The moment a Chinese spy decided to defect to Australia
Staring at his own face in a false passport triggered something in Wang Liqiang. After five years as a Chinese spy he was at risk of losing himself. So he decided to defect to Australia.
By Nick McKenzie, Grace Tobin and Paul Sakkal
NOVEMBER 23, 2019
Wang Liqiang now lives in hiding in Australia after abandoning his life as a Chinese spy.
CREDIT:ILLUSTRATION: MARK STEHLE, PORTRAIT: STEVEN SIEWERT
Most spies face a moment that challenges their loyalty. But rarely does it make them consider the unimaginable – risking jail or worse for renouncing their country.
For fresh-faced Chinese intelligence operative Wang “William” Liqiang, the arrival of a fake South Korean passport earlier this year triggered such a moment.
The name, date and place of birth on the passport belonged to someone else but the photo was his. His orders were to shift his attention from a covert operation to undermine Hong Kong’s democracy movement and focus instead on meddling in Taiwan’s 2020 elections. The ultimate aim was to topple President Tsai Ing-wen.
But staring at his own face in the false passport stirred something in Wang. After five years as a “cut-out” or “co-optee” for the Chinese military intelligence system, he realised he was at risk of losing himself. As he would later write, he was on the cusp of becoming “a person without real identity”.
And so the unimaginable — along with its attended risks of detention, denunciation and death — began to take shape in his mind.
In April, Wang travelled to Australia to visit his wife, who was studying here, and their young son. In Sydney, playing with a child he barely knew, the 27-year-old began to ponder the fallout of not returning to Hong Kong. He felt it too dangerous to put pen to paper but he began composing a letter in his mind.
The imagined addressee was the Australian government. The imagined contents would detail his role in Chinese intelligence operations. It would provide an unprecedented insider’s account of the extensive espionage and foreign interference network which operates with seeming impunity in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Australia. He would also describe the lure of democracy, the system he had devoted his past few years to destroying.
In late May, while he was still in Sydney, Wang was issued orders to travel to Taiwan under the fake identity. He made up his mind.
It would be several months before he would receive a phone call from ASIO directing him to meet a man on a street corner at a certain time. But now there was no turning back. He had decided to betray the most powerful and ruthless authoritarian country in the world.
‘The word spy didn’t cross our mind’
Wang Liqiang was born to a middle-class family in Fujian, the Chinese province ringed on one side by the grand Wuyi mountains and on the other by a 180-kilometre stretch of water separating the mainland from Taiwan. His father was a regional Communist Party official who provided for his family as China’s prosperity grew.
‘Once I go back, I will be dead’
‘Once I go back, I will be dead’
Former Chinese Spy Wang Liqiang reveals the secret operations he was involved in.
Taiwan is a short distance over the water but the gulf with the mainland runs deep. Ruling the island and its territories is central to President Xi Jinping’s dream of a reunified China. The Taiwanese and Chinese governments do not interact directly, creating a major political faultline in East Asia.
Taiwan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hsu Szu-chien says democracy in Taiwan is an existential threat to Xi’s increasingly authoritarian realm.
“Xi has treated our incumbent government as an enemy,” Hsu tells The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes, adding that Taiwan is coming under “severe” pressure. Senior United States officials have long identified Chinese government interference and espionage work in Taiwan but the lack of confirmation from a Chinese government insider has allowed the Chinese Communist Party to deny it.
Wang did not learn about these deep historical rifts until he was an arts student majoring in oil painting at Anhui University of Finance and Economics. At the time, he viewed them through the prism of patriotic loyalty to the Chinese nation.
Wang Liqiang with other students at art school in Hong Kong.
When a senior university official suggested Wang work in Hong Kong at China Innovation Investment Limited (CIIL), a listed diversified investment company with interests in technology, finance and media, he jumped at the chance. Whether he was tapped due to his promise or his patriotism, Wang does not know.
He moved to Hong Kong in 2014 and quickly realised he was not working for a normal company. Chinese website Sina describes the firm’s “main direction [as] investing in the high-quality defence industry assets of both listed and unlisted [People’s Republic of China] companies”. But he overheard company representatives whispering about more sensitive dealings with officials.
When Wang finally twigged that advancing the aims of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its military would underpin much of his work, he was unfazed. “To be honest, for a Chinese, this was attractive,” he recalls. “It paid well and I also felt that I was doing things for the country. At that time, the word ‘spy’ didn’t cross our mind … [It was] a derogatory term.”
An extraordinary admission
It was Wang’s skill with a paintbrush that propelled him into the company’s inner sanctum. In early 2015, CIIL’s chief executive officer Xin Xiang asked Wang to teach his wife, Qing Gong, oil painting.
“Winning her favour was one key point as [to] why I could become a core member,” he says.
One of Wang’s oil paintings.
Invited to the couple’s Hong Kong house, Wang says his boss gradually took him into his confidence. Xiang revealed his actual name was Xiang Nianxin and that in the 1980s and early ’90s he had worked for the Chinese military controlled Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence and Defence Industries – an organisation dedicated to building China’s weapons program.
Xiang also claimed to have worked for high-ranking Communist official Zou Jiahua, a former vice-premier who in the 1980s helped develop China’s defence industry by acquiring foreign military technology.
Xiang told Wang he had come to Hong Kong in 1993 to conduct intelligence work. CIIL was created under the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department to “infiltrate into Hong Kong’s financial market, as well as collecting military intelligence”, Wang says. Corporate records and newspaper archives reveal CIIL’s close connection to Norinco, the Chinese military’s main weapons company.
Xiang told Wang his most important work was “to buy other countries’ weapons and steal US intelligence from them”. As a result, the US had been closely monitoring him. The weapons, he said, were taken to Hong Kong. A spokesman for CIIL said Xiang did not want to answer questions from The Age, the Herald and 60 Minutes over the phone, because he had never spoken to the journalists who were calling, and when questions were emailed to Xiang, the spokesman said Xiang would not answer because he could not verify that the email was not sent covertly by the Australian government in order to obtain intelligence.
After the story was initially published, an email response from a man called Edison Li said, “Anyone with a little common sense will know that these problems are ridiculous and untrue, and the accuser very likely did this for economic purposes. We will refer the matter to the lawyer.”
Wang says that he became an important part of the operation run by Xiang. The opening paragraph of a lengthy and sworn statement Wang provided to ASIO in October pulls no punches: “I have personally been involved and participated in a series of espionage activities.”
It’s an extraordinary admission which comes as tension between Hong Kong and the mainland has erupted into violence. Western security sources say Wang is telling the truth.
The Causeway Bay Five
The intelligence operation that Wang joined has its headquarters in an unassuming office tower on Hong Kong’s Des Voeux Road West, a busy strip dominated by hawkers selling dried seafood.
The Hong Kong protesters have marched past the building, chanting slogans about democracy, extradition and Beijing’s tightening grip. But the case that terrified Hong Kongers more than anything before rallies became sieges was the disappearance of five booksellers from the nearby Causeway Bay Books.
The Causeway Bay Five disappeared in October 2015, only to reappear on the Chinese mainland and reveal they had been detained and interrogated. The Chinese government has steadfastly denied allegations any were kidnapped. One, Lee Bo, told a pro-CCP television station that he had returned voluntarily.
Wang tells a different story. The reason for the kidnapping, he says, was that the bookshop was selling works that displeased the CCP, including a book called Xi and his Six Women.
Freed Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee at a news conference in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong booksellers: ‘I was handcuffed and my eyes were covered’
“[Our operative] told us later that he sent six agents who took Lee Bo from the storeroom of Causeway Bay Books directly to mainland China,” Wang says, adding that the operation was organised and overseen by figures inside CIIL. “I was responsible for the negotiation and tasks to be implemented … me and [the team chief] held the negotiation at Xiang Xin’s home,” Wang says.
Western security sources say Wang’s account is likely to be accurate. It’s backed by another of the detained booksellers, Lam Wing-Kee, who during an interview last month said he has no doubt that Lee Bo was kidnapped. Lam has fled to Taiwan to avoid the terrifying ordeal of being detained again.
The fear this operation provoked in Hong Kong was intentional, Wang says. The Chinese government wanted to “bring a thorough deterrent effect on those people”.
A ‘core, central agency’
Wang says Xiang’s company was a front. Its real business was as a “core, central agency” of Beijing’s intelligence apparatus. “It is in direct contact with the Chinese side … playing the role of communicating between the top level and lower levels … of military intelligence.”
Wang was a middleman who did both intelligence and political interference work, passing orders from bosses in Beijing to operatives in Hong Kong. He claims he met with senior military figures on trips to China and that senior figures from CIIL liaised with the People’s Liberation Army’s General Staff Department (since renamed and restructured) and other agencies and officials. Wang says Xiang was in personal contact with the executive officer in Xi Jinping’s office.
Former CIA analyst and co-author of the recently released Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer Peter Mattis says Wang appears to be a “cut-out” or “co-optee”. “They act as adjutants to the intelligence officer, who is often building up a suite of resources to use for intelligence or political influence.”
US counter-intelligence assessments say China’s espionage system uses cut-outs “under a variety of covers, posing as diplomats, journalists, academics, or business people” who are “tasked with spotting, assessing, targeting, collecting, and running sources”.
Wang says he was sworn to secrecy – with one exception. He could talk to the woman he was teaching to paint, Xiang’s wife Qing Gong, because he claims she was part of Xiang’s inner circle. As Wang grew close to Qing, he filed away details he learnt about her life. She had become intimate with the intelligence operations being undertaken in Hong Kong and Taiwan. She had also spent time as a postgraduate student at the University of South Australia. This last detail would make Wang wary about fleeing to Australia.
“This is something that I am scared of. As she studied in Australia, I don’t know how many personnel there are in… [the] intelligence network.”
‘They would be willing to work for us’
Hong Kong’s tertiary sector, which has since exploded into violence, was a key battleground for Wang. His organisation targeted students through fronts including the China Science and Technology Education Foundation, a charity recognised by the Hong Kong government. Corporate records confirm it is controlled by Xiang.
“They have infiltrated into all universities, including students’ associations and other students’ groups and bodies,” Wang says. “[Some of] the mainland Chinese students … if they are given some petty favours and benefits and opportunities to attend some occasions, they would be willing to work for us.”
Protesters covered with umbrellas during campus protests in Hong Kong.
Protesters covered with umbrellas during campus protests in Hong Kong.CREDIT:AP
Wang was put in charge of organising and “educating” mainland students, “guiding their ideology”.
“I exchanged ideas with them and learnt about their thinking, then I influenced them with patriotism, guiding them to love the country, love the Party and our leaders, and fight back strongly against those independence and democracy activists in Hong Kong.”
He helped set up alumni associations to build a network and counter dissidents.
“We sent some students to join the students’ association and they pretended to support Hong Kong independence,” Wang says. “They found out information about those pro-independence activists … and conducted human flesh search [a Chinese term for researching using internet media such as blogs and forums]”. Then they “made public all their personal data, their parents’ and family members’, then we attacked them verbally, swearing at them.
“[We] effectively silenced them.”
Another battleground for CIIL was Hong Kong’s media. Wang says the company invested in outlets, appointing and influencing senior media personnel to support the CCP’s message and drown out dissenting voices.
“A lot of media outlets are under [Xiang’s] control – he either holds actual or nominal shares or his company holds shares. Currently, the battlefield in Hong Kong is mainly one of public opinion.”
One of the most senior intelligence operatives in Hong Kong, according to Wang, was a senior manager of a major Asian television network. He also played a vital role in the kidnapping of bookseller Lee Bo. The Herald, Age and 60 Minutes have decided not to name the executive for legal reasons.
“He was the one responsible for organising the agents to kidnap and persecute Hong Kong democracy activists,” he says, claiming the man “is a current military cadre with a Division Commander rank.”
‘China could do whatever they wanted’
Kidnapping the bookseller scarred Wang. He realised that “China could do whatever they wanted. So I felt quite scared in Hong Kong.”
Adding to his fear were the alliances between members of his organisation and the triads – Chinese mafia organisations “who also represent the Chinese government”.
Painting became Wang’s escape. His art took on a shimmering, colourful quality, evoking places and feelings far from the steel and concrete of the city. When he talked to his wife Mia, who was studying in Australia, he never wanted their conversations to end.
Painting by Wang.
In January 2017, Mia told him she was pregnant. He wondered how he would tell his child about his job and what sort of life they would have in Hong Kong or the mainland. But his bosses wanted him to keep working.
The so-called “nine-in-one” elections in Taiwan in 2018 (during which officials from county magistrates to local mayors were elected) presented Beijing with an opportunity to challenge the rule of President Tsai Ing-wen. Wang helped direct a major operation which was ultimately aimed at throwing Tsai out of office in favour of a pro-Beijing candidate.
“Our work on Taiwan was the most important work of ours – the infiltration into media, temples and grassroots organisations,” says Wang.
He helped Chinese intelligence agencies build a “cyber army”, largely of university students, to shift political debate and candidates’ fortunes.
“In Taiwan we had many places – restaurants, and IT companies – which we either acquired or funded,” Wang says. “If we wanted to attack someone, we could instantly collapse their Facebook” from Hong Kong, using false IP addresses to put out anti-democracy messages.
I know very well that the Chinese Communist Party can never be trusted. Once I go back, I will be dead.
Chinese spy Wang Liqiang
Wang says CIIL also invested in Taiwanese media companies and built covert alliances with TV stations, allowing the control and censorship of news. He names food manufacturer and media owner the Want Want group as a key ally.
“We also controlled media, like buying their ads to propagate the trend, and let them report in favour of those candidates we were supporting,” says Wang. Want Want’s owner Tsai Eng-meng has had “a very close relationship and cooperation with Xiang Xin,” Wang says. A Financial Times article in August accusing Want Want of taking editorial direction from Beijing was dismissed by the company as “fake news”.
As well as directing positive media attention towards favoured politicians, including presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, Wang claims he helped finance grassroots political support for the opposition. “With the Kuomintang [the Chinese Nationalist Party] candidates we … gave them full support. Then we also made donations to the temples and organised those believers to tour mainland China and Hong Kong, and influence them with [the CCP-aligned] United Front propaganda. As a result, we had a huge win … and it was a glorious record,” Wang says.
‘My heart is extremely sad’
For Wang it was a hollow victory. His son had been born in November 2017. Wang wanted to travel to Australia to visit him but his success in the 2018 Taiwan elections meant he was given a new task: interfering in the 2020 presidential election with the aim of unseating Tsai. This was when he received the envelope bearing fake identity papers.
“I was requested to change my name and whole identity to go to Taiwan and be a spy there,” he says.
Part of Wang’s interference would rely on what he calls “Taiwan’s black society”, or the triads. But Wang feared being caught by Taiwan’s counter-espionage authorities. Out of hours, he painted furiously and plotted his escape.
“If anything happened to me, my family would be ruined. What would my family, my young son do? Who could protect me?”
Earlier this year, Wang told his boss’ wife that he needed to travel to Australia to visit his son. He flew into Sydney on April 23 knowing he would neither return home nor see his parents again.
“Whenever I think of this, I am very sad. My family, not only my parents, but also my grandparents … I dare not communicate much as our phones are tapped. This is the saddest thing … my heart is extremely sad and no words can express my grief,” Wang says.
Defector Wang Liqiang is now in hiding in Sydney.
Both his family and his wife’s have a strong Communist Party pedigree – all are party members and loyal to the country. “I really have no idea what this will bring to the rest of my life,” he says.
It took seven months after Wang arrived before he was called by ASIO – it is likely that ASIO did not know his intelligence value until his application for protection reached an immigration official. In the meantime, Wang moved from house to house and took counter-surveillance measures, watching for people following him and changing his routine. He painted and played with his son and watched the protests in Hong Kong get bigger as those he had likely recruited hit back.
Gradually, his worldview changed.
“China’s view of life and the world simply cannot create outstanding talents because it is totalitarianism, it is dictatorship,” Wang says. “I hope that my child and my family can … do something for human beings. I feel that in Australia this can be achieved.”
Wang will not say what he has disclosed to ASIO. But he is willing to help the Australian government understand China’s intelligence system and he has knowledge about operatives. Mattis says Wang’s disclosures are unprecedented and valuable – and also extraordinarily brave. Until now, the relatively small number of defectors have kept quiet.
For now, though, he is in no man’s land, counting down the days of his tourist visa and watching his back.
“I know very well that the Chinese Communist Party can never be trusted. Once I go back, I will be dead.”