Supporters of Chinese officials seeking political asylum in Australia rallied in the country's major cities yesterday, saying Canberra would face international condemnation if it put trade issues ahead of human rights.
"The international spotlight is now shining brightly on the Australian government," Free China spokeswoman Kate Vereshaka told a demonstration of about 50 people in Melbourne. "Will they offer safety and protection in the name of humanity or will they just keep playing it safe?"
Diplomat Chen Yonglin (陳用林) fled his post at China's consulate in Sydney last month and last week alleged Beijing was operating a network of 1,000 spies across Australia.
Two other Chinese officials, policeman Hao Fengjun and an unnamed official who says he was involved in the Chinese security service that monitors the Falun Gong spiritual movement banned by Beijing, are also seeking to defect to Australia.
All three say their lives will be in jeopardy if forced back to their homeland.
The situation has provided a headache for Australian government officials, who are striving to expand political and trade ties with China.
Candice Molnar, a representative of the Epoch Times newspaper, which is linked to the Falun Gong, said Hao has sent a message of thanks to his supporters.
"Through the incidents recently I strongly feel the vast democracy and freedom in this beautiful land of Australia, I love it here -- I love everything here," he said in a letter read by Molnar.
Another protest of about 50 people was held in Sydney, with participants demanding government support for the defectors and criticizing government restrictions on Falun Gong demonstrations outside the Chinese embassy in Canberra.
Under the laws, Falun Gong practitioners are free to meditate but they are banned from playing amplified music or attaching banners to walls or vehicles.
Meanwhile, rebel government politicians said yesterday they were holding talks with Prime Minister John Howard in a bid to prevent an internal revolt over his administration's hardline policies on asylum seekers.
Judi Moylan, one of a group of more than 10 government MPs demanding the softening of mandatory detention for asylum seekers, said the talks were progressing positively.
The rebels are considering crossing the floor of parliament to vote against the government on the issue, a rare show of dissent in the conservative administration noted for its internal discipline.
Moylan said Howard had shown a willingness to compromise as talks continue over a long weekend in Australia ahead of a crunch meeting of government politicians on Tuesday.
"I think the most important thing is a willingness to consider the issue, particularly the release of families with children from detention, and I think we're making some very good progress on that front," she told ABC radio yesterday.