China’s Foreign Ministry has slammed a foreign interference investigation which has embroiled a group of Chinese academics and journalists in Australia, accusing the Federal Government of “blatant irrational behaviour”.
- Chinese media alleges four of its journalists were raided by Australian authorities in June
- A Federal Government source confirmed journalists were investigated, but said it was lawful
- Relations between China and Australia have been marred in recent times by tensions over coronavirus, trade and espionage
On Wednesday a host of Chinese media outlets 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 which 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 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,” said FASIC chairman Kevin Hobgrood-Brown.
“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 that he is not a suspect in the investigation. He’s rejected any suggestion he would be the target of a foreign influence campaign.
The Attorney-General Christian Porter did not comment directly on the raids, or confirm they had taken place.
But he told the Australian Financial Review that police and security agencies always observed the law when they executed search warrants.