Agents from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) found a cache of secret government files when they broke into a Canberra home in October 2015 while searching for evidence that one of the occupants might be a Chinese spy.
The apartment belonged to a woman dubbed the “queen” of the Australia-China social scene, Sheri Yan, and her husband, Roger Uren, a former high-ranking Australian intelligence official and diplomat.
A Four Corners-Fairfax investigation has revealed the secret ASIO raid was targeting Yan over allegations she was a Chinese Communist Party spy.
The highly classified documents contained details of what Western agencies knew about the operations of Chinese intelligence.
Mr Uren is suspected of having taken them from his former employer, the Office of National Assessments, before he left the agency in August 2001.
Removing classified documents is generally an offence but, to date, no charges have been laid.
The raid was timed to coincide with the FBI’s arrest of Yan in New York on charges of bribing John Ashe, when he was president of the United Nations General Assembly. She pleaded guilty and was jailed last year.
Yan, 58, has deep connections to Australian political, business and foreign affairs figures, including senior ex-Labor and Liberal politicians.
The daughter of a celebrated Chinese artist and People’s Liberation Army member, Yan is also known to have impeccable Communist Party connections.
The ASIO operation raises the prospect that Australian targets, as well as figures inside the United Nations, were the subject of a Chinese intelligence operation.
The revelations are part of a major Four Corners-Fairfax investigation into the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to infiltrate Australian institutions and cultivate political figures.
It comes as the US grapples with Russian interference in its political system.
Mr Uren told Four Corners and Fairfax Media that ASIO was investigating allegations that Yan worked for Chinese intelligence, a charge he described as “pure fantasy”.
“It reflects the psychosis of the people making the allegations,” he said.
Mr Uren blamed the US for the ASIO raid, saying information about Yan was likely to have come from the FBI.
“It’s US prejudice that all Chinese are spies,” he said.
Government sources dismissed Mr Uren’s comments. The ABC understands that ASIO was acting on its own intelligence.
Mr Ashe was elected to a one-year term as president of the General Assembly beginning in 2013, about the same time Yan is accused of making monthly payments of $20,000 to him under the guise of a non-governmental organisation she headed, known as the Global Sustainability Foundation.
He died in a weightlifting accident while awaiting trial, shortly before Yan was sentenced to prison for bribing him.
Watch ‘Power And Influence: How China’s Communist Party Is Infiltrating Australia’ on Four Corners, ABC TV, Monday 8:30pm.
By Nick McKenzie, Chris Uhlmann, Richard Baker and Daniel Flitton