In a fresh diplomatic war between China and Australia, the China’s foreign ministry on Wednesday claimed that Australian authorities searched and seized items from the residence of four Chinese journalists, including reporters from state news agency Xinhua and the China News Service.
According to the reports, the Australian authorities, in a major crackdown against Chinese entities in Australia, revoked visas of two leading Chinese scholars and also searched residences of Chinese journalists in connection with an investigation into alleged Chinese interference in country’s affairs.
The joint investigation by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) raided the residence of these Chinese journalists and scholars on Tuesday.
The AFP-ASIO Foreign Interference Task Force is probing an alleged plot by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to infiltrate New South Wales Parliament through the office of Labor politician Shaoquett Moselmane, using his former staffer John Zhang.
The names of the Chinese journalists and scholars are, as per ABC News, Australia bureau chief of China News Service, Tao Shelan, China Radio International’s Sydney bureau chief Li Dayong, Professor Chen Hong, and Australian studies scholar, Li Jianjun.
Australian raids Chinese ‘scholars’ over connections with MP Shaoquett Moselmane
Earlier in June, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country’s national security agency had raided the Labor Party leader and New South Wales upper house MP Shaoquett Moselmane for his alleged links with the Chinese government.
It is reported that Moselmane has very close ties with China. Last year, it was reported that Moselmane had taken nine privately funded trips to China since entering parliament in 2009. It was also said that his transport and hospitality costs were often met by Chinese government officials or agencies.
Moselmane had appointed a Chinese national John Zhang to his parliamentary office at the beginning of 2019. Zhang is listed as a vice-chairman of Australia China Economics, Trade and Culture Association, which according to the China experts, was a leading Chinese Communist party-aligned organisation in Australia.
Currently, the AFP is investigating whether Zhang used a chat group on the Chinese social media platform, WeChat, to encourage Moselmane to advocate for the Chinese Government’s interests. The journalists and academics are being investigated over the alleged infiltration because they were members of the WeChat group.
China detains Australian journalist Cheng Lei
The diplomatic war between China and Australia further escalated on Tuesday after China detained journalist Cheng Lei of CGTN on national security grounds last month. Cheng Lei is a high profile Australian citizen working in Beijing.
According to the reports, China’s foreign ministry revealed on Wednesday that they had news anchor Cheng Lei and kept in secretive detention since mid-August on charges of carrying out illegal activities that allegedly endangered China’s national security.
On Tuesday afternoon, Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry said Cheng was “suspected of carrying out illegal activities endangering China’s national security”. “This case is being handled according to law and Cheng’s legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed,” he said.
Reportedly, Cheng was critical of the Chinese government on her Facebook page earlier this year. However, there was no indication the posts were linked to her detention. Following her detention, CGTN has deleted all evidence of her employment from its websites.
Cheng is believed to put under “residential surveillance at a designated location”, which is nothing but solitary detention where she can be held for up to six months without access to a lawyer.
It is being said that, amidst deteriorating relations with China, Lei is considered to be collateral damage in Beijing’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy. The detention of Lei on spurious charges by Chinese authorities will be used as bargaining chips by them during the “hostage diplomacy”.
Meanwhile, the latest diplomatic war between the two countries and the detention of Cheng Lei has resulted in Australia bringing last two of its journalists Bill Birtles and Michael Smith back to Australia.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith landed in Sydney on Tuesday after Chinese authorities had tried to delay their return for several days pending investigations.
Australia’s souring relations with China
Australia’s relationship with China has been deteriorating recently. During the coronavirus pandemic, Australia had levelled serious allegations on China, leading to a veiled threat from Beijing. Australia had advocated for a thorough investigation into China’s role in spreading the Wuhan Coronavirus. PM Morrison had even called for a global crackdown on Chinese wet markets.
China had objected to the recent defence deals signed between Australia and India and had termed it a ‘confrontation’ attempt with China.
Australia had recently admitted to a massive cyber-attack against its government networks and had stated that a nation-state is behind it, hinting at China.