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
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
香港抗议者游行经过这座大楼，高喊着有关民主、引渡和北京加强控制的口号。但在集会变成围城之前，最令香港人恐慌的是附近铜锣湾书店(Causeway Bay Books)五名书商的失踪。
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
“[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
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.
Science and Technology Education
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.
“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.
Wang says he hopes his
public comments will energise the fight for human rights and democracy
in Hong Kong and Taiwan. He describes his decision to take on the
Chinese government and its powerful intelligence operation as an ant
challenging an elephant. But at the very least, he says his son will one
day understand that he stood up for what counts.