An Australian man has been refused bail after being charged with a foreign interference offense for accepting cash from suspected Chinese intelligence agents, with a Sydney court saying his close ties to China made him a flight risk.
Magistrate Michael Barko said Alexander Csergo was a “sophisticated, worldly businessperson” who had been on the radar of Australian intelligence for some time before his arrest on Friday.
The prosecution had a strong case against Csergo, who had lived in China for decades, Barko said in refusing bail.
Csergo is alleged to have arrived back in Australia this year with a “shopping list” of intelligence priorities he had been asked for by two people he had suspected since 2021 to be agents for China’s Ministry of State Security, the court heard.
The pair, named in court only as “Ken” and “Evelyn,” first made contact with Csergo through LinkedIn.
This shopping list had been discovered by Australian intelligence authorities three weeks after Csergo returned to Sydney, the court was told.
Csergo had been allegedly asked to handwrite reports about Australia’s AUKUS defense technology partnership with the United States and Britain, the QUAD diplomatic partnership, iron ore and lithium mining, Barko said.
A marketing executive, Csergo, 55, was arrested in the beachside suburb of Bondi on Friday.
He is the second person charged under Australia’s foreign interference law, which criminalizes activity that helps a foreign power interfere with Australia’s sovereignty or national interest. It carries a maximum 15 year prison sentence.
Csergo appeared in court via video link from Parklea Prison where he is being held as a high security prisoner. His mother and brother were in court.
Csergo had told Australian intelligence agents in an interview that when he met Ken and Evelyn in Shanghai cafes and restaurants, the establishments had been empty and he suspected they had been cleared, Barko said.
He developed a high level of anxiety and was in “survival mode,” he had told the Australian authorities.
Csergo had exchanged around 3,300 WeChat messages with the pair, and had accepted cash payments in envelopes, Barko said.
Barko raised concerns for Csergo’s safety, saying some people may not want him to give evidence against China.
Csergo’s lawyer, Bernard Collaery, had sought bail, saying the reports Csergo had written were based on publicly sourced information and the case against his client was “shallow and unsubstantiated.”
Prosecutor Conor McCraith disputed this, saying it was not all open source because he had engaged covertly with two others to prepare reports. He also said Csergo had not come to Australian authorities with his concerns about Ken and Evelyn, and had instead invited Ken to come to Australia.
Collaery said making cash payments was a common business practice in China, and Csergo undertook the consulting work during the COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai as a source of income.
“Of course he believed Ken and Evelyn were keeping tabs on him. That’s how it works in China, he became very worried about it,” Collaery said.
Csergo had worked in China since 2002 in data marketing, including for a major international advertising agency.
Collaery said Csergo’s career had come “tumbling down” since his arrest and he had no intention to return to China and instead planned to pursue the Australian government for damages for ruining his career.
Collaery told media outside the court the case was a “civil liberties” issue and raised concerns about the scope of the foreign interference law introduced in 2018.
“If you work as a consultant in any foreign country… and you undertake consulting work that may relate to Australia’s foreign influences or national security… you can be guilty of foreign interference,” he told reporters.