Alleged Chinese Agent Attempts to Buy Top Spot in Australia’s Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation: Report

November 29, 2019 Updated: December 4, 2019

Brian Chen, who is accused of attempting to install a Chinese agent in a parliamentary seat in Canberra, also tried to take control of a biotech company in Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) building by making a multimillion-dollar offer, according to reports.

CSIRO is an independent Australian federal government agency.

George Kopsidas, the chief executive of Melbourne-based biotechnology Imunexus, told The Age he was approached over the past two years by a company named Prospect Time International Investment, which offered to invest almost $10 million for a majority stake in his company and showed particular interest in leasing an “entire wing” in the CSIRO Parkville building.

Melbourne resident Chen, the chief executive of Prospect Time International Investment, was allegedly involved in a suspected espionage ring of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which offered “a seven figure sum” to pay for a Melbourne luxury car dealer, Bo “Nick” Zhao, to run for a seat in Australia’s federal parliament.

The allegations were reported by Zhao to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), which on Sunday issued a statement saying an investigation was underway. Zhao was found dead in March in a Melbourne motel room.

Chen, the chief executive of Prospect Time, which promotes China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative, has strongly denied any involvement with Chinese intelligence activities or knowing Zhao, however, sources have said the pair had been in contact, according to The Age.

Imunexus’s founder, Kopsidas, said Chen approached the company—which researches and develops antibodies—in June 2017, when the startup had just landed second place in a biotechnology competition in Shenzhen.

While making his offer, Chen reportedly told Kopsidas he had financial backing worth “hundreds of millions,” which could help make Imunexus’s products saleable.

“What Brian wanted to do was to start a full-on biotech company in Australia, a pharmaceutical company,” Kopsidas told The Age. “He wanted to develop products and take them into manufacturing and marketing and sales.”

Kopsias added that Chen wanted to lease out “a significant proportion” of the CSIRO building, which sparked security concerns among experts.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Alex Joske cautioned against a foreign-owned company sharing CSIRO’s premises.

“It’s much easier to conduct scoping work from inside the building … where you can enter sections of the CSIRO facility without authorisation,” Joske told The Age.

After a data breach in 2013 was linked to a Chinese national, CSIRO has spent tens of millions of dollars to improve its cybersecurity systems.

In the end, the deal between Chen and Kopsidas didn’t go ahead, as it “very much skewed in Brian’s favour,” the start-up’s founder said. “In the end, he just wandered off and we never heard back from him … it was really unusual to us.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Nov. 25 called the allegations that China tried to install an agent in federal parliament “deeply disturbing.”

“Australia is not naive to the threats that it faces more broadly,” he told reporters in Canberra, adding the government had beefed up Australia’s laws and security agencies to counter foreign interference.

Resource-rich Australia’s ties with its most important trading partner China have deteriorated in recent years, amid accusations that Beijing is meddling in domestic affairs.

The government has set up a counter-foreign interference coordinator and given the intelligence and security agencies additional resources to protect Australians and the nation’s institutions, a government spokesman said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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