Australia’s embassy in Beijing is using a Chinese government agency to recruit senior staff into the consulate, with intelligence insiders warning this practice is the equivalent of paying China to “put spies into our consulates”.
The Australian’s investigation exposing the infiltration of Chinese Communist Party members across foreign embassies and companies has triggered a warning from the US State Department of a “wide array of malign activities that the Chinese Communist Party undertakes to influence our societies”.
The Australian can reveal the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade used the Beijing Service Bureau for Diplomatic Missions — a Chinese government-controlled agency — as recently as last month to hire a head of mission senior adviser and interpreter, reporting to Australian ambassador Graham Fletcher.
In November DFAT engaged the Beijing Service Bureau for Diplomatic Missions to recruit a head of mission senior adviser and interpreter, paying an annual salary of 340,916.33 yuan ($69,256.28) and requested a start date “as soon as possible”.
It comes after ASIO began investigating revelations the CCP had infiltrated the Australian, British and US embassies in Shanghai via a government-sponsored recruitment agency called the Shanghai Foreign Agency Service Department.
An intelligence officer, who declined to be named, told The Australian the employment of CCP members inside consulates was highly concerning.
“Using Chinese government personnel agencies to place CCP members into Australian government posts means DFAT have literally paid them to put their spies into our consulates,” the officer said.
In response to a request for comment on The Australian’s report, the US State Department said it was aware of the database and warned of Chinese foreign influence and interference.
“We are aware of news reports of an allegedly leaked database of Communist Party members but have no additional information to share at this time. However, influence and interference operations are fundamental to how the Chinese Communist Party engages with the world,” the US State Department spokeswoman told The Australian.
“China’s role in the world today cannot be understood without reference to the wide array of malign activities that the Chinese Communist Party undertakes to influence our societies in ways that are covert, coercive and corrupting.”
Calls for investigation
Australian politicians are calling for an “urgent investigation” and demanded an explanation from Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne about DFAT’s use of at least two Chinese government recruitment firms — one of which is running 12 CCP branches, with more than 200 members.
Key crossbench senator Rex Patrick also is seeking to amend Australia’s foreign influence legislation to force Australians to declare membership of any foreign political party, particularly the CCP, warning current laws have “fallen well short” of their objectives.
The Australian’s investigation, based on a leak of official CCP membership records from Shanghai — the first of its kind in the world — also revealed how CCP branches are embedded in global companies, including those holding sensitive defence contracts with the Australian and US governments.
A joint investigation by The Australian on Monday found at least 10 consulates in Shanghai have CCP members employed as senior political and government affairs specialists, clerks, economic advisers and executive assistants.
Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who is a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, said the revelations in The Australian must be investigated immediately.
“The latest revelations should not be a surprise. Beijing is following the doctrine of Sun Tzu, most particularly chapter 13 of The Art of War dealing with the use of espionage and spies,” Senator Fierravanti-Wells said.
“The matter requires urgent investigation, including proper explanations about recruitment processes/vetting. I would support an immediate inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.”
Senator Patrick said he would seek to amend Australia’s foreign influence legislation in the next sitting of parliament to “push for greater transparency concerning the presence and activities of foreign political organisations operating in Australia, especially the CCP”.
“Recent revelations about the presence of CCP members employed by major companies headquartered in or with a presence in Australia, including companies operating in the sensitive banking and finance, information technology, communications and aerospace sectors, underlines the weakness and narrow scope of Australia’s foreign influence transparency scheme,” Senator Patrick said.
“It’s a striking fact that none of China’s various United Front organisations or bodies such as the Confucius Institutes have yet been required to register with the scheme two years after its commencement in December 2018.
“As a first step towards remedying the deficiencies of Australia’s foreign influence transparency arrangements, when the federal parliament resumes sitting in February, I will introduce legislation to amend the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 to make membership of a foreign political organisation, and/or undertaking any activity on behalf of or in association with a foreign political organisation, to be registrable activity in relation to a foreign principal.”
‘State spy ring’
A 2016 job placement advert for a consulate “research, visits and public diplomacy manager” who “reports to the deputy consul general” stated: “The successful applicant will need to meet the requirements of, and be employed through, the Shanghai Foreign Agency Service Department”.
The warnings that the SFASD could be part of a “state-sponsored spy ring” come despite there being no evidence that anyone on the party membership list has spied for the Chinese government.
The CCP, via its mouthpiece the Global Times, has bridled at the revelations from The Australian’s investigation and branded the leak of the database of its members a “massive privacy breach” and “stigmatising and demonising” the CCP.
“Citing ‘exclusive sources’ and ‘leaked documents’ to hype up a topic and manipulate public opinion in order to press the government into implementing certain types of policies, in this case the persecution of CPC members, is a usual trick for Western political forces,” the Global Times reported.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd downplayed concerns about CCP members being installed across foreign consulates, including Australia’s mission, despite saying that in some cases local consular staff also were engaged by Chinese security services.
“I also began life as a career diplomat, working in our embassy in Beijing. Back in those days every foreign mission understood that the provision of what’s called locally engaged staff from the Chinese government were always members of the Communist Party and probably in some cases also engaged by the Chinese security services,” Mr Rudd told the ABC.
“Guess what? Chinese security services may also choose to engage local staff who are not members of the Communist Party. It’s important to bear those things in mind. So how is it handled operationally?
“It’s a pretty simple procedure, and that is foreign diplomatic missions, including Australia’s, have a secure part of the mission and a non-secure part of the mission. And the non-secure part of the mission is where non-sensitive matters are dealt with like visa applications, like passport processing, like Australians who are in search of loved ones who have gone missing or deaths while travelling — in other words the full range of consular responsibilities.
“I’d imagine other Western diplomatic missions do much the same.”
A DFAT spokesman said “robust arrangements are in place to ensure sensitive information and systems are fully protected, regardless of the political affiliations of local staff’’.
All local staff in China were employed through a designated government employment agency.
“Our recruitment, security and risk-management processes are robust. There is a clear distinction in the roles, responsibilities and work of Australians who are posted and locally engaged staff at our embassies and high commissions.
“We value the contributions of our locally engaged staff members.’’