Via the ABC:
China’s Foreign Ministry has slammed a foreign interference investigation that has embroiled a group of Chinese academics and journalists in Australia, accusing the Federal Government of “blatant irrational behaviour”.
A host of Chinese media outlets yesterday alleged that Australian national security agencies had “raided” the homes of four Chinese state media reporters in June, seizing their equipment and ordering them to stay silent about the probe.
Some of those journalists were part of a WeChat group that Australian authorities believe was being used by political staffer John Zhang to encourage NSW Labor backbencher Shaoquett Moselmane to champion the interests of the Chinese Government in State Parliament.
Beijing did not publicly condemn the treatment of the journalists back in June, but last night China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian lashed out at Australia.
“The Australian Government’s behaviour severely interrupts the normal reporting of Chinese media outlets in Australia, blatantly violates the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese journalists there and caused severe harm to the physical and mental health of the journalists and their families” he said.
Zhao also said Australian police seized the laptops of journalists, “and even children’s tablets and electronic toys for their kids”.
“As we understand, the Australian side hasn’t provided any reasonable explanation so far for searching and hasn’t returned all the seized items to our journalists,” he said.
He also said all the media workers have now returned to China.
The Australian Federal Police and ASIO have not commented on the investigation.
One Federal Government source confirmed that Australian authorities had spoken to Chinese journalists as part of the foreign interference probe, but said the interview was lawful, suggesting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs account was lurid and exaggerated.
The source argued the Chinese Government was only raising the case now because it had been stung by criticism of the way it harassed Australian reporters Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, who were rushed out of China earlier this week.
Some Australian officials also suspect the Chinese Government’s moves to intimidate Birtles and Smith could be direct retaliation for the investigation in Australia.
Diplomatic crisis deepening between Australia and China
The inquiry into John Zhang is part of the Federal Government’s broader push against foreign interference through the Chinese Communist Party’s major overseas influence unit, the United Front Work Department.
It looms as yet another major flashpoint in an increasingly turbulent and hostile relationship between Australia and China, which has been marred by tensions over the coronavirus pandemic, trade and espionage.
Mr Zhang maintains he has done nothing wrong and is challenging the investigation in the High Court, arguing Australia’s foreign interference laws are unconstitutional because they breach the implied freedom of political communication.
Meanwhile Professor Chen told the ABC that the allegation the WeChat group was being used as a tool of influence was “simply preposterous”.
“I absolutely refuse to accept this assessment, and believe a gross mistake has been made regarding my relationship with Australia,” he said.
The other academic, Li Jianjun, has received tens of thousands of dollars in grants from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and private companies as part of the Australian Government’s soft diplomacy scheme, the Australian Studies in China Program.
As part of the program, Mr Li has been on a $60,000 scholarship funded by BHP Billiton to do a PhD in Australian literature at Western Sydney University.
The program is run by the Foundation for Australian Studies in China (FASIC), whose chairman wrote a character reference on behalf of Mr Li to the Home Affairs Department in response to its decision to cancel his student visa.
“I was disappointed and surprised,” FASIC chairman Kevin Hobgrood-Brown said.
“I’ve known Li Jianjun for a number of years. It was inconsistent with my experiences with Mr Li.
“I’ve always found him an outstanding scholar. I’ve encouraged them [the department and ASIO] to continue their investigation and take another look at the facts.”
Mr Moselmane also maintains his innocence and says he is not a suspect in the investigation.
He has rejected any suggestion he would be the target of a foreign influence campaign.
Attorney-General Christian Porter did not comment directly on the raids, or confirm they had taken place.
But he told Perth radio station 6PR that police and security agencies always observed the law when they executed search warrants.
“There would be few nations on Earth where the rule of law is more stringently observed in the way in which we process a warrant, execute a warrant, the terms on which a warrant can be granted, [and] the fact that that warrant can be contested in court,” he said.
It is always a good idea to have a healthy skepticism of all security and intelligence services. They can be thuggish and make lots of mistakes (hello…Iraq). These raids should have been disclosed at the time. By not doing so, ASIO handed the CCP a propaganda weapon.
That said, we have to trust them sometimes as well. Especially during periods when Australia is clearly under attack. Were these Chinese nationals spies or agents of influence in the CCP sharp power push? With the CCP, alas, there is no clear line. Plausible deniability is one of its key tenets. But the evidence is there:
Tao Shelan is Oz chief of China News Service, the propaganda outfit of UFWD which covertly runs Chinese-language media in Australia, and Li Dayong is Sydney chief of China Radio International, which is under the CCP’s Propaganda Dept and …1/2 https://t.co/zdmOH339N5
— Clive Hamilton (@CliveCHamilton) September 9, 2020
Rex Patrick goes further:
All I can observe from the sidelines is that, once again, a Labor network is caught with its fingerprints all over the CCP honeypot.
Meanwhile, other democracies have offered moral support, via Domain:
The International Parliamentary Alliance on China comprises 194 MPs from more than 17 legislatures including Britain, the United States, United Kingdom and is represented in Australia by Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie and Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching.
In an official statement, the group said they stood in solidarity with the Australian people “as they withstand intense pressure from the People’s Republic of China”.
“In recent weeks China has implemented unwarranted trade sanctions against a number of Australian agricultural exports,” the statement said.
“This is just the latest instance in a disturbing pattern of behaviour whereby the PRC uses its economic influence to pressure other states into acquiescing to their demands
“The PRC’s latest decision, to force out the last two remaining accredited Australian media journalists, shows the extent to which they are willing to bully countries who challenge them.
“Democratic countries must be clear that such coercive diplomacy is unacceptable and has no place in a rules based international order based upon reciprocity and mutual respect.
“Only by standing together will democratic countries be able to resist the PRC’s attempts to rewrite the norms and values of international diplomacy.”
Put Kitching in charge of Labor and flush it.