In 1954, the Petrov Affair rocked Australian politics, setting off a chain of events that would shape the political landscape for decades.

When Soviet diplomat and KGB colonel Vladimir Petrov defected to Australia, offering to reveal details of Soviet spy rings in exchange for asylum, the resulting investigations (including a Royal Commission) badly damaged the Labor party. Labor had been widely expected to win the election, which was due just a few weeks later, but the Petrov allegations almost certainly cost them victory.

Despite long-running Labor conspiracy theories, history would eventually show that the incumbent Menzies government had not “staged” the affair, even though they admittedly exploited it to their gain. The allegations that high-level Labor officials were part of a Soviet spy ring lead to the “Split” of 1955, when the Catholic right deserted to form the Democratic Labor Party. Labor would not regain office for nearly 20 years.

A modern-day spy-defection drama is now unfolding in Australia. What its repercussions will be are as yet unclear, but it is shaping up to be the most momentous espionage scandal since the Petrovs.

A Chinese spy is seeking political asylum in Australia after offering intelligence on how China conducts its interference operations abroad.

Nine newspapers reported Wang “William” Liqiang has provided Australia’s counter-espionage agency ASIO of details of how China’s senior military intelligence officers fund and conduct political interference operations in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia.

“I have personally been involved and participated in a series of espionage activities,” Mr Wang said in a statement to ASIO in October, Nine said.

Mr Wang is currently at an undisclosed location in Sydney on a tourist visa, telling Nine he is seeking urgent protection from the Australian government, a plea he says he has made in multiple meetings with ASIO.

He would face certain detention and possible execution if he returns to China.

Disquiet about communist China’s activities in Australia has been growing for months. Academic Clive Hamilton has written Silent Invasion: China’s influence in Australia, alleging widespread infiltration of Australia’s politics and civil institutions. Former Labor power broker Sam Dastyari was forced to resign in 2016, over his ties to billionaire Chinese property developer Huang Xiangmo. More recently, the NSW Labor party has been accused of accepting shopping bags of cash from Chinese government-linked sources. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has been criticised for being too eager to solicit billions from China’s controversial “Belt and Road Initiative”.

On the other side of the aisle, Liberal politician Gladys Liu has faced scrutiny over her alleged connections to the communist regime.

Meanwhile, triggering furious denunciations from Chinese media, Wang is making serious allegations.

The Australian Federal Police has opened a formal investi­gation into claims by self-­proclaimed Chinese spy Wang Liqiang that Chinese intelligence services sought to interfere in Australian politics…

Several sources said the death of a Melbourne businessman reportedly at the centre of a second alleged plot by Chinese intelligence services to insert an agent of influence into federal parliament was not treated as suspicious. Bo “Nick” Zhao was found dead in a Melbourne motel room in March, about a year after he was allegedly ­approached by a Chinese businessman who offered to front him $1m to run as a candidate in the federal seat of Chisholm, reportedly as an agent of influence of the Chinese Communist Party…The death is now the subject of a coronial inquest.

Scott Morrison said allegations that China attempted to plant a spy MP in Canberra were “deeply disturbing and troubling”. The Prime Minister said Australia was “not naive” to security threats and pointed to the “significant legal reform” on foreign interference his government had undertaken.

This affair obviously has a long way to play out yet, and where it ends up is anyone’s guess. One thing is for certain, though, plenty of Australian politicians, businessmen and academics ought to be having some very sleepless nights right now.


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