How a meeting at a Chinese Starbucks raised alarm bells for an Australian popstar (2024)

Overnight celebrity Harry "Hazza"Harding held a prestigious job with China's state media. He now believes he was being groomed for espionage.

Walking into a Starbucks in Guangzhou, China in October 2021, Harry Harding was searching for a womancalled"Susan". He was there to discuss a new business opportunity.

She'd contacted him over the messaging app WeChat, explaining that she was from a consulting company in Shanghai — later clarifying it was a think tank — and wanted him to write essays for her "clients".

Harding was a famous face in Guangzhou, where he had become an overnight pop sensation and television presenter. His high profile meant he was regularly asked to host or emcee events, charity galleries, and other freelance opportunities.

From his correspondence with her, Harry had anticipated "Susan" to be a professional who was fluent in English.

He recalled beingsurprised when he arrived to discover that "Susan"was accompanied by a man. Both were young, only knew Mandarin and Harding thought they "looked like university students".

How a meeting at a Chinese Starbucks raised alarm bells for an Australian popstar (1)

In Harding's account of the meeting, "Susan" showed hima website with the kind of reports she wanted from him.

The site was called New Eastern Outlook (NEO), a geopolitical journal associated with a Russian thinktank, which, in March 2022, the US government classifiedaspart of the Kremlin's foreign intelligence service and said promoteddisinformation and conspiracy theories.

Australia'sgovernment had also sanctioned the website two months aftertheUS.

Harding said the websitewas "very anti-West" andfilled with "propaganda-style, hate-filled content".

When Harding refused their first proposal, the conversation took a disturbing turn.

"They asked me if I had any family or friends in the Defence Force in Australia," he said.

"They asked me who I knew in politics in Australia.

"Basically, what they proposed to me was that I would use my position as a journalist and a television host to reach out to Australian politicians, and high-profile people here in Australia.

"And I would ask about certain topics that they would give me to find information, under the guise of it being an interview for television, radio, or publication."

How a meeting at a Chinese Starbucks raised alarm bells for an Australian popstar (2)

Harry said "Susan" offered to pay him up to $5,000 for each report and added the articles could remain unpublished.

She assured him there were already other Australians in China who worked for them and none of them got in trouble for it.

The meeting concluded with the pair giving Harding a shopping bag with Dior wallet and cologne as gifts.

He said he threw it in the bin as soon as they were out of sight.

Harding returned to work and talked himself into believing the meeting wasn't sinister.

However, that all changed with events that unfolded after his return to Australia, which put the encounter into an entirely new context.

Harding was already in touch with the ABCabout his meeting with "Susan" when, on April 14,Sydney man, Alexander Csergo, was arrested by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and charged with breaking foreign interference laws.

In circ*mstances strikingly similar to Harding's own, police alleged Csergo had been groomed by foreign agents claiming to be from a thinktank in Shanghai and that he'd agreed to write reports for them in return for cash payments.

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When Hardingheard the news from his family home in Queensland he said his "heart dropped". He rang the Australian spy agency, ASIO, and the AFP national security hotline to tell them about the "Susan"approach.

He told the ABC that he was initially worried he was "stereotyping these people" and was being "overly paranoid".

"And I repeated that to the national security hotline when I called and they said:'No, absolutely not, your concerns were definitely valid."

From country boy to stardom

In the decade he lived in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, Harding had amassed an enormous fanbase as the only foreign presenter at the state-owned media outlet, Guangdong Radio and Television (GRT).

The city was a world apart from the rural Queensland town where he grew up and became a self-professed Sinophile.

He credits his appreciation for the country to his mother, who kept a collection of Chinese antiques in their home.

How a meeting at a Chinese Starbucks raised alarm bells for an Australian popstar (4)

Harding became famous in Guangzhou in2012 after releasing a song called Let Go —a break-up ballad sung in perfectly pronounced Mandarin, which topped local music charts.

Over the next decade, Harding —or "Hazza", as his fans called him —began regularly presenting on Australian-Chinese affairs during a time, he said, when the relationship between the two countries "was going gangbusters".

He met former Australian prime ministers John Howard and Kevin Rudd and interviewed former Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon, as well as more than 40 foreign officials and diplomats.

He was also among the very few who had access to uncensored footage from China's Great Hall of the People —the central governance building of the Chinese Communist Party.

"It was just a case of being in the right place at the right time, and I fell in love with journalism," he said.

"And I just loved being able to explore Guangzhou and Guangdong from the perspective of a journalist, because being a journalist allows you to go up to people and ask questions, and it's not an intrusion."

How a meeting at a Chinese Starbucks raised alarm bells for an Australian popstar (5)

How a meeting at a Chinese Starbucks raised alarm bells for an Australian popstar (6)

Harding now suspects the encounter with "Susan" is not the only time people have tried to leverage his high profile and love for China for foreign interference purposes.

'Foreign friends like you can help us'

When COVID-19 broke out in early 2020, he made the difficult decision to bunker down with his GRT colleagues, saying "as an Australian, you don't abandon your friends".

In March of that year —a year and a half before the Starbucks meeting —Harding said hereceived a call from a man claiming to be a government official with close ties to the state's public security bureau.

The man rang Harding throughout the day from three different numbers. In the brief conversations they had, it was clear he had access to personal information about Harding, details only few were privy to.

"The first call was very shocking to me," Harding said, "He knew my address, my phone number, who I was living with."

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The mystery man wanted help from "friends of China" who could help bolster the country's international image.

"I want to ask for your advice," he said in a text message seen by ABC Investigations.

"Although China has developed very well, it's still voiceless on the international stage, and easily influenced by prejudices and bias. We hope foreign friends like you can help us."

In the messages, the man claimed he worked for the Guangdong provincial government but said he wasalso the director of three associations.He sent Harding his business card.

ABC Investigations has confirmedthat theassociationsareaffiliated with the United Front Work Department (UFWD), China's foreign influence arm which has beenimplicated in several foreign interference scandals involving the US, UK,and Australia.

One of the associationsof which the man is a director is governed and funded by the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission of Guangdong Province, a provincial UFWD unit.

The other two were youth associations, which are controlled by the UFWD.

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The man wanted to meet. Harding, uneasy about the tone of the conversation, politely declined and asked to stop being contacted.

When the ABC called the man and asked if he had contacted Harding in 2020 for his help, he responded, "No", and hung up.

The UFWD could not be reached for a response.

Not long after this approach, Harding's interest in China landed him in public controversy.

In November 2020, Harding tweeted he was "ashamed to be an Australian" amid criticism of Australia's handling of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

He made this comment beneath a post which included a doctored image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of a child.

Shortly after, hepublicly backed a Chinese spokesperson who criticised Australia over the war crime allegations.

After a furious backlash to his comments, Harding released a video on his YouTube channel where he clarified: "I am a patriotic Australian and I love my country."

The spiel from spies

ABC Investigations briefed former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer John Sipher on the details of Harding's story.

He said the encounter with "Susan"was an example of "classic espionage tradecraft".

Sipher said intelligence agencies across the world, including those from the West, recruited potential sources "under the cover of what normal businesses sometimes do, but [it] often quickly turns into spying".

"It's something that all services do, and we in the West do it as well," he said.

Sipher was a member of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, which coordinated the spy agency's global activities, and had served in Asia and Europe, including Russia.

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How a meeting at a Chinese Starbucks raised alarm bells for an Australian popstar (10)

He said the woman presenting herself as "Susan" was clumsy.

One of the red flags, Sipher said, that was notablewas the woman's over-eagerness,particularly her willingness to fly and make herself readily available to Harding, only nine days after connecting with him over social media.

He said it also sounded like she offered him money too early.

"What you need to do, if you're trying to recruit a source, is you're trying to convince the person [that] what they're doing is not a big deal," Sipher said.

"Then, slowly, over time, as you pay them more money and they write more information, and you press them a little bit more to get stuff that's a little more sensitive.

"It's a slow process to eventually walk someone across the line. So, eventually, they're committing espionage, whereas, at first, they're not."

When ABC Investigations contacted the woman who went by the name of "Susan", she did not pick up.

ABC Investigations and the ABC's 7.30 approached ASIO and the AFP to verify Harding had contacted them. Both declined to comment.

In a statement, an AFP spokesperson said that, if a foreign actor or their proxy is seeking information and to achieve this, is using or asking Australians to act covertly or deceptively, it is highly likely a criminal offence is being committed.

The 'dicey' problem with spy craft

Since calling the national security hotline, Harding has been worried about the optics for himself and other expatriates in China.

"I am concerned that Australians will be suspicious of people like me, [who] have worked and lived in China for a long time," he said.

"I want Australians to know that the vast majority of Australians living, working or studying in China are going about their business and life with integrity and honesty."

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Sipher said Chinese intelligence efforts have ramped up dramatically in recent years, as the relationship between China and western nations continued to deteriorate.

Over the past decade, dozens of Chinese spying cases have gone through US courts.

He warns it is possible that "innocent people could get caught up in this, on both ends" and that Chinese diaspora could be coerced into being foreign assets.

Sipher called it a "dicey issue".

"Our governments need to do what they can to educate the public and try to be open and honest with them to the extent that they can," he said.

"I think Australia has to create a system where individual citizens don't think that, just by dealing with Chinese [people, they] are going to get themselves in trouble."

Last November, Harding came back to Australia to pursue a master's degree in international relations.

He told his parents about the two approaches after coming home.

"He was just sort of in the right place, that they've contacted him and hoped that he might be a tool or a vehicle to achieve their ends," his mother, Deborah, said.

"It could have been catastrophic, depending upon what move Harry made".

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Despite the incidents, Harding said Australians should not be afraid to engage with the world.

"I think it's a strength [that] Australian people go out into the world. They engage with the world, they learn about the world, and then they come home, and they share that knowledge with everybody," he said.

"But, if we create this culture of everybody just being suspicious of one another and [being] scared to go out there and meet people, and talk to people, and exchange views, I think that can be a national security concern in the long term."

Credits

  • Reporting: Echo Hui
  • Additional reporting: Tom Canetti, Josh Robertson
  • Digital production and editing: Kevin Nguyen
  • Graphics and design: Jack Fisher
  • Photography: Michael Lloyd

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How a meeting at a Chinese Starbucks raised alarm bells for an Australian popstar (2024)
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