Data leak in Australia adds to Chinese espionage

The tentacles of the Chinese apparatus are increasingly threatening the democratic institutions of many countries.

Wang Zhenhua marks the company's 25th anniversary in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, China, 2018. (photo credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)
Wang Zhenhua marks the company's 25th anniversary in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, China, 2018.
(photo credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)
The Australian newspaper in mid-December revealed that at least 10 consulates in Shanghai have Communist Party of China (CPC) members working as senior political and government affairs specialists, clerks, economic advisers and executive assistants. The data leak details how the two million CPC members are employed with some of the world’s largest corporations in the areas of defense and banking and with pharmaceutical giants involved in the manufacturing of coronavirus vaccines.
The companies involved include well-known corporations Boeing, Volkswagen, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, ANZ and HSBC, among others. The major data leak contains official records that list party positions, birthdates, national ID numbers and ethnicities of two million CPC members working across the world. The penetration of CPC members in missions includes Australian, British and US consulates in Shanghai. The data was extracted from a Shanghai server by whistleblowers.
In September, a group of international media organizations came out with details about Zhenhua, a Chinese tech company that maintains a vast database, profiling millions of individuals, including several important figures from around the world. The data was meant for use by the People’s Liberation Army and the CPC. Zhenhua has 20 information-collection centers spread across the globe. Zhenhua CEO Wang Xuefeng used the Chinese social media app WeChat to endorse the sustenance of “hybrid warfare” through manipulation of public opinion and “psychological operations.” The database broadly covered politicians, military officers, diplomats, academics, civil servants, business executives, engineers, journalists, lawyers and accountants.
An individual from China seems to have been the source of the Zhenhua leak. The information was known to be initially leaked to Prof. Chris Balding, an American academic based in Vietnam who worked at Peking University until 2018. Balding said China was determined to build a massive surveillance state both domestically and internationally. Many people in China are particularly concerned about the surveillance practices prevalent in their country.
The information seems to have reached the Australian press through Robert Potter, a former adviser to Labour MP and co-founder of the Canberra-based firm Internet 2.0 Gai Brodtmann, and David Robinson, a retired captain from the Australian Army Intelligence Corps and a co-founder of the same firm. Potter said the leaked files contained large amounts of data and that he provided storage space for the data being examined.
His company recovered the records of about 250,000 people including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, British PM Boris Johnson, their relatives, the royal family, celebrities and military figures. Zhenhua has even built the capacity to track naval vessels and defense assets, assess careers of military officers and catalogue the intellectual property of China’s competitors. The Australian Labour Party in turn asked the information commissioner to investigate the profiling and breach of Australian privacy laws. Jenny McAllister, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media, said the reports about the database were “the latest in a long line of warnings pointing to influence Australia’s democracy” by the Chinese.
Potter said China has even outsourced its cyberattack capabilities to private contractors, targeting many segments of society, storing all possible data and using artificial intelligence to suit its interests. He was of the opinion that most of the data were based on material openly available on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Crunchbase and LinkedIn. He further observed that attempts had been made to uncover criminal records of individuals in Queensland along with a deliberate interest in a space technology company. The database also indicated a huge effort to categorize data around universities, particularly crime data.
IN A SIMILAR development in a different part of the world, the Europe India Chamber of Commerce (EICC) in Brussels on October 5 pointed out the strategic and intelligence-related challenges posed to the European Union by an aggressive China. In the ongoing pandemic, China not only allowed a regional outbreak of COVID-19 but also increased the production of international medical protective gear while it controlled supply chains.
Besides the obvious cover-ups of the virus-borne pandemic, China in recent months was noticed worldwide for dismantling Hong Kong’s civil liberties, oppressing ethnic minorities including Uighurs and Tibetans, increasing military build-up not only in its neighborhood but also in many parts of the world, and engaging in fatal skirmishes to grab land.
Against this background, the reports of espionage activities by the Chinese Secret Service have the potential of posing dangers to the people, media, political institutions and governments in erstwhile democratic strongholds in Europe. It is apparent that the core values of democracy and human freedom are being challenged and threatened at their very basis by the Chinese espionage activities in the region.
Evidently, the aim of the Chinese espionage is to weaken the European Union’s freedom, its constitutional responsibilities, democracy and clarity in the member states, and to exploit existing transparency in the system. The suspicious activities of China are evident from the prudent and cautious steps that a number of countries such as the UK, USA, India and Germany are being compelled to take to protect their strategic interests. China is engaged in stealing trade secrets, bargaining strategies, manufacturing capabilities, security information pertaining to personal and corporate data, material development techniques, consumer market data, security code, software etc.
Reputed cyber experts are of the opinion that China is the most active country in cyberespionage arming itself with formidable capabilities to stage economic sabotage. In recent times, China’s covert activities have been noticed by many countries. It is in this context that the EICC has expressed concern over the EU ignoring the implications of such Chinese espionage operations in Europe. China is intelligent in its deployment of soft power tactics using more covert influence in the form of “Confucius Institutes,” friendship societies, student organizations, media campaigns and think tanks.
Incidentally, the France-Tibet Occitanie & Association Initiative jointly submitted a petition on May 18 to Pau, France, Mayor Francoise Bayrou, calling for closure of the Confucius Institute in the country. Covert Chinese influences exist not just in Europe, but also in Australia, as seen in 2013 when a planned lecture by the Dalai Lama at the University of Sydney was canceled after the head of the Confucius Institute at the insistence of China entered into discussions with the University. The organizers were subsequently pressured to cancel the event after a concerted campaign, with the condition that the event would be held off campus. However, later in 2018, a campaign was launched and in consultation with the NSW Department of Education, Australia, the Confucius Institute was shut down, leading to an end to Chinese government-funded and controlled language programs in 13 schools.
The tentacles of the Chinese apparatus are increasingly threatening the democratic institutions of many countries. In recent years, China has stepped up its aggression with complete disregard of human rights and democratic ethics. China is emboldened further by seeing that democratic countries find it difficult to come together to take any concerted and coordinated actions against it.
The writer is a retired officer at the Indian Air force. He is a National Defense academy alumni who took charge of ground duty after a decade of flying MiGs. He has worked in various fields in the IAF and has pursued post-graduate studies in English.