak saw an opportunity for domestic political gain or to push another barrow they had, such as adding to tensions in Australia’s relationship with China,” said James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute, which was founded with a donation by Chinese billionaire real estate developer Xiangmo Huang and receives support from China Construction Bank.
“This isn’t the first time information on AFP raids has been leaked. In the long term they damage the reputation of these agencies for independence, even if in fact the agencies themselves are not the source.”
Barns from the Australian Lawyers Alliance said the public furore around Moselmane had damaged the MP’s entitlement to the presumption of innocence.
“Mr Moselmane has said he is not the target of the investigation. However that makes the conduct of the AFP and ASIO in this matter somewhat egregious,” Barns said. “Mr Moselmane has been subjected to hysterical media treatment and so even if he were charged, his chances of a fair trial in front of a jury are slim.”
Politicians and political parties could also become less willing to associate with the Chinese community in Australia out of fears of being linked to Beijing, said Yun Jiang, a former public servant in Australia who serves as director of the China Policy Centre, an independent research organisation.
“To play it safe, they would be less willing to hire any Chinese-Australian advisers,” Jiang said. “They may also be less willing to speak publicly against prevailing government policies on China.”
Sometimes the most clever thing to say is nothing at all.