Australian authorities have urgently briefed their Taiwanese counterparts on a suspected plot to bribe and coerce a self-confessed Chinese intelligence operative seeking asylum in Australia.
The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have also obtained text and video messages that shed new light on the plot, which appears aimed at influencing Taiwan’s national election.
The police briefing was deemed urgent and critical because the presidential election is on Saturday, according to multiple sources.
Investigators in Taipei have been told Australian Federal Police (AFP) are collecting evidence about alleged efforts to force self-confessed Chinese intelligence operative Wang Liqiang to read from a script falsely implicating the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in corruption.
While the AFP declined to comment on its ongoing investigation, it appears highly likely the agency has recorded all messages and conversations involving Wang and the alleged plotters since launching its inquiry on Christmas Day. Any such evidence would be critical for Taiwanese authorities conducting their own inquiries.
The scandal erupted in Taiwan on Thursday, dominating political debate and media reports. On Thursday afternoon, the DPP held a press conference demanding the opposition Kuomintang party explain the apparent role of its official in the plot.
Mr Wang caused an international scandal in November when he told The Age, the Herald and 60 Minutes that he had worked on behalf of a Beijing-directed foreign interference ring targeting independence and democracy movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Mr Wang fled to Australia to seek asylum and assist the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
The Chinese government dismissed his claims as false and said he was a convicted criminal, while ASIO director-general Mike Burgess issued a rare statement saying his agency took claims of foreign interference seriously.
On Thursday, The Age and the Herald revealed that Mr Wang was warned on Christmas Eve and the following days that he could be sent back to China and killed unless he publicly retracted his story and read from a script prepared by a Chinese businessman working together with a senior operative from Taiwan’s Kuomintang opposition party, Deputy Secretary-General Alex Tsai.
Mr Tsai, who is being investigated by the federal police over his role in the plot, held a press conference on Thursday morning where he denied having threatened Mr Wang.
He also denied being involved in the attempt to have Mr Wang falsely implicate the ruling DPP in bribery, instead repeating the allegations the DPP was involved in misconduct.
And several of Mr Tsai’s denials about his involvement in a potentially illegal plot appear to be inconsistent with messages he sent the second man being investigating over the Christmas Eve plot, a Chinese businessman called Mr Sun.
In messages obtained by The Age and the Herald, Mr Tsai sent Mr Sun three guarantees that he allegedly agreed to offer Mr Wang if he followed Mr Tsai’s directives.
They include promises that the Chinese Communist Party would assist Mr Wang and cease harassing him.
While Mr Tsai has also denied having offered financial inducements to Mr Wang, the messages show that he also promised to organise the repayment of any debts held by Mr Wang.
In another message, Mr Tsai appears to ask Mr Sun to urge Mr Wang to issue a statement in return for a benefit: “Please have Wang Liqiang record a video”, in return for which the Kuomintang would allow him to freely settle in Taiwan.
Shortly after these promises were made, Mr Wang was sent a script in which he recants his original claims and states he was paid by the DPP to fabricate them.
Mr Tsai also sent Mr Wang photos of himself with China’s President Xi Jinping in what appears to be an attempt to demonstrate his close connections to the Chinese Communist Party.
Other messages show the Chinese businessman Mr Sun telling Mr Wang that he was acting on behalf of Mr Tsai’s Kuomintang party. “All your problems will be resolved by the Kuomintang,” reads one message from the businessman.
The AFP is treating seriously the alleged threats and inducements directed at Mr Wang, with sources confirming they opened an investigation in the hours after the first message was received by Mr Wang on Christmas Eve.
“The Australian Federal Police is aware of threats made against a man currently residing in Australia,” a spokesman said on Wednesday. “The AFP takes threats of this nature seriously and has commenced an investigation.”
Mr Wang’s November television interview sparked a political firestorm in Taiwan.
The Chinese government is seeking to unify Taiwan with the mainland despite overwhelming opposition to reunification among Taiwanese citizens, and Chinese influence in Taiwan has become a key political issue.
By Nick McKenzie