China Wanted A Spy In Australia's Parliament, Reports Say

Originally published on November 26, 2019 7:33 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How exactly did China allegedly try to put a spy in Australia's Parliament? Australian authorities say China funded a candidate for office, a candidate who later turned up dead in a Melbourne hotel room. Jamie Tarabay is a correspondent for The New York Times based in Australia. She's covering this story. Hi there, Jamie.

JAMIE TARABAY: Hello, Steve.

INSKEEP: And some people will recall your voice from when you were an NPR correspondent. It's good to have you back on the air. Now, who was this man, Nick Zhao, this purported Chinese spy?

TARABAY: We don't know that much about him. What we do know, though, is that he is - he was from Melbourne in - near sort of South Australia, and he was a luxury car dealer. But he was also someone who a federal politician here described as ripe for cultivating. He was in over his head financially. He had been accused of having some sort of fraudulent activities.

And he was essentially - according to this plot, was being offered a million dollars by a Chinese intelligence group, that they would pay for his political campaign to run as the member for an electorate in Melbourne. He was a member of the Liberal Party, which is the coalition in Australia. And they really wanted him to run for a seat there and pay for his campaign and pay his way into federal parliament.

INSKEEP: Wow. Now, was it correct, then, that he approached Australian intelligence officials with this apparent plot and then mysteriously died? Is that - do I have that correct?

TARABAY: That's - yes. I mean, this is exactly what movies are made of. You know, so about a year ago, he went to ASIO, which is Australia's spy agency, and told them about this alleged approach. And he also identified the man that he said had come to him with this proposal. And then earlier this year in March, he was found dead by a cleaner in a motel room. And his death is being investigated right now because, considering all of the issues that were going on with him, it could have been anything. So no one's prepared to sort of say whether it was foul play or not.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm just thinking - Australia is a close U.S. ally. Its intelligence agency works closely with the United States. It's a neighbor of China. I can think of a lot of reasons China would want to know more about what's going on in Australia. But is this alleged plot part of a wider Chinese campaign to gain influence in Australia?

TARABAY: It certainly isn't the first time that Chinese political interference has reared its head, I guess, in Australian politics. We've had at least one sort of very famous example of a federal MP who was being basically given political donations by a very influential businessman. And really, it sort of changed his rhetoric and his political position on things like the South China Sea or, you know, the sort of the status of Taiwan in direct contravention to his own political party's platform. And, you know, eventually, it sort of came out that he had been sort of funded by this person.

So this isn't the first time, and it's likely not to be the last. It's very sort of strategic for China to position itself in this way. Australia came out with foreign interference laws a couple of years ago to really try to circumvent this. So it's definitely an issue that this country is very, very aware of.

INSKEEP: Jamie, always a pleasure talking with you.

TARABAY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's Jamie Tarabay of The New York Times joining us via Skype from Australia.

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