The Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell on Tuesday when it alleged that in 2016, mainland Chinese agents offered surveillance assistance to aides to Malaysia’s shamed former Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The report claims that Chinese agents offered to help identify sources in Malaysia who were feeding information to Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporters about what at the time was a burgeoning 1MDB scandal.

Officials from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security were reportedly willing to bug the homes and office of Journal reporters based in Hong Kong. At the time the WSJ was actively investigating the scandal-hit Malaysian state fund 1MDB and any involvement in it by the then Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The newspaper report asserted that Sun Lijun, who oversaw domestic security affairs at the Chinese ministry, told his Malaysian counterparts in June 2016 that reporters in Hong Kong had been under full surveillance, including their homes, phones and computers. This was allegedly done in an attempt to identify the newspaper’s Malaysian sources for the 1MDB story.

The WSJ has operated its Asian newsroom and published its Asia Edition in Hong Kong for decades. Its office is located in the Central Plaza skyscraper near the city’s Wan Chai waterfront overlooking Victoria Harbor.

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Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Hong Kong’s former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is seen in the background. Photo: AFP
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The WSJ’s Asian newsroom is in Central Plaza, the tallest building in Wanchai district. Photo: Twitter

Citing minutes it reviewed, the Journal also claimed that Beijing offered to help bail out 1MDB and get US investigations into it dropped. In return, Beijing allegedly wanted to be granted the multi-billion dollar East Coast Rail Link and natural gas pipeline projects in Sabah so as to advance its One Belt, One Road initiative.

About US$681 million was purportedly looted from 1MDB, a Malaysian government fund, in an audacious fraud which led to Najib’s election rout in May. The former leader and his wife now face multiple corruption and embezzlement charges after the newly-elected Mahathir Mohamad government vowed to enforce a sweeping clean-up as well as a review of all China-backed projects.

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Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad with Xi Jinping during his visit to China in August. Photo: Xinhua

Fugitive Malaysian tycoon and Hong Kong resident Jho Low who, according to the WSJ acted as a middleman between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur regarding the surveillance operation, dismissed the shocking allegation as “a continuation of a trial by media”.

“The [WSJ] article is a selection of half-truths, mixed in with fiction, to create a misleading and oversimplified narrative that has been peddled by a morally bankrupt Mahathir regime to advance its failing political cause,” said Low, who is now wanted by the Malaysian authorities, in a statement.

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said that although he could not confirm the WSJ’s claims, he would look into the matter. He was also cited as saying, “If there is anything that explicitly states this in black and white, we will pursue the case.”

HK suffers collateral damage

The Hong Kong government is being prodded for comment on allegations of Chinese agents’ acts of espionage in a jurisdiction where they have no legal authority.

The city’s Secretary for Security John Lee declined to speculate on the WSJ report, but reiterated that agencies from mainland China and overseas had no authority whatsoever to enforce laws in Hong Kong.

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Chinese and Hong Kong flags. Photo: VCG

Lawmakers from the city’s pan-democratic bloc have taken the opportunity to slam the government for sitting idly by while Chinese agents have long run amok in the city. They demand further explanations, and want the city’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, to convey their misgivings to Beijing.

Questions are also being raised as to whether local officials were aware of Chinese agents bugging reporters.

The city’s Interception of Communications and Surveillance Ordinance stipulates that law enforcement agencies are required to obtain authorization from a panel judge or a designated authorizing officer prior to any interception of communications or covert surveillance.

Read more: Case of CIA ‘mole’ sheds new light on Hong Kong as spy hub