A social media chat group alleged to be part of a foreign influence plot has been misrepresented and is just a “friendly chat group”, according to a New South Wales politician.
- John Zhang, a part-time staffer of NSW politician Shaoquett Moselmane, is a suspect in an investigation into foreign influence
- Mr Zhang’s lawyers say he denies the allegations
- Mr Moselmane says he is not a suspect in the investigation
In June, the Australian Federal Police raided the home and parliamentary office of NSW Upper House MP Shaoquett Moselmane.
The AFP were seeking information relating to allegations of a foreign influence plot. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) also confirmed it was part of the investigation.
One of Mr Moselmane’s part-time staffers, John Zhang, is a suspect in the investigation. His lawyers told 7.30 that Mr Zhang denied the allegations against him.
Mr Zhang has launched a High Court challenge to the validity of a separate police warrant relating to the investigation.
In his first interview since the raids on his home, Mr Moselmane told 7.30 that while he acknowledged foreign influence was a concern in Australia, he rejected any suggestion he would be the target of a potential foreign influence campaign.
“I’m a backbencher. I have no portfolio,” he said.
“I don’t have anything to provide, if you like, that would be of interest to the Chinese.”
“I can’t see why they would be approaching me for foreign influence.”
Mr Moselmane says he does not believe he is a suspect in the investigation, and the first he learnt of any of the allegations was when his house was raided.
“It was a traumatic, you know, to see federal police in my home searching,” he said.
“And it makes it appear that my home is like a centre for espionage.”
‘Just a social group’
Federal police allege Mr Zhang and unnamed others used a social media chat group to act on behalf of the Chinese state apparatus. The chat group is understood to be a WeChat group.
The chat group was allegedly used to advance the interests and policy goals of China by providing support and encouragement to Mr Moselmane for the advocacy of “Chinese state interests”.
The police allege that Mr Zhang concealed or failed to disclose to Mr Moselmane that he and others were acting on behalf of or in collaboration with the Chinese state apparatus.
Mr Moselmane told 7.30 the social media chat had been misrepresented, and that it was a “friendly chat group”.
“There’s nothing sinister. But it’s been made to sound like something covert,” he told 7.30.
“I mean, it’s just a social group, they’re chats.”
“ASIO now has got my phone and would have gone through my phone and would have seen that it’s just a general chat group.”
He also outlined some details about the membership of the chat group.
“There’s about seven people. Like I said, there was two who are academics, one from ECNU, Eastern China Normal University, one from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and a couple of journalists, foreign journalists, and one John Zhang. And another is a friend of mine from Hurstville,” he said.
“So these are people who are … individuals who I have never seen anything untoward from any of them.”
When asked whether he discussed his speeches or parliamentary work over the chat he said: “Not necessarily … I mean, sometimes we share articles, or we share speech or share comment. We share jokes. This is a common human thing.”
He told 7.30 Mr Zhang did not write speeches for him in his work as a part-time staffer.
“He basically translated what I wrote. So if I said, if I gave a speech in the House, an adjournment speech, and that is of interest to the wider Chinese community, I’d asked him to translate it,” Mr Moselmane said.
Mr Zhang’s lawyers, Nyman Gibson Miralis, told 7.30 in a statement: “Although we understand that the AFP is continuing its investigation, you would be aware that Mr Zhang has not been charged with any criminal offence.
“In those circumstances it would not be appropriate for Mr Zhang to respond to allegations based on the search warrants or derived from any other sources.”
The AFP said it would not be providing any further comment while the investigation was ongoing.
Mr Moselmane has attracted media and political scrutiny over some of his comments praising the Chinese Government, and his criticism of Australia.
In one speech in June 2018 he said the only way for China to achieve its potential was to force a change to the rules and create a “new world order”.
Mr Moselmane told 7.30: “Obviously, as a nation rising, it obviously will demand, there’s no doubt will demand, respect as a great nation.
“And that was it. It wasn’t that I wanted China to change the world order.”
In an essay published in February this year that was written by Mr Moselmane and translated into Mandarin, he praised China’s response to the pandemic.
The essay makes sweeping claims about Australia’s slow response to the pandemic, and makes other claims about the racial prejudice of the Australian media and anti-China sentiment in Australia.
It was also reported that according to independent translations of the essay he wrote that the “obsolete scum of white Australia” had re-emerged.
Mr Moselmane denies ever writing those words.
“What I actually said, [is] … this is the old white Australia fear of the yellow peril resurfacing. I never said white Australian scum,” he said.
“It is completely stupid of any Member of Parliament to say that white Australians are scum.”
“I reject it totally and absolutely.”
Two translations commissioned by 7.30 of a portion of the essay indicate he was referring to what he claimed is the re-emergence of white Australian prejudices.
‘Police told me I’m not a suspect’
The course of the AFP and ASIO investigation may set a significant precedent about foreign interference investigations involving political figures, and for the future of foreign interference laws themselves.
Mr Moselmane has not been charged with any offences, and maintains that he is not a suspect in the investigation.
He had his Labor Party membership suspended following the raids, and said he would take a leave of absence from Parliament while the investigation took place.
He is confident that he will be able to re-enter Parliament.
“They beamed the whole operation to the world. I mean, the federal police inside told me that I’m not a suspect. But outside I was. I was a criminal,” he said.
Mr Zhang’s legal team has also challenged the constitutional validity of the foreign interference offences, arguing they violate the implied freedom of political communication guaranteed under the constitution.
If the challenge is successful, it could render part or all of the foreign interference offences introduced by Parliament invalid.
The High Court challenge is still underway.