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ASIO boss stirs anti-China campaign with spy report

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ASIO chief Mike Burgess announced the removal of a nest of foreign spies within Australia (Screenshot via YouTube)

ASIO head Mike Burgess has loudly joined the anti-China campaign. In demonising China and suspected spies, he has acted to intimidate journalists and anyone seeking positive relations with China.

If anyone imagined that the anti-China campaign might have peaked, then ASIO boss Mike Burgess let us all know that there was more to come. After all, no matter how bad things might be, they can always get worse. The top spy has let us know that a hive of spies has been uncovered and broken up. He didn’t say that it was a Chinese “hive”, but given the endless anti-Chinese rhetoric, he didn’t have to. We can all sleep safely knowing that ASIO was taking a “more aggressive counterespionage posture”.

He also made the boast, in a style owing more to Le Carré than reality, that

“They were good — but ASIO was better. We watched them. We mapped their activities. We mounted an intense and sustained campaign of operational activity. We confronted them. And working with our partners, we removed them from this country, privately and professionally. The hive is history.”

If Burgess was coy about naming China as the bogeyman, former PM Malcolm Turnbull had no such scruples. He has stated that the “most active state and political party seeking to influence public affairs in Australia is that of China and the Communist party of China”. Someone had to specifically name China. Otherwise, the mistake might be made that it is the USA that is the most active in influencing and dominating political and public affairs in this country and that would never do.

The Burgess speech was extraordinary. Those working for the nameless foreign power were described as lackeys. The style adopted was not unlike the vigorous school of news reading that we get from Pyongyang. These “lackeys” we were told to buy off journalists with study tours, where the soon-to-be-stooges would be turned into agents of Beijing. This is not, however, simply a spymaster getting carried away with the moment. It was a thinly veiled warning to any journalist who might have the temerity to write anything that is not suitably anti-Chinese.

As an aside, there have been, over the years, many visits and study tours offered to journalists and politicians to travel to Israel. The United States routinely offers study grants for Australian students to become interns in Washington. It is unlikely, in ASIO’s estimation, that these actions are seen as anything other than honest, open and above board, offered in the interests of building understanding and furthering positive relationships.

The difference is that China has been targeted as the prime enemy of our ally and friend, the USA, and so heaven help anyone not playing the right tune.

The ASIO boss was also clear that the “lackeys” were working to threaten people in Australia. Just which diaspora he was referring to remains cloaked in secrecy, but China, if not the exclusive target, was high on his hubristic hit list. This echoes the regrettable work of Australian academic Clive Hamilton and his astonishing claims that a large proportion of the million-plus Australians of Chinese descent cannot be relied on to be above suspicion and might easily be regarded as fifth columnists. His fifth column also included business figures and politicians.

Mike Burgess described a scenario whereby public servants, academics and prominent business people applied pressure on ASIO to ease upon Australia’s espionage efforts. He did not quite say that these nameless characters are among the “lackeys” but the resolute defender of Australia was clear as to his motives. He was acting to stop journalists and judicial figures, among others, from being targeted by dangerous foreign agents.

The thing about being in charge of the shadow world of espionage and counter-espionage is that names need never be divulged. This safeguards the innocent but makes it all but impossible to distinguish between fact, fiction and half-truth. Why Mr Burgess chose to unburden himself at this time, when the “hive of spies” has been smashed is important.

There seem to be just two possible reasons. The first is his stated objective: “As we progress AUKUS, it’s critical that our allies know we can keep our secrets and keep their secrets.” This is a remarkable thing to say, but simply affirms to the Australian public and Government that “we” are well and truly pulling our weight. The U.S. can have no fear of our commitment to their anti-China campaign.

His second possible motivation flows from the first. America is driving the world toward conflict with China. This is no longer an issue for debate. The role of the media is vital. People must be given a collective view of whose side they are on and why. There is no room for vacillation. The words of the ASIO chief are designed to ensure that journalists toe the line or be accused of being tools of the Chinese.

We can see just how important a unified media has been in building the case for Ukraine over the past 12 months. There is no space for a dissenting voice. It all has a terrifying similarity to 1914 and the demonising that went with the jingoism of WWI. We must not see Russia or Russians in anything but inhuman terms. It has been a most successful campaign. And so, it follows that China must become, not simply untrustworthy, but an imminent threat to peace everywhere and an immediate threat to all we hold dear.

Mike Burgess in his inflammatory language describes his work against these anonymous Chinese spies and lackeys as being akin to engaging in “hand-to-hand combat”. The problem here is that warriors like Burgess may wish to distinguish themselves in combat but there is no real enemy and we, the people, must not become collateral damage in his and the Americans’ war plans.

Dr William Briggs is a political economist. His special areas of interest lie in political theory and international political economy. He has been, variously, a teacher, journalist and political activist.

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