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Does foreign mass surveillance pose a risk to ordinary Aussies? Image: Cason Ho.

Amid growing trade and geopolitical tensions, a political expert says the Chinese Government’s mass surveillance system could potentially flag average Australians.

Leaked files from China’s surveillance database identified a university student as a ‘person of interest’, among 160 other Australians, including former intelligence officers and government officials.

Curtin University International Relations lecturer Gavin Briggs says China’s intelligence operations need to be taken seriously.

“We cannot underestimate the lengths to which some major powers may engage in the collection of secret information, or monitor the activities of citizens in other countries,” he says.

“People may need to be more vigilant than ever about what they say and do.”

Mr Briggs says foreign mass surveillance is common among major powers, but the real worry may be the amount of information collected due to advancements in technology.

“Targeting of persons of interest is not exactly new, however what’s new is the current and emerging technologies available to conduct such activities,” he says.

He says the intent behind a country’s mass surveillance must also be considered.

“What is important is to not only acknowledge how tech-savvy they are, but the purpose for such malicious behaviour being conducted,” Mr Briggs says.

Relations with the Chinese Government have grown increasingly sour since Prime Minister Scott Morrison proposed an independent inquiry last year into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Subsequent trade disputes are impacting a range of Australian export sectors including the wine, cotton and beef industries.

A brief timeline of Aus-Sino relations since 2018. Image: Cason Ho.

In this year’s Annual Threat Assessment, The Director General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation said Australia is facing “sophisticated foreign adversaries that are effectively unconstrained by law, ethics and resources.”

Mr Briggs says countries behaving maliciously may “use any technology to further their cause.”

The Chung Wah Association is Western Australia’s largest Chinese non-profit organisation which aims to foster the relationship between Chinese-Australians and other local communities.

President Ting Chen says the political disputes between Australia and China are likely due to cultural differences.

“Both sides need to understand each other culturally. In Australia, we always criticise the Government if they have done bad things; but in China it’s impossible,” he says.

Mr Chen says it’s important to separate politics and government actions from the identity of the Chinese and Chinese-Australian people.

“We are Chinese, but we call Australia home,” he says.

“This is why the Chinese community has contributed to building Western Australia for over 90 years.”