China is building large covert informant networks inside Australia's leading universities, prompting Australia to strengthen its counter-intelligence capabilities.
Chinese intelligence officials have confirmed to Fairfax Media that they are building networks to monitor the ethnic Chinese community to protect Beijing's "core interests".
Much of the monitoring work takes place in higher education institutions, including Sydney University and Melbourne University, where more than 90,000 students from mainland China are potentially exposed to ideas and activities not readily available at home.
Fairfax has interviewed lecturers and Chinese-born students who have suffered repercussions because of comments they made in Australian classrooms which were reported through Chinese intelligence channels. "I was interrogated four times in China," said a senior lecturer at a high-ranking Australian university.
He was questioned by China's main spy agency over comments he made at a seminar about democracy at the University of NSW. "They showed me the report. I can even name the lady who sent the report."
Such informant networks are driving the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to increase its capabilities. ''They have more resources in Sydney University than we do,'' an Australian official said. ''No question.''
The shift under way in Australian counter-intelligence priorities potentially heralds the end of an era that has been overwhelmingly dominated by counter-terrorism since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
It illustrates the complexities of a rising China, whose leaders have recently recommitted to economic reforms while inoculating their
Leninist political system against change and Western influence.
China's electronic espionage capabilities are broadly known, with high-profile examples of Chinese servers being used to penetrate Australia's largest companies, most senior politicians and even ASIO's new high-tech headquarters in Canberra, which remains unopened as a result.
But China's human intelligence and ''influence'' networks have proven more difficult to identify and respond to.
At the overt level, education counsellors in Chinese diplomatic missions organise Chinese-born students into associations through which they can provide support services. In part, they are providing assistance and a sense of community that many Australian universities are failing to deliver, said John Fitzgerald, of Swinburne University.
"Australian universities don't know what it means to host international students properly," said Professor Fitzgerald, who is an expert on Chinese communities in Australia. "It means that students from China feel they are being hosted by the Chinese government in Australia.''
The Chinese government-led student associations are also used to gather intelligence and promote core political objectives, according to Chinese officials, Australian officials and members of Australia's Chinese community.
Chen Yonglin, a Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia in 2005, said on Sunday that students were an important part of embassy and consular work.
Mr Chen, now a businessman in Sydney, confirmed that Chinese diplomats set up Chinese student associations at each university, appointed their leaders, and ensured they were well-funded.
''The students are useful for welcoming leaders at airports and blocking protest groups from sight, and also collecting information,'' he said.
Separately, he said, Chinese state security officials in and outside diplomatic missions ran student agents ''to infiltrate dissident groups especially [relating to] Tibet and Falun Gong''.
In 2005 Chinese officials rejected Mr Chen's claim he was aware of ''over 1000 Chinese secret agents and informants in Australia''.
Jocelyn Chey, a former diplomat in Beijing and Hong Kong who is a fellow at the Institute of International Affairs and visiting professor at the University of Sydney, said: "It's quite clear that a large part of the business of Chinese diplomatic missions here is just keeping tabs on their citizens."
Dr Chey has watched the networks become "increasingly complex" since the Chinese embassy opened in Canberra in 1973.
Outside the diplomatic missions, Chinese surveillance work is mainly co-ordinated by the Ministry of State Security and several of the ministry's provincial bureaus.
Surveillance and influence work is also performed by the United Front Work Department, through various business and patriotic associations, as well as two departments of the People's Liberation Army.
The on-campus informant networks are constraining the conversations and actions of Chinese-born students, who constitute the largest international market for Australian universities.
In one case, security officials told parents in China to constrain the activities of their son after informants reported he had seen the Dalai Lama in Australia. According to the lecturer who was interrogated in China, the person who informed on his comments at the University of NSW also fabricated information about him making donations to a democracy organisation.