Chinese experts living in Australia say recent reports that China's state security police hacked and spied on Australian businesses are “credible,” as a New Zealand academic researching Beijing's overseas influence said her car had been sabotaged in a potentially life-threatening manner.
China’s ministry of state security is overseeing a “massive hacking operation” of large Australian businesses with the code name “Operation Cloud Hopper,” which has been detected by the Australian Signals Directorate, a partner in the Five Eyes intelligence grouping, according to a Fairfax Media/Nine News investigation.
The report cited a senior Australian government source as saying that the operation was “a constant, significant effort to steal our intellectual property” by “hopping” from outsourced cloud storage services into a company’s internal computer network.
And it quoted police and intelligence officials as saying that Australian companies and universities had failed to heed repeated warnings to improve their information security in the face of advanced persistent threats by state actors.
Meanwhile, New Zealand media reported that police investigation into a campaign of harassment against prominent China researcher Anne-Marie Brady has widened to include apparent efforts to sabotage her car.
Brady, who researches the overseas influence campaigns of the Chinese Communist Party's United Front Work department, has been subjected to a series of mysterious break-ins at her home and campus office in February, the New Zealand Herald reported last Friday.
The "burglaries" had targeted Brady's electronic media including phones, computers and USB drives, while her car had failed a recent annual safety check owing to "unusual defects," the paper said.
"The vehicular sabotage represents an escalation for the case, coming on the heels of recent vitriolic editorials in local Chinese-language media describing the professor and New Zealand-Chinese democracy activists as 'anti-Chinese sons of bitches,'" it said, citing auto experts as saying that the tampering with the car's tires was almost certainly deliberate and could be life-threatening if the brakes were used suddenly.
Brady has been an outspoken critic of Chinese influence overseas, calling on governments to carry out in-depth probes into the Chinese Communist Party's activities, and to devise a strategy to counteract them.
China’s "meddling" in the internal affairs of other nations should be defined as a national security issue and treated accordingly, she has said, suggesting updates to laws governing the funding of elections, protocols around conflicts of interest for serving and retired public servants and politicians, and sales of strategic infrastructure.
‘More and more barbaric’
Chen Weijian, the New Zealand-based editor-in-chief of the political magazine Beijing Spring, said the targeting of Brady has escalated to the level of a threat to her personal safety.
"The Chinese Communist Party has continued to move against Professor Brady, with the 'warnings' now escalating to the level of a threat against her personal safety," Chen told RFA.
"The crux of the matter is that the New Zealand government isn't taking the burglaries at her home and office seriously enough," he said. "Why? Because the New Zealand government has been infiltrated to such an extent that the Chinese Communist Party is getting more and more barbaric."
Meanwhile, the Australian hacking allegations are the latest in a string of reports of state-sponsored cyberattacks originating in China in recent years, and come after China and Australia signed a cybersecurity agreement last year not to support the theft of each other's intellectual property.
John Hu, spokesman for the Australian Values Alliance, which campaigns against the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in Australia, said the Fairfax/Nine News report seemed credible.
“Cyberattacks have been going on for some time now, both by individuals and organizations,” Hu said. “But regardless of whether they are motivated by commercial interests, if they are carried out under the direction of another state, then they are malicious, without a doubt.”
“For example, a cyberattack on our power supply would be considered an act of war, so if these attacks are really coming from the Chinese government, they are a serious violation of our national sovereignty,” he said.
Feng Chongyi, an associate professor in China Studies at Sydney’s University of Technology, agreed.
“China is using economic interdependence [between China and Australia] to conduct a very particular aspect of United Front work,” Feng said, in a reference to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, which is tasked with making allies to further party interests.
“It already has its agents and its so-called ‘friends of China’ embedded in the [Australian] government in companies and in educational establishments,” Feng said. “And that human network is only going to get bigger.”
He said the commercial information garnered from hacking Australian companies could be highly valuable to state-owned Chinese companies’ business interests, but also to China’s strategic national interests.
“It’s not just technology [they want], it’s their pricing strategy, their negotiating strategies, how they fix their prices, how they negotiate with various different companies,” Feng said.
“By hacking into their networks, [the hackers] can gain a monopoly on all of the information before negotiations take place, and improve their own position,” he said.
Measures against espionage
The report comes after Australia last December tightened rules on foreign lobbying and political donations, while broadening the definition of treason and espionage, while the United States has legislated to make it easier for the government to block certain kinds of investment.
Last month, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence accused Beijing of interfering in the political and economic life of the U.S. by "rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state and federal officials."
Meanwhile, the Five Eyes nations confirmed they have been exchanging classified information on China’s foreign activities with other like-minded countries since the start of the year, Reuters reported in October.
Officials told the agency that the enhanced cooperation amounted to an informal expansion of the Five Eyes group on the specific issue of foreign interference, with expanding Chinese influence as the main focus.
China has rejected accusations that it is seeking to influence overseas governments and that its investments are politically driven.
Last month, a New Zealand lawmaker accused the opposition National Party leader of corruption, claiming that he sought to hide the source of a donation from a Chinese businessman.
Party donor Zhang Yikun, who was awarded an "Order of Merit" by the New Zealand government in June for "services to New Zealand-China relations and the Chinese community," had been clearly linked by independent researchers to the Chinese Communist Party's United Front Work Department.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.