Would-Be Chinese Defector Details Covert Campaigns in Hong Kong and Taiwan

By Steven Lee Myers and Damien Cave

The claims by an asylum seeker in Australia couldn’t be independently verified, but Western officials are treating them seriously.

Protesters in Hong Kong, driven in large part by anger and fear over the steady encroachment of centralized Communist Party rule.
Protesters in Hong Kong, driven in large part by anger and fear over the steady encroachment of centralized Communist Party rule.Credit...Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

BEIJING — A man claiming to be a disillusioned Chinese intelligence operative has told the Australian authorities that China’s military intelligence agencies were directly intervening in politics in Hong Kong and Taiwan, buying media coverage, infiltrating universities, funneling donations to favored candidates and creating thousands of social media accounts to attack Taiwan’s governing party.

So far, some Western diplomatic officials believe the claims by an asylum seeker named Wang Liqiang to be reliable at least in part, according to two people briefed on the matter. While some of his details appeared speculative and impossible to verify, the officials were taking his claims seriously, the people said.

If verified, his account would be one of the most detailed ever made public of China’s covert measures to manipulate politics and public opinion in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Mr. Wang’s account, a 17-page plea for political asylum in Australia, reads in parts like an espionage thriller. He detailed code names of covert operations, shadowy business ventures and ultimately his dawning disenchantment with what he described as China’s efforts to stifle democracy and human rights around the world.

“I do not want to see Taiwan becoming a second Hong Kong,” he wrote. “And I would not become an accomplice in the conspiracy of turning an originally democratic and free land into autocratic land.”

The office of Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs confirmed receiving Mr. Wang’s statement, which was first reported by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. An English translation was provided to The New York Times by a person familiar with his request for asylum. The people familiar with Mr. Wang’s statement requested anonymity because his allegations are still being investigated.

Mr. Wang’s statement surfaced as protests continue to convulse Hong Kong, driven in large part by concerns over the steady encroachment of Communist Party rule despite Beijing’s pledge to respect the former British colony’s economic and political autonomy.

In his account, Mr. Wang said he was involved with the apprehension by Chinese agents in 2015 of five booksellers in Hong Kong, an incident often cited by demonstrators. He said he received orders “to pay close attention” to one of them, Lee Bo, for his involvement in publishing a gossipy book called “Xi Jinping and His Six Women” that purported to delve into the personal life of China’s top leader.

The statement also emerged only weeks before Taiwan’s presidential election in January. The campaign has already been shaken by allegations of Chinese interference. The governing party has accused China of supporting the opposition party, the Kuomintang.

“I have to repeat that China is factually interfering in Taiwan’s election, and it happens every day,” Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, said on Tuesday as she officially launched a re-election campaign.

Beijing has made no secret of its opposition to Ms. Tsai and her party, the Democratic Progressive Party, which has sought to bolster Taiwan’s political and economic independence. Her challenger is Han Kuo-yu, a populist who was last year elected mayor of Kaohsiung, a city in southern Taiwan, and who has promised to improve relations with the mainland.

According to his account, Mr. Wang himself helped funnel campaign donations of roughly $2.8 million to Mr. Han in the 2018 elections.

“Now that the 2020 presidential election is approaching, China will be putting much more efforts into it,” he wrote.

Chao Chien-min, one of Mr. Han’s policy advisers, strongly disputed the accusations.

“How could Han Kuo-yu dare to casually accept 20 million renminbi in unknown money?” he said. “Does he still want to survive in Taiwan’s political arena? I believe that is impossible.”

Mr. Wang’s allegations seem certain to reverberate widely in Taiwan, in Hong Kong and on the mainland. Although China’s intelligence operations in Taiwan and Hong Kong have long been presumed to be robust, the statement provided an extraordinary amount of detail.

“We had an inkling this was happening, but we have never had evidence or an insider’s account,” Adam Ni, a researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney who has been recently working in Taiwan, said in a telephone interview.

With the elections in Taiwan, for example, Mr. Wang described how the separate branches of China’s military divided up their labors.

Mr. Wang said intelligence efforts included creating more than 20 media and internet companies to launch “targeted attacks,” and spending roughly $200 million over an unspecified period to invest in television stations in Taiwan. His statement did not explain how such a large sum of money failed to be noticed or raise alarms.

The disclosures could also further sour relations between China and Australia, which recently passed a law seeking to rein in foreign interference after several wealthy Chinese businessmen tied to Beijing were accused of trying to manipulate Australian politics.

One of those businessmen, Huang Xiangmo, was a successful developer who had his Australian residency canceled in February. According to Mr. Wang’s statement, Mr. Huang led a group of Australian state and local lawmakers to visit Hong Kong, where they met with Mr. Wang’s boss, a man named Xiang Xin. Mr. Huang, who has previously rejected the claim that he has tried to interfere in Australian politics on behalf of Beijing, could not be reached for comment.

These kinds of connections between Australian lawmakers, Chinese wealth and officials whose Communist Party ties are masked by big business have put much of Australia on edge. Earlier this week, the former head of Australia’s main foreign intelligence agency described China’s espionage efforts as “insidious.”

Mr. Wang described himself as the son of a public servant, but little else is known about him, including his age and hometown. He could not be reached for comment. One clue from his statement is that he studied to be a painter, winning awards in Anhui Province in eastern China.

Seeking a job, he ended up at an investment firm called China Innovation Investment Limited, run by Mr. Xiang. Mr. Wang wrote that the company was in fact a front for an arm of China’s Ministry of National Defense to conduct a range of political and economic espionage.

Mr. Xiang, 54, is an owner or top director at more than a dozen Hong Kong companies. Some of the companies are co-owned by his wife, Gong Qing, whose biography includes positions at two government-tied institutions. One of those was the China National Science and Technology Information Center, a military intelligence organization within the People’s Liberation Army.

Asked to comment, Mr. Xiang denied any knowledge of Mr. Wang. “I never knew Wang,” he wrote in an email.

China Innovation Investments is registered in the Cayman Islands and publicly traded in Hong Kong. The company focuses on both private and public investments related to the “integration of military and civil sectors,” according to company documents. Mr. Xiang is the chairman and Ms. Gong is listed as an alternative director.

The operations in Hong Kong Mr. Wang described occurred before the protests erupted. He said he became disillusioned when he was tasked to travel to Taiwan in May to take part in operations related to the coming election. He received a false identity with a South Korean passport and a predated French visa, which was mailed to him from the National University of Defense Technology in Hunan Province.

His wife, also a painter, moved to Australia to study in 2012, he wrote. After visiting her and their child in December 2018, he decided to defect and seek asylum.

It is far from clear that he will receive it.

In 2005, Chen Yonglin, a Chinese consular official, sought asylum, promising to divulge details of China’s spy network. The Australian government initially rejected his request, prompting a parliamentary inquiry. It found that he was told the denial was “for reasons of foreign affairs.” Mr. Chen’s application was later approved.

Mr. Wang suggested he understood that Australia might again need to be persuaded before standing up for a single defector. He condemned China’s autocratic ways, expressing his “resolute opposition to the actions imposed by the Communist Party of China that trample on democracy, human rights and freedom.”

“If I return to the place under their control,” he added, “I will surely be killed for disclosing the secrets because I know too much.”

Steven Lee Myers reported from Beijing, and Damien Cave from Sydney. Alexandra Stevenson contributed reporting from Hong Kong. Claire Fu in Beijing contributed research.