China Allegedly Offered Bitcoin Bounty to ‘Terminate’ Australian Activist

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China Allegedly Offered Bitcoin Bounty to ‘Terminate’ Australian Activist

By Ryan S. Gladwin

Originally published by Decrypt on Jun. 27, 2023

Australian human rights activist Drew Pavlou claims that a $50,000 Bitcoin bounty was placed on his mother by the Chinese Communist Party.

China and Australia. Image: Shutterstock

An Australian human rights activist and critic of the Chinese Communist Party claims the CCP has put a Bitcoin bounty out on his family.

In emails seen by Decrypt, “DP Bounty Hunters” offer a bounty of $50,000 to “terminate” Drew Pavlou and family members, including his mother, Vanessa—inviting recipients to share their Bitcoin address “to receive remuneration.”

Pavlou claims the emails were sent to major shopping centers in Brisbane, in a bid to reach his mother’s employer. While the most recent email bounty was taken out on Drew’s mother, Vanessa, Pavlou claims that other family members have been targeted previously.

The bounty emails were first highlighted by Australian current affairs programme 60 Minutes Australia. Although they were sent from anonymous, hard-to-track ProtonMail addresses, Pavlou claims to have traced them to a “mercenary working for the Chinese government.”

“We can’t confirm for certain that the bounty email we received was the CCP itself,” Pavlou conceded in Twitter DMs with Decrypt. “At the very least, I believe it is very likely a CCP supporter acting with their tacit approval,” he said. “It represents a new escalation in their attempts to terrorize people outside of China who protest against the regime.”

Pavlou has gained notoriety over the years for his protests of the Chinese government, disrupting events including the Chinese Ambassador’s first public speech in Australia in June 2022. Pavlou claims to have been repeatedly harassed by Chinese authorities, and has been publicly condemned by Zhao Lijian, China’s Deputy Director-General of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs.

“The CCP often targets the family members of the person that they want to silence, since often a dissident is willing to pay a personal price for their activism but will draw the line if they know that their loved ones might be affected,” William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at human rights NGO coalition China Human Rights Defenders, told Decrypt.

“Personally, I’m inclined to see [this] scheme as less of a viable plan and more as a form of psychological intimidation,” Nee said.

Decrypt has contacted China’s embassy in Australia for comment and will update this story should we receive a response.

Why Bitcoin?

Using Bitcoin to pay for a bounty would add a level of plausible deniability, experts told Decrypt.

Max Galka, CEO and founder of blockchain intelligence platform Elementus, told Decrypt that crypto is frequently used for illegal activity because of its “borderless” nature, making it challenging to track and identify illicit crypto transactions. “It’s effectively frictionless because it, by design, avoids the barriers of traditional payment rails and third-parties,” he explained.

Despite crypto’s transparency and traceability, wallets are pseudonymous—meaning that, even if a transaction can be traced, it can be difficult to identify the owner of a wallet.

Crypto mixers complicate matters further, enabling the transactions to “easily be shrouded to disguise the original source,” Galka said. Users send cryptocurrency to a mixing service where it’s pooled with other coins or tokens; it then sends the equivalent amount of “mixed” coins to a recipient address, masking the connection between sender and recipient.

In August 2022, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned coin mixer Tornado Cash, claiming that it had been used to launder more than $7 billion in virtual currency.

Nation states and crypto

Crypto has been used by a number of nation states for illegal activity, including North Korea, which is accused of orchestrating hacks and ransomware attacks worth hundreds of millions of dollars through a proxy, Lazarus Group.

North Korea “has been successful in stealing from cryptocurrency businesses,” a spokesperson for blockchain analysis platform Chainalysis told Decrypt via email. “But even in these cases, law enforcement is becoming more successful at tracing and seizing funds.” Chainalysis told Decrypt that other illegal uses of crypto include “sanctions evasion leveraging crypto from Russian actors.” A spokesperson for the company added, however, that “cryptocurrency markets aren’t liquid enough for large-scale sanctions evasion to occur undetected.”

Other countries like Venezuela and Iran have also allegedly used crypto to evade sanctions. All of these parties have come under scrutiny for using crypto to bypass sanctions, but there has been little direct impact on the countries involved.

If this Bitcoin bounty was sent it is likely to be identified and possibly traced to a wallet but unlikely to result in any further consequences, unless the Australian government had concrete evidence that the bounty was issued by the CCP.

“They didn’t include any evidence that they actually had the Bitcoin and didn’t provide proper instructions for people to get in contact with them or claim it,” Pavlou told Decrypt. “So my suspicion is that this was designed to install fear and terrorize my family rather than a serious attempt to offer a bounty on my life and the lives of my loved ones.”

Since these threats have begun, Pavlou has been forced to “constantly look over my shoulder,” he said. “I try not to let the fear take over. But it’s been horrible,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with nightmares and can’t sleep. Years of threats have really started to damage my health.”

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