National Security

AFP stopped allowing Chinese police to operate in Australia over foreign interference concerns, Senate hearing told

June 3, 2024

Monday 03 June 2024
Echo Hui and Dylan Welch
ABC News Online

The Australian Federal Police has told a parliamentary hearing it halted a years-long policy of allowing Chinese police to come and operate in Australia, following a 2019 incident exposed by the ABC's Four Corners program.

AFP Deputy Commissioner Ian McCartney told the hearing that the 2019 case was "a turning point", and that the policy was ended due to the agency's greater awareness of foreign interference threats.

"After this matter in June 2019, the one that's referred to in the Four Corners report, this is the last time we applied these processes and guidelines," Deputy Commissioner McCartney said.

"2019-2020 was a pivotal moment in terms of our relationship," Deputy Commissioner McCartney later said, adding that the decision to stop the Chinese police visits was due to the growth of foreign interference.

"We made a conscious decision in executive that we weren't going to apply that guidance again," he said.

The AFP were questioned following revelations in a Four Corners episode last month that the federal police had allowed Chinese officers to come to Australia, and those officers then escorted a 59-year-old female Australian resident back to China.

The visit occurred under protocols and guidelines established by the AFP after a 2014 incident when Chinese police officers slipped into Australia unannounced in an attempt to convince a Melbourne bus driver to return to China.

The guidelines state that officers of China's national policing and security agency, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), could only come to Australia if the matter being investigated was serious, the suspect was not an Australian citizen, and they were willing to engage with MPS officers.

Four Corners reported the MPS officers breached agreed protocol during the 2019 visit that led the AFP to reassess their agreement with the MPS about police visits.

But under questioning from Liberal senator and Shadow Home Affairs Minister James Paterson, Deputy Commissioner McCartney said that was not the case.

"It's been referred to in the Four Corners report, I'm not sure what protocols [were being referred to]," he said.

When pressed by Senator Paterson, Deputy Commissioner McCartney added: "Just to clarify, 2019 was pretty much as per the protocols. We made a conscious decision after that."

"So in your view the MPS did nothing wrong in that 2019 incident?" Senator Paterson asked.

"Correct," Deputy Commissioner McCartney replied.

Chinese police interviewed six people in Australia, AFP says

The senate committee, sitting late Friday, also heard the AFP allowed six Australian residents to be interviewed by Chinese police in Australia between 2015 and 2019.

The AFP said five out of the six Australian suspects returned to China voluntarily. One of the six refused to return to China and remained in Australia.

Three of the six have since returned to Australia and two remain in China. One of them served a prison sentence, Deputy Commissioner McCartney said.

All six were interviewed in Australia under the operational guidelines developed by the federal police, he added.

The 2019 meeting — between MPS officers and a 59-year-old woman, known only as Ms Wang, occurred in an AFP office and under the supervision of federal police officers, Deputy Commissioner McCartney said.

Deputy Commissioner McCartney said the AFP did not believe the woman was coerced into returning to China.

"If it was successful coercion, they won't tell you, would they?" Greens senator David Shoebridge asked. "This is a common pattern of this police agency to use coercion. Did you monitor their communications?"

"No," Deputy Commissioner McCartney said.

When asked the 2019 woman's whereabouts, Deputy Commissioner McCartney said she had not been criminally pursued by the MPS and she remained in China today.

"She is in China dealing with it. She has not been prosecuted. There's no investigation in relation to her," Deputy Commissioner McCartney said.

While China maintains the term "economic criminals" refers to corruption suspects, human rights groups have said it is also used to target enemies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

"What we consider to be economic crime and what the Chinese government considers to be economic crime might not always be the same thing — it might sometimes be used to go after political dissidents and other people of interest," Senator Paterson told senior AFP officers during the hearing.

Cooperation with Chinese police necessary, AFP says

A recent report by human rights group Safeguard Defenders uncovered 16 cases of Beijing successfully returning Australian residents to China.

Four of the six cases referred by the AFP were not contained in the Safeguard Defenders report, meaning at least 20 Australian residents have been returned to China by MPS since 2015.

Senator Shoebridge asked why the AFP would work with MPS knowing its officers secretly entered Australia in 2014 to intimidate the Melbourne bus driver, named Dong Feng, to return to China to face trial.

"These arrangements have been put in place following on from you knowing the Chinese secret police had come here without seeking your permission, without cooperating with you, to extract Mr Dong Feng to China," Senator Shoebridge said.

Deputy Commissioner McCartney acknowledged the 2014 case had caused "great concern" in Australia, but he said the AFP needed to maintain a relationship with the Chinese police agency.

"I think we have the ability to do two things at the one time," he said.

"We understand on one side of our business there is the threat of foreign interference.

"On the other side of our business, there's a need for us to work with Chinese police."

Senator Shoebridge criticised the AFP for creating their own "unofficial extradition process" in the same period that the Australian government failed to get an extradition treaty through parliament.

"When the AFP had their arrangements in place between 2015 and 2019 to facilitate Chinese police investigations onshore for the purposes of returning their targets to China, did the AFP ever reflect on the fact that there was a reason the government had no extradition treaty?" Senator Shoebridge asked.

"That was the arrangements you had — your own unofficial extradition process."

AFP Deputy Commissioner Lisa Gale replied: "I disagree. These were Chinese citizens that expressed a desire to speak to MPS … It is up to them whether they want to return to China. This wasn't an extradition process."

Sydney spying network targeted multiple Australians, AFP says

The AFP has also confirmed a number of Australians were targeted by a spying network that was disrupted in Sydney last year.

"We did speak to a number of individuals … and we actually did disrupt the threat through the [anti-foreign interference] task force activity that we undertook," said AFP Deputy Commissioner Krissy Barrett.

Deputy Commissioner Barrett said the investigation was ongoing.

Four Corners revealed that one of the targets of the spy network was controversial Chinese dissident "Edwin" Yin Ke.

Mr Yin told Four Corners: "They (AFP) told me they disrupted an intelligence agency in Australia in an action. They acquired some information and materials that indicated the CCP was looking for me in Australia through the intelligence agency."

AFP renewed agreements with Chinese authorities

Other than the now-abandoned protocols governing Chinese police visits to Australia, the AFP has had numerous formal agreements with Chinese security agencies. Two are with MPS — one relates to organised crime while the other deals with "economic crime".

Despite examples of such agreements being misused, the AFP re-signed both agreements in March for a further five years.

The text of the agreements are not public, despite repeated calls for greater transparency from federal politicians and international NGOs who are concerned about MPS's actions around the world.

AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw travelled to Beijing to renew the MPS

The Chinese official who oversees MPS, Wang Xiaohong, met with Mr Kershaw and urged the AFP to "comprehensively deepen practical cooperation in law enforcement" via China's Global Security Initiative, China's Xinhua state news agency reported.

The Global Security Initiative, created by Chinese President Xi Jinping, has been used to boost ties with African and Latin American nations through military training, intelligence sharing and counterterrorism partnerships.

"[Commissioner] Kershaw expressed the willingness to enhance practical communication and cooperation in law enforcement with the Chinese side," the Xinhua report said.

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