Australian politician’s house was raided in investigation into Chinese influence

SYDNEY, Australia – Australian authorities raided the home and office of a federal lawmaker on Friday as part of a thorough investigation into allegations of a Chinese government plot to manipulate Parliament’s politics and policy.

Shaoquett Moselmane, a Labor politician from a Sydney suburb, recently praised China’s top leader Xi Jinping for his response to the coronavirus pandemic, a message strongly at odds with the Australian government’s subsequent call for a global investigation into the origins of the outbreak.

Australia’s national security agency confirmed that a search warrant had been executed as part of an ongoing investigation, and Labor Party leaders quickly announced that Moselmane’s membership would be suspended. Authorities have not released any evidence of illegal activities by Mr. Moselmane, who could not be reached for comment.

The case is the first high-profile criminal investigation into Chinese influence peddling to be made public since Australia passed a set of foreign interference and espionage laws two years ago. The measures were directly aimed at Beijing’s attempt to shape the country’s politics through donations, promises and pressure on politicians at all levels of government.

The investigation promises to further escalate tensions with Beijing, which have accelerated since Australia began pushing for a pandemic fact-finding mission in April. China has been furious at criticism of its handling of the virus since it first emerged in Wuhan.

Officials in Beijing retaliated against Australia by cutting agricultural imports and leveling threats of further economic damage. They have warned Chinese tourists to avoid Australia because of what they described as racist mistreatment, and have issued a similar guide for students not to study in the country. That is potentially a huge blow to Australia’s universities, which depend on international students for billions of dollars in income.

And last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that a “sophisticated state-based cyber-actor”, widely believed to be China, was targeting a wide range of Australian government entities.

Peter Jennings, executive director of Australia’s Institute for Strategic Policy, a nonpartisan panel of experts, called the Moselmane investigation a test case for prosecutors and the country’s most aggressive effort to confront China after years of accommodation and trade. Without restrictions.

“It’s just another sign on the trip,” said Jennings. “What we have seen in recent years is a deterioration in the relationship with China, which has largely come with the Chinese government pushing the limits of what is acceptable behavior on a variety of fronts and the Australian authorities pushing back, what China doesn’t. ‘t like. “

The investigation into Friday’s raids, which were first reported by The Sydney Morning Herald, likely began before the pandemic. A former official said the case had been under construction for months. Jennings, who worked for more than a decade in high-level intelligence and defense functions, said it was probably one of many investigations.

Under the new laws, which expanded the definition of espionage, he said authorities would explore whether undercover activities or Beijing-led agents had tried to influence Australian politicians or their employees, and if they did, whether those involved they knew of the efforts of the Chinese government.

“From the moment the new legislation appeared, I anticipated that our intelligence agencies would look for a case to test the laws,” Jennings said. She added: “This is possibly one of the most egregious, but there is a system in play that affects more than one person. There is a network of connections that I now believe will be extended. ”

The Chinese government has always treated Australia like a Petri dish for influencing experiments, and its playbook is relatively well known.

Chinese consulates and other agencies tend to work closely with civic organizations in Australia that are linked to the United Front Labor Department, the party’s arm to deal with Chinese overseas. The leaders of these organizations often mix cultural events with politics and donations to political parties and candidates considered friendly to Beijing, or at least open to influence. The Chinese-language media controlled directly or indirectly by Beijing promotes those who favor and condemns those who resist.

Influence efforts led to the downfall of a promising Labor politician in 2017. Lawmaker Sam Dastyari was known for his fundraising when he resigned amid accusations that he had pushed China’s foreign policy interests after take money. from Chinese-born political donors.

Mr. Moselmane’s known ties to the Chinese government appear to be more related to staff and travel. He has made several privately funded trips to China in the past decade, with records showing costs covered by Chinese government officials or agencies.

He also came under scrutiny for hiring a part-time staff member, John Zhang, who has been linked by Chinese websites to a propaganda training course run by the Office of Chinese Foreign Affairs, which is believed to form part of the United Front.

Moselmane has been especially bold in his statements in favor of China. Earlier this year, he praised Mr. Xi’s “unwavering leadership” in managing the coronavirus crisis. At a 2018 event in the Parliament of New South Wales, he stated: “The only way China can reach its potential is by forcing China to change the rules and create a new world order.”

Some Australian officials, including George Brandis, Australia’s top diplomat in London who drafted the foreign interference laws when he was attorney general, have argued that the country’s new measures place it at the forefront of the global effort to curb attempted violations of sovereignty and democratic principles

But regardless of the outcome of the current case, some international analysts are less certain that any legal consequence will alter the calculations or actions of a rising superpower determined to bend the world to its will.

“If the case is prosecuted and leads to a verdict against the organization or officials of the United Front of China, it will certainly be embarrassing for Beijing,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Energy Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. .

“However, I doubt it will result in a radical change in such efforts,” he added. “They can alter their tactics, but UF operations are essential to advance Chinese interests and will not be easily abandoned.”