Alleged Chinese gang members accused of laundering almost $230m through shopfronts across Australia drove around in $400,000 cars, flew on private jets, drank saki and wine valued at tens of thousands of dollars and dined at high-end restaurants, according to law-enforcement officials.
But the lavish high-end living is now on hold for seven alleged syndicate members after the Australian Federal Police swooped to bust up the network, seizing more than $50m worth of property and luxury cars in an investigation into the alleged money laundering operation “hiding in plain sight”.
Husband and wife duo Jing Zhu, 35 and Ye Qu, 35, were brought before the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Thursday alongside co-accused Din Wang, 40, Jin Wang, 33, Jie Lu, 28, and Fei Duan, 37.
Successively, lawyers representing the six accused syndicate members told the court it was their client’s first time in custody, making them “vulnerable”.
Ms Lu, the court was told, is a new mum with a 21-month-old baby currently in the care of her mother.
She asked Magistrate Steven Raleigh for permission to have phone calls with her mother from lock up so she could check on the infant’s welfare.
During the hearing, Mr Raleigh shot a warning across to barrister John Saunder, representing the AFP, saying he’d “better get” police to prepare a concise summary of the offending because what he’d been supplied was a “novella”.
“That’s not a summary, that’s a novella,” he said.
Another co-accused, Zhou Chen, 37 from Balwyn, faced court on Wednesday night.
Charge sheets released by the court indicate each accused allegedly conspired to deal with $10m or more that was, or they believed it to be, the proceeds of crime.
Police will allege they are involved in an alleged Chinese crime syndicate, “secretly” operating the Changjiang Currency Exchange – a registered money remitter that has handled more than $10bn since 2020.
While most of the transactions were lawful, police will allege the Exchange facilitated a system for organised criminals to transfer more than $228m in unlawfully-obtained money in and out of Australia over the same period.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday morning, Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Dametto said the syndicate members lived the high life on the backs of other people’s misery.
“(They) Lived large from their criminal activity,” he alleged.
The Chinese gang is alleged to have hid behind the front of legitimate business Changjiang Currency Exchange to launder massive amounts of dirty money over the last three years, police say.
More than 300 police officers raided homes and offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth early on Wednesday morning.
The alleged ringleaders of the group, four men and three women aged between 33 and 40, were arrested in Melbourne.
They were marched out of up-market homes in the city’s east in handcuffs as high-end cars like Porsches and Mercedes wagons were seized.
The alleged criminal network, dubbed the “Long River” gang, is believed to have operated 12 legitimate currency exchange businesses in major cities across Australia.
Mr Dametto said the “head of the syndicate” had been taken in.
“The reason why this investigation was so unique and complex was that this alleged syndicate was operating in plain sight with shiny shopfronts across the country – it was not operating in the shadows like other money-laundering organisations,” he said in an earlier statement.
Wednesday morning’s dramatic raids were the culmination of 14 months’ hard work dubbed “Operation Avarus-Nightwolf”, which involved more than 40 AFP officers, five forensic accountants and undercover operatives.
According to police, the vast majority of customers use Changjiang Currency Exchange to legitimately change currencies and send cash overseas.
But hiding behind this appearance of a genuine business was a sinister gang funnelling the proceeds of organised crime groups around the world and teaching criminals how to set up complex fake paper trails to deceive authorities, police allege.
The Long River gang came to the attention of police when shiny new shopfronts started appearing at Changjiang outlets in Sydney in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It was just a gut feeling, it didn't feel right. Many international students and tourists had returned home, and there was no apparent business case for Changjiang to expand,” Mr Dametto said.
Speaking next to Australian Border Force Assistant Commissioner Clinton Sims and Austrac national manager intelligence partnerships Brad Brown, Mr Dametto said the investigation had not uncovered evidence of corruption or influence from the gang bleeding into political representatives.
“We have no information at all about former politicians or current,” he said.
The ABF used currency sniffer dogs in their investigation in addition to deploying digital forensic investigators.
“It is a massive outcome for Australia,” Mr Sims said.
Mr Dametto said the investigation would continue and it was possible more charges and arrests would be made.
He also said the police would target money-launders who might still be operating in Australia.
“We have not finished and we are coming for you,” he said.
The seven people arrested will appear in Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Thursday.