From his perch at the hilltop Yue Lai Hotel, China-born entrepreneur Zhao Fugang enjoys a panoramic view of Fiji’s seaside capital, Suva.

But the hotel is not just the headquarters of Zhao’s local business empire, which has stretched from tourism to property development. It’s also the base for the businessman’s parallel job: promoting China’s influence in the Pacific country.

The imposing red-and-black hotel is a favoured venue for the local Chinese embassy’s official functions, where Zhao has rubbed shoulders with senior Fijian officials. It’s also home to an official “service center” for Chinese citizens, which has played a public role in fostering security ties between China and Fiji.

The businessman’s role is typical of Beijing’s steady efforts to build its footprint in the Pacific Islands. The ruling Chinese Communist Party often uses prominent members of the overseas diaspora as proxies to push Chinese interests, under a strategy it calls the “United Front.”

As Western countries fret over China’s rising influence in the strategically important Pacific islands, Australia — a key U.S ally — has set its sights on Zhao, a joint investigation by OCCRP and Australia’s Nine media outlets have found.

In secret, Australian law enforcement and intelligence agencies believe that Zhao is not merely a businessman or political operative. They suspect he is also a senior organised crime figure — and they’re pushing Fiji to move against him.

Reporters pieced together an understanding of Australia’s targeting of Zhao by reviewing documents circulated among law enforcement agencies and conducting interviews with Australian, U.S, and Fijian security officials.

Australia’s top criminal intelligence body, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, went to the extraordinary step of adding Zhao to its registry of Australian Priority Organisation Targets in mid-2023, reporters have learned. The list of priority targets is secret, and includes about a dozen top suspected criminals, typically based abroad, who are deemed to be “the most significant threats facing Australia.”

Zhao’s designation is the first time a known political operative has been added to the list, and is an acknowledgement that China is believed to be using organised criminal networks as proxies to push its interests in the Pacific, said John Coyne, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“This is the beginning of a journey to really look inside to identify… what else is happening across the Pacific in terms of this interference, how else are we seeing that sort of merging or graying the line between organised crime figures and also people who are working for the Chinese government,” Coyne said.

Reporters found that Australian law enforcement has since at least 2021 suspected that Zhao is a senior member of a transnational syndicate that has been active in the region for decades and “likely has good access to corrupt officials,” according to one document.

The syndicate is allegedly involved in crimes including human trafficking, money laundering, and the large-scale flow of drugs to Australia. Its senior members have a “demonstrated ability to coordinate their operations in the region,” the document says.

Zhao has never been charged in Australia with any crime, nor have authorities made their suspicions public. Their suspicions are not evidence that he is involved in organised crime, but only presents grounds to suspect that he might be.

Inclusion on the list of Australian Priority Organisation Targets is based on intelligence and is not proof of wrongdoing. The list is circulated among Australia’s main law enforcement agencies as part of a strategy to use the full force of the government to take apart the most complex and tough transnational criminal networks.

Fiji’s Home Affairs and Immigration Minister, Pio Tikoduadua, confirmed that Australian authorities had shared intelligence with him that raised “serious” concerns about Zhao.

Tikoduadua said in an interview that Fijian law enforcement may “act on something that has been raised with us by foreign intelligence,” but added that the allegation “must have some basis in fact and in law for us to be able to respond to it.”

During a brief exchange with a reporter at his hotel, Zhao denied any involvement in criminality. Asked if he worked on behalf of the Chinese government, he gave a one word answer: “Yes.”

China’s embassy in Suva declined to answer questions about Zhao, a naturalized citizen of Fiji, and said all questions should be directed to local officials.

“The Chinese government attaches great importance to and is fully committed to protecting the safety and lawful rights and interest of overseas Chinese nationals. We always ask overseas Chinese nationals to comply with local laws and regulations, and not to engage in any illegal activities,” the embassy said.

“Your suspicion of the relation between Chinese government and Chinese community in Fiji is entirely groundless.”

Pacific in Play

The intense Australian focus on Zhao comes amid rising Western concerns about China’s ambitions in the Pacific Islands.

China has in recent years managed to establish formal ties with the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and Nauru, convincing them to abandon diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, a U.S ally that Beijing considers a “renegade province.”

In 2022, China signed a secret security pact with Solomon Islands, a leaked draft of which appeared to allow Beijing to send security forces to the country “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects.” The announcement of the agreement sparked concern in Washington, D.C., as well as the capitals of Australia and New Zealand.

Those Chinese inroads followed earlier gains in Fiji during the authoritarian rule of former Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who came to power in a 2006 coup and was voted out in late 2022. Under Bainimarama, Fiji and China inked a bilateral policing agreement in early 2011, complete with deliveries of equipment and training.

The pact was “extraordinary in terms of the level of detail,” said Graeme Smith, an expert on China and the Pacific at the Australian National University.

“It’s detailed to the extent there’s even a hotline that you could call in the event of any problem,” he said. “Like, literally 24/7 in Beijing, there would be someone to pick up the phone and say, ‘Here we are. We’re ready to jump on a plane.’”

That’s exactly what Beijing did in 2017, sending an aircraft full of police officers to Fiji to round up scores of suspects in an online fraud operation and bring them back to China. The operation, in which the suspects were marched onto the aircraft by Chinese police and placed in black hoods, was heavily criticised by Fiji’s opposition. After Barinimarama was voted out of office, the new government quickly suspended the policing agreement.

Chinese media reports and press releases show that, from at least 2014, Zhao promoted himself as an “adviser” to Bainimarama. Zhao’s exact relationship with Bainimarama’s government is unclear, but both analysts and former government insiders have said that Zhao made efforts to forge personal relationships with the prime minister and other top officials.

Bainimarama even presided over the opening ceremony for Zhao’s Yue Lai Hotel in 2014. The event is commemorated on a plaque embedded near the hotel’s entrance — which was covered up with a sticker after Bainimarama was voted out of office.

Zhao did not respond to written questions. When approached by a reporter for Nine at his hotel, Zhao said he had simply been acquainted with Bainimarama because the former premier had dined at the hotel restaurant.

“Everyone knows Frank,” said Zhao, referring to the former prime minister by his first name before snapping a photograph of the reporter.

Bainimarama did not respond to a request for comment.

China’s ‘Front Man’ in Fiji

Zhao’s role as a representative of Beijing is spelled out in detail in Chinese media reports and official documents.

Since at least the mid-2010s, Zhao has held a series of senior positions at organisations controlled by the United Front Work Department, an office of the Chinese Communist Party that, among other things, coordinates efforts to use China’s diaspora abroad to influence local elites and push Beijing’s interests.
Zhao has held leading positions in United Front groups, including an organisation for the northern Chinese diaspora in Fiji, according to Chinese state media. He has also headed a Fiji-based organisation of diaspora Chinese advocating for the “reunification” of Taiwan with China.

At one point, Zhao served on the council of an Australia-Pacific Taiwan reunification body headed by Huang Xiangmo, a Chinese billionaire and Australian political donor. Huang had his Australian permanent residency canceled and was barred re-entry to the country in 2019 after the domestic intelligence agency alleged that he was interfering in Australian politics on Beijing’s behalf. Huang has denied the allegations of foreign interference.

Chinese-language media reports show that Zhao has made trips back to China to meet with United Front officials, and in 2017 and 2019 attended the organisation’s flagship annual assembly.

Meanwhile, in Fiji, Zhao set about building high-level ties.

“He’s really in many ways the front man for the Chinese state in Fiji,” said Smith, of the Australian National University. “There’s no other serious player in town.”

With Zhao’s help, China “got in very, very deep and very, very close” to Bainimarama’s government, he said.

‘Not a Friend’

Zhao appears to have played a key role in promoting China’s security interests in Fiji.

In 2016, company registry documents and media reports show that Zhao set up at his hotel an official Overseas Chinese Service Center. Beijing has denied claims from Western governments and researchers that these centres are part of a global network of offices that have, in some cases, been used to monitor Chinese citizens abroad. China says the purpose of the offices is to help Chinese citizens carry out banal tasks like renewing official documents.

As head of the center, Zhao attended and played host to several high-level meetings on security cooperation, according to reports in Chinese-language media. Senior Fijian police officers attended these meetings, as well as local Chinese business leaders and embassy officials.

At first glance, it may seem strange that a person trusted by China’s government to support its law enforcement efforts in Fiji is suspected by Australia of being involved in serious organised crime.

But experts say that China has a track record in using “patriotic” organised crime figures as proxies abroad, particularly when part of the job is to influence local elites.

“You need fixers. You need people who know people. And often criminals have a really good Rolodex,” ANU’s Smith said.

“If you can find people that are successful business people and involved in criminal activities, then they’re often your most effective vectors in-country, because they know people and they’re willing to do the stuff that the state doesn’t want to do.”

Previous OCCRP reporting has revealed how the Chinese government has relied on dubious businesspeople –– including a notorious triad leader nicknamed ‘Broken Tooth’ –– to advance its interests elsewhere in the Pacific.

Australia’s suspicions about Zhao’s alleged criminal connections also come amid mounting concern over a rise in drug trafficking through Fiji, which sits between Latin America and deep-pocketed buyers in Australia and New Zealand.

OCCRP reported last year on how neglect by senior leaders in Fiji’s previous government led to an explosion of methamphetamine and cocaine smuggling through the country. Fiji Police seized a record 4.8 tons of meth in January — a haul worth hundreds of millions of dollars that would be enough to supply all of Australia for nearly six months. OCCRP and partners are not alleging that Zhao is involved in the recent seizures.

Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka said in an interview that he was unaware of Australian claims that Zhao is involved in organised crime.

Rabuka’s government announced in mid-March that it was restarting the policing agreement that it had suspended last year. But the prime minister nonetheless said he had concerns that China’s government may have links to organised crime groups active in Fiji.

“I do not want to… open the door to someone that could turn out to be not a friend,” said Rabuka.