A senior Chinese diplomat has sought Australian government protection for himself and his family, claiming he faces persecution if he goes home, Australian officials said yesterday.
Analysts said Chen Yonglin's defection could muddy Canberra's relations with Beijing, its third-largest trading partner with annual exchanges now worth A$28.9 billion (US$22.7 billion).
The Weekend Australian newspaper said Chen, 37-year-old consul for political affairs at China's consulate in Sydney, had applied for political asylum but officials had ruled this out. It said Chen was now seeking a protection visa that would enable him, his wife Jin Ping, 38, and their six-year-old daughter to remain in Australia.
The newspaper said Chinese consular security staff were searching for Chen, who had walked out of the mission a week ago, saying he could no longer support China's persecution of dissidents.
"They are searching for me. I heard they are looking for me everywhere, especially in the Chinese community," the newspaper quoted him as saying.
A spokeswoman for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said that the government knew of the matter but that it was a case for the Immigration Department.
"We are aware that an official from the Chinese consulate-general in Sydney has applied for a protection visa," she said.
The reported defection comes amid efforts by Australia to forge closer economic ties with China
According to the Weekend Australian, DFAT told Chen, who holds the rank of first secretary, that his request for political asylum had been rejected but that he could apply for a protection visa.
Such a visa would entitle him to remain in Australia permanently.
Despite concerns for his safety, Chen appearing at a rally in Sydney yesterday to mark the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. He told the rally that about 1,000 Chinese spies are operating in Australia and have carried out several kidnappings. He said he had evidence of several instances in which people were kidnapped and returned to China.
"They have successfully been kidnapping people in Australia back to China," he said.
He said one kidnapping involved the son of an opponent of the Chinese government who had been studying in Australia.
"I told this to the Australian government when the immigration and foreign affairs officials interviewed me on the 31st of May but they don't care," he told the rally.
He said the number of Chinese spies in Australia numbered "some thousand."