Beijing usually takes pride in its tight grip of the information that flows inside and outside of China. However, several recent incidents seem to reveal that Beijing’s iron fist may be losing its grip.
Only a week ago, The New York Times reported on the Xinjiang Papers, a 403-page collection of reportedly classified Chinese documents—including speeches by Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other Communist Party officials—on plans to carry out the mass incarceration of the Uyghur Muslim minority population in Xinjiang, as well as government directives instructing local officials on how to coerce Uyghur students with lies and threats. We were told by the reporters that the leak of such classified documents out of China was unprecedented.
While the world was still digesting the Xinjiang Papers, two more China-related intelligence information bombs were dropped over the last weekend.
First, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reported newly leaked details from the China Cables. These were classified Chinese government documents, including a manual for operating the internment camps that hold millions of Uyghur Muslims and other minorities, and intelligence briefings that uncover “how Chinese police are guided by a massive data collection and analysis system that uses artificial intelligence to select entire categories of Xinjiang residents for detention.”
These leaked documents reveal “the inner workings of the camps, the severity of conditions behind the fences, and the dehumanizing instructions regulating inmates’ mundane daily routines.” ICIJ also tweeted that more than 75 journalists and dozens of media partners are working together to report on information uncovered by the China Cable.
I’m sure we will be hearing more in the coming days. The leaked China Cables, in addition to the recently leaked Xinjiang Papers, present indisputable evidence that in the Chinese Communist Party’s own words, China is committing ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang, in the most deliberate and systematic fashion.
Then, a more shocking revelation came out of Australia. Wang “William” Liqiang, a Chinese national who currently lives in Australia with his family and is applying for political asylum, reportedly told Australia’s counterespionage agency that he had been personally involved in China’s espionage activities in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas.
Some of the specifics of Wang’s self-alleged activities include personal involvement in kidnapping one of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015, infiltrating university and college campuses on foreign soil and recruiting overseas Chinese students to collect intelligence, and meddling with Taiwan’s 2018 election by “creating more than 20 media and internet companies to launch ‘targeted attacks’ and spending roughly $200 million over an unspecified period to invest in television stations in Taiwan.” In addition, Wang gave “detailed code names of covert operations and shadowy business ventures,” which amounts to China’s covert efforts to suppress democracy and human rights activities around the world.
Wang also told Australia investigators that he conducted his espionage work from a Hong Kong-based firm called China Innovation Investment Limited, which Wang identified as a front for mainland China’s intelligence operations in Hong Kong.
Naturally, the public wants to know how believable Wang’s allegations really are. China, after all, has declared Wang an “unemployed fugitive.” Australia’s local network Nine’s 60-minute program interviewed Wang, Australian lawmakers, and counterespionage experts. The reporter was able to corroborate the names, addresses, and some other key identifiers Wang provided.
Although it is likely that Wang may have exaggerated his importance to enhance his political asylum case, both the lawmakers and intelligence experts found at least part of Wang’s allegations to be credible. Furthermore, the covert tactics Wang describes have been reported by other sources.
Australia has been struggling to stamp out China’s political interference with its political system. China is Australia’s largest trade partner. Chinese tourists cram Australian shops, and Chinese students fill Australian college campuses. Australia is home to more than 1 million Chinese immigrants. Not all Chinese in Australia are pro-Beijing, but there are enough of them that Australia has seen some of the worst confrontations between mainland Chinese students and supporters of Hong Kong pro-democracy movements on its college campuses.
Partially based on Wang’s allegations, Australia’s intelligence agency is currently investigating the mysterious death of a Chinese immigrant, Nick Zhao. Zhao was a luxury car dealer who reportedly told the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) last year that another well-connected Chinese businessman had offered him one million Australia dollars (USD $680,000) to run for a Melbourne seat as a candidate for the Liberal Party.
Shortly after, Zhao was found dead in a motel. Former ASIO chief Duncan Lewis warned the investigators and public that he believes Beijing has been seeking a “takeover” of Australia’s political system.
For long-time China observers, what Wang disclosed only confirmed what many have already known, albeit with more details. Historically, China has never hid its ambition about “reuniting” with its “autonomous states” like Taiwan, either through negotiation or by force.
Hong Kong has been an ideal place for intelligence gathering and covert operations for both the East and the West. The Chinese government has been known to take advantage of the West’s academic and political freedom to exert political influence, spread pro-Beijing propaganda, and suppress overseas dissents.
Therefore, what Wang said was anything but new and shocking, although the timing of his revelation and the very public manner he chose to do so is very unusual. No other defected former Chinese spies had ever been this out-in-the-open, or exposed the Communist Party’s intelligence on air like this.
Why did Wang risk his life to come out in the open like this? In Wang’s own words, “I do not want to see Taiwan becoming a second Hong Kong. And I would not become an accomplice in the conspiracy of turning an originally democratic and free land into autocratic land.” He may be a bit self-grandiose, but there could also be some truth to it. The person who leaked the Xinjiang Papers is also dissatisfied with China’s tyrannical government policies, and “expressed hope that the disclosure would prevent party leaders, including Xi Jinping, from escaping culpability for the mass detentions.”
Wang’s extremely public disclosure of China’s foreign espionage activities, in addition to the recent intelligence leak out of China, seem to suggest a growing opposition from within China that is unhappy with Chinese leader Xi’s repressive domestic agenda and his aggressive foreign policies. The timing of all of these leaks might have been emboldened by the obvious fallout of Xi’s policies: a slowing economy and rising unemployment rates as the result of the trade war with the United States; rising food prices partially caused by China’s own hog industry experiencing the worst African swine fever in decades; and Xi’s evident inability to deal with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, which has been going on for six months and is still going strong.
The intelligence leaks serve as a reminder that China, an authoritarian regime with a large economy and a strong military, is a challenge the West hasn’t been fully prepared to deal with strategically, or probably doesn’t quite know how to deal with. The recent intelligence leaks will be unlikely to stop China from continuing to expand its economic and geopolitical influence, including meddling with Western democracies political systems, and from pushing its values worldwide.
It would be very naive for any policy makers in the West to treat Wang’s disclosure as something that only happens in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Australia, or dismiss his allegations outright. What the West, especially the United States, needs to do after all these intelligence leaks is to absorb the available information, and formulate a coherent and well thought-out strategy to counter China’s aggression.