Australia’s mishandling of the recent Chinese defections raises a number of urgent questions about the personnel and competence of ASIO and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The news during the past few weeks that three Chinese officials under diplomatic cover in Australia wished to defect produced a pantomime which, if it were not so serious, would be hilarious.
In the Cold War days, a defector would be whisked away to a safe house and his bona fides established. Then he would be debriefed extensively. Australia could then pass intelligence on to grateful allies. Could this happen today? Only in one’s dreams …
Economists the world over have lured the West into believing that somehow communist China is becoming capitalist and democratic (something like the discredited idea, peddled by academics in the 1970s, of "convergence" of the USSR with the West).
Certainly, the People’s Republic of China is regarded as a major trading partner by most Western countries eager to capitalise on an absolutely huge market. By introducing certain features of capitalism, China has enhanced its image as a country with which we can do business, especially in the form of free-trade agreements and the like.
However, has China really changed that much? True, the Mao suits have gone and well-dressed, apparently happy, people cycle around the major cities, while waiting for delivery of Western cars being assembled in their country. It is no longer a crime to be rich in China, although there is a suspicion that corruption has become rampant and the Chinese Communist Party is merely adopting a tactical change of which the Great Helmsman himself would have approved.
China, it appears, is not an enemy but a trading partner. The last thing the Howard Government has wanted, as The Australian has presciently pointed out, is have three Chinese officials wanting to defect. To make matters worse, the Government has treated this as an immigration issue, talking calmly about normal procedures for immigration. This leaves the would-be defectors in a parlous position.
With the grand announcement only a few days ago that ASIO had set up a whole new section monitoring the activities of China in Australia, ASIO’s lack of professionalism is clearly exposed.
Australia’s intelligence services have suffered since the end of the Cold War as successive governments have run down defence expenditure and reaped a peace dividend. This policy can be traced back to the 1986 White Paper on Defence, mostly written by Professor Paul Dibb and accepted by a government not wanting to see any external threat that would prompt a rise in taxes to pay for defence hardware and manpower.
As governments scaled back spending on defence and intelligence, a strange torpor descended on ASIO and ASIS. In 1986, ASIO’s headquarters were transferred to Canberra, accompanied by the loss of some of the organisation’s most talented officers. Nearly 10 years of attempting to convert ASIO into just another public service department, and officers into public servants, finally paid off.
In 1984, an Australian academic wrote a savage attack on the organisation, entitled: "ASIO: Clean or Professional?" (Quadrant, September 1984). The author obviously had some inside information, judging by the furore that ensued.
The basic thrust of his argument was that ASIO was obsessed by legality, at the price of doing its job properly – especially its primary task of catching spies. This article could well be revisited today as "ASIO: Clean, Unprofessional, Treasonous and Inefficient or Neutered".
The fact remains that successive governments ran down ASIO in terms of personnel, finance and professionalism, turning it into a public service department run primarily by former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) officers.
Serious questions about KGB penetration of ASIO have never been answered satisfactorily. It is claimed by some that the Australian Federal Police conducted an operation inside ASIO which drew up a list of some 20 officers whose loyalty was in question. This number was winnowed down to five or six who received the equivalent of honourable discharge with full pay and allowances and a golden handshake to help them on their way and, presumably, keep them quiet (News Weekly, May 7, 2005).
The real spies
Apart from ABC television’s Four Corners documentary, Trust and Betrayal (November 1, 2004), probing away at this issue, like a dentist at a rotten tooth, by and large the lid has remained hammered down tight. Even the prosecution of former ASIO officer George Sadil for removing documents from the office failed dismally. As Four Corners implied, he was a mere "patsy" for the real spies.
Since the shock to Western civilisation of 9/11 and sundry bombing campaigns thereafter, followed by the intervention in Iraq, the Commonwealth Government was galvanised into action to beef up ASIO once more, and all possible resources were thrown at the terrorist target.
There followed a massive recruitment campaign and expenditure on new technology, buttressed by changes to the ASIO Act allowing for the detention of suspects, that old-timers could until then could only have dreamt of after a few stiff drinks.
But the mishandling of the recent Chinese defections raises a number of urgent questions:
- When was the old ASIO section that covered the People’s Republic of China run down or disbanded? And why?
- How many old China hands from DFAT have found their way into positions of influence in ASIO, and how has this affected coverage of the Chinese intelligence services?
- Is it a fact that a pro-China lobby of five or six officers came into existence inside ASIO after the move to Canberra? Is it true that their motive was basically anti-Americanism?
- Is it true that they betrayed details of the listening devices installed in the new Chinese Embassy, and were those devices procured from an allied intelligence service?
- Is it also true that the perpetrators of this betrayal were identified but not disciplined or dismissed?
- How big is the knowledge gap between the winding down of the old China section and the establishment of the new?
- Is it a fact that the Chinese intelligence service presence in Australia is around 40 and that their targets are military and scientific projects and attendant secrets?
- Why is it that the Australian Government appears unaware that the Chinese armed forces war-fighting doctrine (not defence) is based on war with the Americans in the none-too-distant future? Do they somehow imagine that Australia can stand back and watch?
- Is the government aware of the years of experience in intelligence and foreign affairs resident in the Lowy Institute, which is an integral part of the drive to trade with communist China?
The same questions should be put to the Opposition. It beggars belief that both Government and Opposition cannot see that China is run by a brutal and tyrannical dictatorship with only tenuous links to the proletariat in whose name it governs. The armed forces are paramount.
Communist China’s occupation of Tibet has lasted so long that the majority of that country’s population is now Chinese. Beijing casts covetous eyes on prosperous and democratic Taiwan, which will have to be retaken as were Hong Kong and Macau. Can this happen without armed conflict?
Furthermore, is it moral for Australia to trade with a country that uses slave labour – even child labour – to produce cheap goods which it foists on us in the name of free trade?
Does anyone really believe the bravura performance of the attractive, svelte Chinese Ambassador to Australia, Madame Fu Ying, when she states that nothing will happen to the defectors when they go home? The Ambassador is clearly one of the most sophisticated and articulate Chinese diplomats ever to enter this country.
The reality is that if these defectors are not protected, they could well be kidnapped by agents in the Chinese community and whisked out of the country. The Chinese, being a little more sophisticated than the old Soviet Union, would probably allow them to be seen for a while before subjecting them to harsh interrogation and possibly torture, before tossing them into a labour camp and executing them in a couple of years when Australia will have forgotten all about them.
In many ways, it is remarkable that Tasmanian Greens Senator Bob Brown – not known for his love of ASIO or intelligence services – should be raising this matter of public importance. What of the official Opposition? Is its head so buried in the sand that it cannot see a thing?
These three Chinese diplomatic or consular staff have a right under international law to ask for political asylum in this country. It is to our collective shame that the Government has procrastinated over the matter and declined to defend or protect them as intelligence defectors have been traditionally.
Already, newspapers are repeating disinformation that these defectors would have no useful intelligence as they are only monitoring a religious group, Falun Gong.
However, intelligence officers are intelligence officers and their knowledge of the workings of the other arms of Chinese intelligence in this country and the identification of their personnel would be quite useful, even to the new glitterati of ASIO. Australia cannot treat these defectors as though they have been working in a vacuum.
The role of The Australian newspaper should not pass without the odd comment. Two of its reporters have obviously treated this story with the respect it deserves and pursued it like hounds. Even Paul Kelly managed to steer a relatively neutral position in the Weekend Australian (June 11-12, 2005).
Nevertheless, the paper ran a short editorial mid-week asserting that the problem with the defectors would not interfere with relations between the Canberra and Beijing. Given that the paper’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, has considerable business interests in China, it is rather surprising that investigative journalists should get away with the story without intervention for a week.
It is to the profound shame of this country and its Government that its behaviour and treatment of Chinese intelligence service defectors is so crass as to astound a great number of former intelligence officers.
When the seven deadly sins were believed to exist in terms of morality, the greatest sin was left out: that of betrayal. There is nothing worse. It cannot be justified – not in the name of trade, international relations, human rights or the name of Australia.
- John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.