Beijing yesterday claimed that Australia’s intelligence agency questioned foreign correspondents working for Chinese state-run media, seizing computers and mobile phones in raids apparently linked to a billowing spy scandal.
The accusation, the latest scrap in a diplomatic falling-out that spans security, trade and media freedoms, follows an investigation by Beijing into Australian journalists based in China.
The remaining two foreign correspondents working for Australian media in China, Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, fled on Monday fearing arrest, while another — Cheng Lei (成蕾), who worked as an anchor for Chinese state TV — is being detained under “national security” laws.
Photo: Reuters / Australian Broadcasting Corp
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) yesterday added a new layer to the intrigue, saying that Australia-based journalists from Xinhua news agency, China News Service and China Media Group were the target of raids by local intelligence agents in late June.
Four journalists were “interrogated ... on the grounds of a possible breach of Australia’s anti-foreign interference laws,” Zhao told reporters in Beijing.
They were questioned and had their phones and computers, and even their children’s tablets, confiscated, he said.
“Journalists of the Chinese media in Australia have strictly observed local laws and regulations,” he added.
Australia’s actions “seriously interferes with the normal reporting duties of the Chinese media ... and causes serious damage to the physical and mental health of the journalists and their families,” Zhao said.
The four are thought to be back in China, he added.
Beijing is furious at Canberra for taking a leading role in calls for a probe into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and has hit back with a battery of tariffs on Australian imports, from beef to barley.
China is Australia’s biggest export market, but that has not deterred Canberra’s outspoken approach to sensitive issues ranging from human rights in the Xinjiang region to questions over China’s role in Australia’s 5G network.
The Australian intelligence activity is alleged to have taken place on June 26.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) refused to confirm or deny the raids, while the Australian Federal Police said that it had “no comment to make” on the matter.
Court documents show that Australian intelligence and police officers raided the home and office of New South Wales Legislator Shaoquett Moselmane on the same day in June, as part of a months-long investigation into covert Chinese influence campaigns in the nation.
The documents showed that the raids were related to the activities of Moselmane’s aide, John Zhang (張智森), who is accused of collaborating with China’s main spy agency.
It is believed that Zhang and Moselmane had a WeChat group with the journalists who were targeted by the alleged ASIO raids, as well as Chinese state-linked academics.
The group “concealed from or failed to disclose to Mr Moselmane that they were acting on behalf of or in collaboration with Chinese State and Party apparatus,” documents lodged with the Australian High Court allege.
One of the academics in the chat group, Chen Hong (陳弘) — a professor at East China Normal University and a prominent media commentator — yesterday said that he had learned that his own Australian visa had also been revoked.
“The e-mail actually cited that the visa was canceled because ASIO made an assessment that I directly or indirectly have a risk to Australia’s security, which I absolutely refuse to accept, of course,” Chen said.
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