Home » Eric landed in Australia and walked into the ASIO headquarters. ‘I’m a Chinese spy,’ he declared

Eric landed in Australia and walked into the ASIO headquarters. ‘I’m a Chinese spy,’ he declared

For the first time ever, an undercover agent for China’s secret police steps out of the shadows to tell all about where he’s been and who he’s been targeting.

On a bitterly cold winter morning in China last year, a man who’d spent more than a decade working as a spy for the notorious secret police decided to flee his homeland.

“I spent most of the time in the airport’s bathroom, worried that secret police would find out my plan,” he recalls.

The man – who goes by the name Eric – was no stranger to operating undercover.

As an agent for the Political Security Protection Bureau, or 1st Bureau – a secret unit of China’s Ministry of Public Security – he’d been involved in missions to surveil, abduct and silence targets around the world since 2008, including in Australia.

This mission, though – to quit – would be his most dangerous.

Eric was a spy for China for 15 years.()

After landing on Australian soil last year, he walked into ASIO headquarters in Canberra and revealed who he was.

Now, the 39-year-old is divulging the secrets he’s been guarding for years, at great risk to himself, to expose what he says is one of the most feared parts of China’s intelligence apparatus.

“It is the darkest department of the Chinese government,” he says.

“The bureau – they’re a bit like the KGB, the Stasi and the Gestapo.”

A person's hand holds a passport open at a page with travel stamps including Bangkok
Eric conducted missions in several countries.()

After arriving in Australia, Eric also contacted the ABC and began to explain his predicament.

His story sounded unbelievable, but he seemed determined.

“The Communist Party shaped me into an enemy who is committed to the fight against it,” he says in one message.

“Without it, I am just a young man who likes to read books, play games, love animals, and occasionally write poetry.”

Eric shared hundreds of secret documents, text and voice messages, and bank records that he’d gathered over the years, and after weeks of complex negotiations, he agreed to an interview.

It is the first time anyone from the secret police has spoken publicly.

Sitting in an empty warehouse with a Simpsons T-shirt just visible under his green jacket, Eric is nervous, but he says:

“I believe the public has the right to know this secret world.”

The recruitment

Eric says he was always going to end up turning his back on China.

As a 22-year-old university student obsessed with Western democracy, he says he joined the US-founded China Social Democratic Party in 2007.

He was unaware he was under police surveillance.

A pasport style photo of a young man in a T-shirt and glasses
Eric when he was a student. ()

After sharing information about the party’s annual meeting on social media, police came knocking at his door.

“They told me, ‘Get dressed and follow us. You know what you’ve done’,” Eric says.

He was taken from his home, interrogated over several days in a small room inside a local police station, and forced to sign a document confessing to his ‘crime’ of opposing the Chinese government.

Threatened with jail time, he was offered a second chance.

A man wearing a green jacket and glasses puts his hand to his chin.
Eric.()

That was the moment his world as he knew it ended, and his double life as a reluctant spy for China’s covert system of repression began.

“They forced me to work for them … I didn’t have a choice.”

For 15 years, Eric would be assigned to a series of secret police handlers who directed him to infiltrate pro-democracy organisations and hunt down dissidents that were now Chinese government targets.

As a dissident himself, Eric had the perfect cover story. In 2016 he was invited to a gathering of activists in India’s Dharamshala, home of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

There, he met with the Dalai Lama.

A group of men pose for a photo. Everyone's faces are blurred except two
Eric (fourth from left) with the Dalai Lama.()

Eric filed a report to his handler detailing the exiled government’s confidential future China policy. It was well received.

The secret police now trusted him to work internationally, and he was rewarded with higher stakes missions to help ensnare high-profile opponents living abroad.

One of them was right here in Australia.

The YouTuber

In 2018, Eric was ordered to hunt down Edwin Yin, a YouTuber who has been deeply critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Edwin wrote a book alleging Xi has four illegitimate sons, and also published a video ridiculing his daughter.

He fled China for Australia in 2018.

A man against a wall on his phone
Eric was tasked with tracking Edwin Yin. ()
A man against a wall looks at his phone
Edwin lives in Australia. ()

Eric’s handlers communicated with him via encrypted social messaging apps including Potato Chat and Ant Messager.

Four Corners is not naming Eric’s handlers to protect his safety.

Handler: [Edwin] Yin … born in 1982, from Shengzhou, Zhejiang … He fled to Thailand, Singapore and other places, and is now in Australia.

Handler: Use Twitter or other channels to get closer to him.

Handler: Lure him to South-East Asia.

Eric: Okay, Brother.

When Four Corners met with Edwin to share what it had found, he was living in a campervan, moving from place to place.

A man in a black T-shirt inside a campervan
Edwin in the campervan.()

He already suspected he had been under surveillance by the Chinese state and didn’t feel safe.

“In front of our home, there were different cars, different Chinese faces,” he says.

“Sometimes while sleeping, there’d be footsteps outside. I’d grab a knife and rush outside, but they’d be gone.”

Edwin tells Four Corners about the extraordinary lengths he believes the Chinese intelligence services have been going to in order to ensnare him.

In 2021, he suffered a broken nose after being assaulted in a Melbourne street by two men he suspects were Chinese agents. A third man who was with them filmed the attack.

A close-up of a man's face
Edwin fears for his safety.()

The year before, his then partner Michelle, an Australian citizen, travelled to China after being told her father was gravely ill. When she arrived, she realised her parents had been told to lie, and she was forced to meet with intelligence officers who questioned her about Edwin.

“Where he lives, what did he do … his financial information, what kind of people he met,” she says.

Michelle doesn’t want to be identified.

The back of an unidentified woman sitting in a kitchen
Edwin Yin’s former partner, Michelle.()

When she travelled to China, she was pregnant, and says the officers started pressuring her to abort the baby. She believes they thought it would give Edwin a pathway to Australian citizenship.

While Edwin claims he is a dissident on the run, China says it is tracking him down because he is a criminal. He was charged with fraud in China, and Four Corners has spoken to a man who says he is one of his victims.

But Edwin says he’s being framed by the Chinese government.

The Australian Federal Police is aware of Edwin’s case.

Eric says he began collecting intelligence on Edwin but didn’t pursue him further. He told his handler he felt Edwin was “too cunning” and was unlikely to travel overseas.

He says Edwin’s case shows the growth of the Chinese Communist Party’s global reach.

“Since Xi took over as leader…no doubt their power is expanding, their staffing, their finances.”

“So, their overseas operations have become relatively more active.”

Following Eric’s revelations, Four Corners learned of an AFP raid in Sydney last year that disrupted a Chinese intelligence agency undertaking surveillance on people.

Edwin’s name was one of the names listed on the AFP search warrant as a victim of the spying operation.

The cartoonist

Before Eric was tasked with spying on Edwin, he worked for the Chinese police in operations across South-East Asia.

In 2016, he was based in Cambodia and ordered to target political cartoonist Wang Liming, also known as Rebel Pepper.

A man in a dark shirt and glasses stands in a darkened room.
Cartoonist Rebel Pepper.()

Rebel Pepper’s satirical drawings take aim at China’s human rights record and its political elite, including President Xi Jinping.

His work variously depicts Xi as a dumpling, a tyrant, and Winnie the Pooh – and the Chinese Communist Party as a tentacled monster.

A red map of China showing various black and white satirical cartoons inside it
Rebel Pepper’s cartoons. ()

Eric was given an apartment in Phnom Penh and a cover story, working as a planning supervisor for the Prince Real Estate Group.

The company is a subsidiary of multi-billion-dollar conglomerate, the Prince Holding Group, which has connections to Cambodia’s leadership.

Cambodia and Laos have close ties with the Chinese government and there have been allegations in the past that it can operate freely in both countries.

A man walking down some steps underground
Eric worked undercover.()

At the time, Rebel Pepper was living in Japan, so Eric was ordered to lure him to Cambodia where he could be arrested by and returned to China to face trial.

“I really like Wang as a cartoonist. I didn’t want him to be arrested, but there was little space for me to offer help,” Eric says.

High-ranking secret police officials travelled from Beijing to a private clubhouse in Phnom Penh to discuss the entrapment with him.

Eric contacted Rebel Pepper using his cover at Prince Real Estate, asking him to design a logo for them.

A close-up of a man's face
Rebel Pepper drawing.()
The beginning of a black pen sketch of a man on a white piece of paper
Rebel Pepper’s work often features Xi Jinping. ()

Every message he sent was first approved by his handler.

Eric: I plan to leave a message…such as “Hi Pepper…I have seen a lot of your work, and I’m very impressed.

Handler: OK.

In a voice message, Eric’s handler told him to exploit Rebel Pepper’s need for money.

Handler: If he says his financial situation is bad, you can immediately send him 500 US dollars.

Rebel Pepper responded a few days later.

Eric: He replied.

Handler: OK, wait for my update.

Eric: Well. The fish seems to be biting the bait.

Rebel Pepper’s designs were used by Prince Real Estate at their events, and Eric arranged for senior managers to pose with a giant inflatable version of one of them.

A black and white cartoon sketch of two princes
Rebel Pepper’s work for Prince Real Estate. ()
Two men stand in-front of a giant inflatable cartoon prince.
Prince Real Estate senior managers with Rebel Pepper’s design. ()
A colourful cartoon of four princes
Rebel Pepper’s prince-themed logo. ()

Secret police then organised a job interview for Rebel Pepper in Cambodia, but his wife suspected it was a trap and dissuaded him from going.

Four Corners met with Rebel Pepper – who now lives in the US – and told him he had been a target of the secret police. He’s shocked at the findings.

“They only needed to censor my cartoons. What intelligence was there to collect on me?”

“It freaks me out. If they spent that much effort to arrest me, they would severely penalise me,” he says.

A spokesperson for the Prince Holding Group said it has no affiliations with any part of the Chinese government and holds itself to the highest ethical standards.

“We do not participate in or condone any actions that violate human rights or the laws of any jurisdiction,” they said.

The activist

In 2018, Eric was sent to Thailand to target another dissident.

This time, they would end up dead.

Eric was ordered to befriend Hua Yong, an exiled Chinese artist and activist hiding in Bangkok who had long been an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party.

In 2012, Hua had staged a protest commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre by punching himself in the face.

An old reel of film featureing a man with blood on his face
Hua Yong in his 2012 Tiananmen Square protest.()

Hua also documented Beijing’s mass evictions of migrant workers in 2017.

In a voice recording in April 2020, Eric’s handler stressed that he was a high priority.

Handler: You listen to my following request carefully.

Handler: This Hua Yong, the superiors now find him very annoying and want to deal with him. As you mentioned, he is short of money and wants to do business together. You think of a way to lure him to Cambodia or Laos.

Eric was given the cover story as a business planning manager at a hotel group named White Horse.

A man in a tropical patterned shirt uses his phone
Eric spoke to his handlers via encrypted apps.()

Over drinks, Eric and Hua bonded over their desire to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party and discussed setting up a pro-democracy group overseas. Eric reported this back to his handlers and they came up with a plan.

Eric would form a fake anti-CCP militia called “V Brigade”, to further build Hua’s trust.

In a video posted online, Eric dressed up as a militia leader and delivered a speech urging Chinese citizens to prepare for armed resistance against the regime.

Three men in green disguises.
Eric (centre) in the V Brigade video. ()
A man in an army hat and jacket shooting a gun.
V Brigade was a fake militia.()

It was a success: Hua promoted the V Brigade video on his Twitter and YouTube accounts, and messaged Eric: “I just watched the video … I can feel my blood boiling”.

Eric says the secret police offer a reward system for the agent who assists with capturing a high-profile target, and a bounty of 100,000 yuan (around $20,000) was put on Hua.

In April 2021, the plan almost faltered when Hua was granted a temporary protection visa by Canada, but he remained in close contact with Eric and invited him into his core group of activists.

A man in glasses and a warm jacket takes a selfie with trees in the background
Hua in Canada.()

A few months later, Hua moved to Vancouver and Eric filed a comprehensive intelligence report at the request of his handler, including Hua’s phone number, address, where he went and who he met.

Eric was praised for his work and given a financial bonus.

According to Hua’s friends in Canada, he had settled there and was living a happy new life.

But in November 2022 – more than a year-and-a-half after he arrived – Hua was found dead. He died while kayaking on a cold autumn night.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police concluded Hua’s death was not suspicious.

A man in a green jacket and glasses sits in a darkened room
Eric is now reflecting on his life as a spy.()

Eric says he has his doubts about Hua’s death.

“My first reaction was that maybe he’d been killed, but in fact, I couldn’t tell whether his death was just an accident or a murder, because I wasn’t part of it.”

“All I could say is that Mr Hua had been a long-term target of the secret police.”

Asked if he feels any guilt, Eric says he had no choice but to carry out his work.

“I’m an idealist, but I’m also pragmatic. I am aware of the outcome one might face in China if you refuse to work for the secret police.”

The escape

Eric says in the early days, he tried to flee the secret police on several occasions.

In 2011, without telling his handler, he travelled to Hong Kong and declared who he was working for at the US consulate.

American officials took him seriously, he says, but ultimately, he never escaped.

A man in a green jacket and glasses walking down a street
Eric says he tried to escape previously.()

Even as Eric worked for the secret police, he says he tried to subtly undermine their work.

Once, in 2021, while he was still in Thailand, his handler asked him to target a Chinese military veteran living in Myanmar.

Eric says he tried to help the veteran slip the net by blaming the pandemic, telling the handler he’d contacted him but Covid meant it would be hard to meet.

The handler responded with an angry voice message.

[You’re] too cautious, it always sounds like you don’t want to do anything.

I’ve been thinking, and over the past few years you haven’t actually met with these bad people very much, because you’re not willing to.

You always tell me you can’t ask them this or ask them that. You don’t even fucking try to approach them!

Eventually it was one of Eric’s cover stories that brought his time as a spy to an end.

The V Brigade videos sparked an inquiry by security officials in Beijing who didn’t know the militia was a secret police trap.

Eric’s handler told him he was facing arrest and ordered him to return to China while his handler tried to smooth it over.

Eric knew his time had run out. He fled, flipping a coin to decide between Australia and New Zealand.

A man in a green jacket and beige trousers looks out across a body of water.
Eric is now in Australia.()

His handlers tried to reach him after he arrived in Australia.

“I told them that it was impossible to meet me,” Eric says.

“I suggested them and their families leaving China because there could be a huge fallout as a result of my escape … I wished that they take care of themselves.”

Now Eric is going public, he says he will be a target of his former masters, and secret agents may now be sent to harm him.

“When they deal with a target like me, they may be more patient … and wait for an appropriate time to act,” he says with a worried but firm tone.

“They may mobilise some agents on the ground or send people to Australia to take measures against me.”

A man in a green jacket looks out across a body of water.
Eric knows speaking out comes with risk.()

An Australian Government spokesperson said defending against malicious foreign interference was “a top priority”.

The Chinese embassy in Canberra and the foreign affairs ministry in Beijing did not respond to a request for comment.

Eric says working undercover has deeply affected him.

“Years of clandestine political activity had turned me into a suspicious and confrontational person.

“I’m still sentimental, but I can also be cruel in some ways.”

There is only one way he says he’ll ever feel safe.

“For all those who oppose the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping, the day that we can feel truly safe is the day the CCP falls.”

Watch the Four Corners documentary, Ruthless Pursuit, tonight from 8.30pm on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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Credits

Story by: Echo Hui, Elise Potaka and Dylan Welch

Photos: Keana Naughton and Ryan Sheridan

Illustrations: Rebel Pepper

Editing and production: Kate Sullivan

A Four Corners and ABC Investigations production