Australian politician’s staffer investigated for advancing China’s interests

Australian federal police raided the home and office of a man employed by an Australian politician as part of a foreign interference investigation into whether he was working to advance “Chinese state interests”, according to court documents.

The disclosure is made in documents lodged on Monday in Australia’s High Court by the employee, John Zhang, who is seeking to quash the search warrants used by police and the return of seized computer evidence. Zhang, who could not be reached for comment, has not been charged with any offence. His lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

The case is the first test of the foreign interference law which was introduced in 2018, spurred in part by a classified Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) report on Chinese activity. The legislation sparked anger from Beijing which consistently denies it meddles in the political affairs of other countries.

Federal police searched and seized material from Zhang’s Sydney home, business premises, and the parliamentary office of his employer, New South Wales (NSW) state Labor politician Shaoquett Moselmane on June 26. Moselmane, who has been suspended from the NSW Labor party following the raids, has previously said he had not done anything wrong and was not a suspect.

The court documents said Zhang was an Australian citizen who migrated from China in 1989 and had been employed part-time by Moselmane since 2018. According to details of the search warrants described in the court documents, Zhang was under investigation for allegedly concealing from Moselmane that he was acting on behalf of, or in collaboration with, the “Chinese State and party apparatus including the Ministry of State Security and the United Front Work Department”.

The documents said it was alleged Zhang was suspected of acting on behalf of the “Chinese state and Party apparatus” in a private social media chat group with Moselmane, to advance the policy goals of the Chinese government. He is alleged to have encouraged Moselmane to advocate for “Chinese state interests”, they said.

This conduct is alleged to be unlawful because it was covert and sought to influence an Australian political process, the documents said. Zhang’s lawyers argue in the High Court application that the foreign interference law breaches Australia’s constitution because it restricts freedom of political communication and attempts to influence political decisions.

Offences under the foreign interference law can attract jail terms of up to 15 years. An Australian Federal Police spokesman wouldn’t comment further on the case, saying “it is an ongoing investigation”.

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