Australia has always kept an eye on China for America

The first time I was aware that we were spying on China for America was a trip to the Peking Trade Exhibition on an RAAF VIP jet with Deputy Prime Minister Dr Jim  Cairns in 1974.

Approaching Hong Kong – then still under British rule – I was in formed by a technical sergeant on the plane that we were carrying electronic equipment to detect and examine the Chinese Defence systems. “It’s the same stuff that Nixon took in on his visit. The CIA installed it.”

“Great,” I replied. “I’ll be leaving the plane in Hong Kong.”

“Don’t worry about,” he said. “It’s installed in the other electrical systems.”

“You mean the toaster, stove stuff.” In those days – I was a considerable wit. He thought it such a wet comment he didn’t respond. A moment later he said, “Listen they’ll never find it, they can’t even make crystal sets.”

I didn’t mention it to Jim because it had too much of a set-up feeling attached to it. Two other people, including the office manager mentioned it to me, and I realised I was supposed to do something with the information. I did indeed think I should tell Nation Review’s correspondent, Mungo McCallum, but didn’t want to embroil him in a hoax. The Australian’s Greg Clarke also deserved a break on a good story.

We were an extra day in Hong Kong so I had plenty of opportunity to begin a diplomatic break with America (little did I really know). I didn’t tell anyone. I kept it from Jim because he may have pursued a bureaucratic pathway that would have revealed him as vulnerable.

It wasn’t until we were in China that I realised that the story was a real one. The bureaucrats were running around in a state close to hysteria in case the Chinese discovered the electronic probing system. They may have all gone to jail and/ or faced execution.
The Chinese had suspected something because they had wanted the crew to fly in without their uniforms. Australia (Gough and Jim) held fast. If the crew had been in civvies and the gear discovered, they would have been prosecuted as spies .

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