China Lashes Out at Australia for Revoking Visas of Prominent Chinese Scholars

Chinese state media has accused Australia of "hypocrisy in upholding so-called 'freedom of the press'", a day after two Australian journalists were forced to flee the country.
September 9, 2020, 8:40am
plane Chinese flag
Image by Greg Wood / AFP

The Chinese Government has accused Australian authorities of “hypocrisy” for secretly raiding the homes of four Chinese journalists in Australia in late June.

Multiple state media organisations published articles overnight claiming that Australia "severely infringed on the legitimate rights of Chinese journalists" and committed "hypocrisy in upholding so-called 'freedom of the press'", according to the ABC.

The state media reports came just a day after Australia’s last two accredited journalists in China were forced to flee the country—leaving Australia without any correspondents there for the first time in 40 years—as a result of intimidation from Chinese authorities.

China News Service was among the outlets that published details of the alleged raids in Australia, reporting overnight that "At dawn of June 26 this year, Australian law enforcement officers conducted an unprovoked search on the residences of four journalists from three Chinese media organisations in Australia on the grounds of alleged violations of Australia's Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act.”

"Items such as mobile phones, computers and writing materials were seized,” the report stated. "In the end, the Australian investigation results proved that the Chinese journalists did not engage in activities incompatible with their identities."

The ABC confirmed today that senior Chinese media officials in Australia had been targeted and the visas of two leading Chinese scholars revoked as part of an unprecedented foreign interference investigation into a New South Wales political staffer. These moves followed allegations that the Chinese Communist Party plotted to infiltrate Parliament through the office of Labor backbencher Shaoquett Moselmane, using his former staffer John Zhang.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) is investigating whether Zhang—who stridently denies the allegations and is challenging the investigation in the High Court—used a chat group on the popular Chinese social media platform WeChat to encourage Moselmane to advocate for the Chinese Government's interests.

Senior Chinese media officials in Australia have also been targeted by the investigation, including the Australia bureau chief of China News Service, Tao Shelan; China Radio International's Sydney bureau chief Li Dayong; and prominent Chinese scholar and media commentator Professor Chen Hong.

Allegations state that they were all members of the same WeChat group, and the AFP has suggested that they, along with Zhang, "concealed or failed to disclose to Mr Moselmane that they were acting on behalf of or in collaboration with Chinese State and Party apparatus", according to documents filed by Zhang in the High Court.

News of that investigation has been public since late June, when Australia’s Foreign Interference Task Force raided the NSW Parliament and searched the homes and offices of Moselmane and Zhang. But Chinese state media only published their reports about alleged raids by Australian authorities on Tuesday night, mere hours after the ABC sent the Chinese Government questions about the AFP investigation. The ABC claims they did not receive responses to any of these enquiries.

The Chinese Embassy later provided a statement to the ABC, however, saying it has "provided consular support to Chinese journalists in Australia and made representations with relevant Australian authorities to safeguard legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens".

Professor Chen, one of the scholars who received a letter from the Home Affairs Department advising him that his Australian visa was being cancelled, rejected the allegations levelled at him by the AFP, as well as any suggestions that he posed a risk to national security.

"I absolutely refuse to accept this assessment, and believe a gross mistake has been made regarding my relationship with Australia," he wrote in a statement to the ABC. "The allegation that the [WeChat] group had been purported as a means of influence is simply preposterous … the Australian authorities must have access to the content of the group. It is plain to any eye that nothing in the conversations and postings in that group has the remotest complicity of anything suspicious."

The other academic to have their visa revoked is leading Australian studies scholar, Li Jianjun.

The nullification of Chen and Li’s visas marks an escalation of the Australia-China diplomatic crisis, which had already reached new heights this week following the extraction of Australian journalists Mike Smith, a correspondent with the Australian Financial Review, and Bill Birtles, a correspondent with the ABC.

Both Smith and Birtles were pulled out of China late Monday night after a week of increasing hostility from the country’s Ministry of State Security. Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist working for China’s state broadcaster, was detained in China just a week earlier.

The incidents were the latest in a string of diplomatic skirmishes that have soured the relationship between Australia and China over the past few months, including disputes over Hong Kong, espionage, and responsibility for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Australia’s investigation into the possibility of Chinese political interference, and China’s furious backlash to those investigations, is now shaping up to be the latest such skirmish.

Follow Gavin on Twitter