Canberra has been trying to neutralise China’s influence by banning foreign political donations and all covert foreign interference in domestic politics.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday that allegations of a Chinese plot to plant an agent into Australia’s Parliament are “deeply disturbing and troubling.”
The Nine Network on Sunday aired explosive accusations that suspected Chinese operatives had offered Melbourne luxury car dealer Bo “Nick” Zhao $679,000 (1 million Australian dollars) to run as a candidate for a parliamentary seat in Melbourne.
The 32-year-old was found dead in a Melbourne hotel room in March after reportedly approaching ASIO, Australia’s counterespionage agency. Police have been unable to determine how he died.
“The government has never been more determined to keep Australians free and safe from foreign interference,” Morrison told reporters. “I would caution anyone leaping to any conclusions about these matters.”
ASIO Director-General of Security Mike Burgess said late Sunday that the allegations are serious.
"Hostile foreign intelligence activity continues to pose a real threat to our nation and its security,” he said. “ASIO will continue to confront and counter foreign interference and espionage in Australia.”
Parliamentary intelligence committee chief Andrew Hastie called for an investigation into Zhao’s death.
"This isn't just cash in a bag, given for favours. This is a state-sponsored attempt to infiltrate our Parliament using an Australian citizen and basically run them as an agent of foreign influence in our democratic system," he told the Nine Network.
Earlier this month, Hastie said he and fellow Liberal Party member Senator James Paterson had been barred from entering China for a study trip because of their criticism of the Chinese government.
The latest revelations are set to test already frosty relations between Australia and China.
They come days after a self-confessed spy seeking asylum in Australia reportedly gave ASIO inside intelligence on how Beijing conducts its interference operations abroad and revealed the identities of China’s senior military intelligence officers in Hong Kong.
Wang “William” Liqiang provided detailed accusations of China infiltrating and disrupting democratic systems in Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. He would be the first Chinese intelligence operative to blow his cover.
China attempted to discredit Wang, saying Sunday that he is a convicted fraudster wanted by Shanghai police.
“He's in Australia. And we have the rule of law in Australia,” Morrison said of Wang, who is living in Sydney with his wife and infant son on a tourist visa. “And as a result then you can expect the same protections to apply to anyone who is living in our country, whether on a visa or any other arrangement.”
China is also widely suspected of being behind major intrusions into the computer systems of Australia's parliament and a university with close ties to t he government and security services.
But Beijing has previously angrily denied allegations it was covertly meddling in Australian affairs.
The Australian government has been trying to neutralise China’s influence by banning foreign political donations and all covert foreign interference in domestic politics.
Resource-rich Australia relies on China for one-third of its export earnings.