08 Jan 2020
Recant or die: Alleged threat to self-confessed Chinese spy Wang Liqiang
By Alex Joske and Nick McKenzie
A self-confessed Chinese intelligence operative seeking to defect to Australia was allegedly warned on Christmas Eve that he could be sent back to China and killed unless he publicly retracted his story.
Wang Liqiang caused an international scandal in November when he told The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes that he had worked on behalf of a Beijing-directed foreign interference ring targeting independence and democracy movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Mr Wang fled to Australia to seek asylum and assist ASIO.
The Chinese government dismissed his claims as false and said he was a convicted criminal, while ASIO director-general Mike Burgess issued a rare statement saying his agency took claims of foreign interference seriously.
Australian security agencies have now learnt that Mr Wang received the first of a series of threats and inducements on Christmas Eve, according to sources with direct knowledge of the events who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Mr Wang could not be reached for comment and appears to have gone into hiding. However, the sources said he was told in a series of messages that his family would be spared punishment and his debts would be repaid if he gave a public statement retracting his claims about spying for China. The directives sent to Mr Wang appear to have been co-ordinated by a senior political operative in Taiwan and a businessman in China, according to sources and messages sighted by this masthead.
Mr Wang was provided with a script and told to record a video message in which he would falsely claim that Taiwan’s democratically elected governing party, the Democratic Progressive Party, had bribed him to lie by offering him “a large sum of money”. Such a video would be a controversial intervention in Taiwan's presidential election this weekend, where Chinese Communist Party influence and Mr Wang's claims of being ordered to disrupt the election have become a key political issue.
The Australian Federal Police is treating seriously alleged threats to Mr Wang, with sources confirming they opened an investigation in the hours after the first message was received on Christmas Eve.
"The Australian Federal Police is aware of threats made against a man currently residing in Australia," a spokesman said. "The AFP takes threats of this nature seriously and has commenced an investigation."
The AFP also said its Counter-Espionage and Special Investigations Taskforce was targeting "foreign interference activities ranging from covert influence campaigns to traditional espionage".
Taiwan's authorities are investigating Mr Wang's claims in November that he helped run a “cyber army” distributing pro-Beijing propaganda during municipal elections in 2018. One of the Facebook pages Mr Wang nominated as a covert propaganda tool was recently shut down by Facebook. He also said he had been ordered to interfere in the January 11 presidential election and that it was at this point he decided to defect.
Sources familiar with the communications say that on Christmas Eve and over the following days, Mr Wang was told that he must record and release a video retracting those claims and instead implicate President Tsai Ing-wen's Democratic Progressive Party in bribery.
The two men suspected of co-ordinating the directives are controversial Taiwanese political figure Alex Tsai and a China-based businessman called Mr Sun. Mr Tsai is a former legislator and a current deputy secretary of Taiwan's main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), which is opposing President Tsai in the election.
Mr Tsai is regarded as close to Beijing and was arrested and briefly detained in 2017 for alleged embezzlement.
Among the messages Mr Tsai allegedly sent Mr Wang are photos of Mr Tsai meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping. Mr Wang was told that if he followed the directives prior to the presidential election this Saturday he would be welcomed back to China or Taiwan, given financial benefits and have his family protected. If he did not comply, however, he was told he would be extradited to China to face death or even be targeted for reprisals in Australia.
The activity targeting Mr Wang appears aimed at swaying the outcome of Taiwan's presidential election by falsely implicating the governing party in corruption. If the DPP and President Tsai lost the election it would be a major coup for the Chinese government.
The script Mr Wang was instructed to read also includes a line in which he would recant allegations he made against businessman Xiang Xin, who Mr Wang claimed employed him in Hong Kong and led a Chinese Communist Party spy ring.
"About Xiang Xin, he is only an acquaintance I've met one or two times," the script read. "I implicated him and his wife in espionage together because he is the richest person and most high-status person I know."
After Mr Wang's spying claims were aired in Australia in November, Mr Xiang was prevented from leaving Taiwan by national security officials who began investigating him. Mr Xiang, who has deep ties to China's military technology sector, denies all wrongdoing.
The script Mr Wang was told to read states that he had conducted his November interview revealing his Taiwan spy allegations because a person from the DPP had "promised me ... the Democratic Progressive Party would guarantee that it would give me a large sum of money and sort out my asylum application in Australia or help me settle in Taiwan".
'Freely settle in Taiwan'
Sources have allowed The Age and Herald to view some of the messages sent to Mr Wang via intermediaries on various messaging applications. The initial approaches attempted to offer Mr Wang inducements in return for his co-operation. One message said, “if you take up the offer by the end of this month, everyone will help ensure you safely return to mainland China, and at the same time will help you resolve all your debts". Another said: “The KMT has agreed that they can let him freely settle in Taiwan.”
While Mr Tsai appears to have been prepared to offer only inducements to Mr Wang – namely, safe passage to Taiwan arranged by his political party – Mr Sun issued both threats and inducements. Messages obtained by The Age and the Herald also show Mr Sun and Mr Tsai communicating with each other and discussing how to deal with Mr Wang.
Sources alleged Mr Sun warned that Mr Wang could be extradited to China and killed or his family on the Chinese mainland punished if he did not co-operate. It is an offence under Australian foreign interference laws to infringe on the rights of a person in Australia such as an asylum seeker by using bribery or threats in order to advance the interests of a foreign power.
Interviewed on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Tsai said: "I have been in direct contact with Wang. My friend [Mr Sun] has also been in direct contact with him."
Mr Tsai denied acting inappropriately or having any involvement in urging Mr Wang to record a script implicating the DPP in corruption.
"I haven't asked him to put out any statement," Mr Tsai said. However, Mr Tsai sent Mr Sun a message in which he appears to refer to the script Mr Wang was to be directed to record.
Mr Sun said on Wednesday that he had written the script for Mr Wang to read.
Mr Sun described himself as a close friend of Xiang Xin but, contrary to Mr Tsai's interview and messages seen by The Age and Herald, denied being in contact with Mr Tsai.
While Mr Xiang has denied knowning Mr Wang, Mr Sun said the pair had met "once or twice". Mr Sun also confirmed that Mr Xiang had worked for the Chinese military. Mr Sun denied threatening Mr Wang or his family.
Mr Wang’s November television interview sparked a political firestorm in Taiwan. The Chinese government is seeking to reunify Taiwan with the mainland despite fierce opposition from the ruling DPP, and Chinese influence in Taiwan has become a key political issue.