China accuses Australia of raiding its journalists’ homes amid reports Canberra cancelled academics’ visas

China’s state media outlets claim Australian intelligence agents questioned several Chinese journalists and seized their devices

The Chinese flag is seen at the Chinese Embassy in Canberra




China says the incident of Australian intelligence agents interrogating Chinese journalists occurred in late June and is ‘in violation of legitimate rights’.
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Australia has cancelled the visas of two Chinese scholars because of security concerns, according to reports, adding a new element to the spiralling diplomatic dispute over the treatment of journalists.

Chinese diplomats have also aired claims that Australian intelligence agents have questioned several journalists from Chinese media organisations and searched their devices “in violation of legitimate rights”.

The ABC reported on Wednesday evening that Australia’s Department of Home Affairs had cancelled the visas of two Chinese scholars in line with advice from intelligence agency Asio about security concerns – although it is unclear exactly when the authorities took that step.

Prof Chen Hong, director of the Australian studies centre at East China Normal University in Shanghai, told the ABC he was “shocked to receive an email notifying me of visa cancellation on security grounds”.

The step is reportedly linked to the joint investigation by Asio and the Australian federal police into alleged foreign interference that become public in June when authorities raided the Sydney home of the New South Wales upper house Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane.

Chen, who regularly visits Australia and whose commentary has appeared in a number of media outlets including Chinese state media, told the ABC on Wednesday he believed “a gross mistake has been made regarding my relationship with Australia”.

The report named Chen and Li Jianjun – the director of the Australian studies centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University – and several Chinese journalists as being members of a group on social platform WeChat that has attracted the attention of Australian authorities.

But Chen argued the WeChat group was innocuous and was used “to share jokes and funny memes, photos of personal excursions, fishing trips or drinks, and repost newspaper articles”. Guardian Australia is attempting to contact Chen and Li.

China’s state media outlets earlier published details of the alleged raids on Chinese journalists in Australia – dating back to late June – amid fallout over the plight of two Australian journalists who arrived home on Tuesday after an intense standoff with Chinese authorities and a temporary exit ban.

The Chinese embassy in Canberra posted a link on its website to an article in the Global Times – a nationalistic state media outlet – that said an Australian intelligence agency “recently raided the residences of Chinese journalists in Australia, and questioned them, seized their computers and smartphones, and asked them not to report the incident”.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said on Wednesday that Australian officials had not provided a “reasonable explanation” for the searches but had cited a possible violation of foreign interference laws.

“The Australian government’s behaviour … blatantly violates the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese journalists there and caused severe harm to the physical and mental health of the journalists and their families,” Zhao said in a daily briefing in Beijing.

“We ask Australia to immediately stop such blatant irrational behaviours, stop harassing and oppressing Chinese personnel in Australia under whatever pretext.”

The apparently coordinated response to Australia’s concerns about press freedom comes after Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen and business journalist for the Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, was taken into secretive detention in China in mid-August.

When approached by Guardian Australia seeking confirmation of the reported raids, a spokesperson for Asio said: “As is long-standing practice, Asio does not comment on intelligence matters.”

The Chinese embassy issued a statement confirming that it had “provided consular support to Chinese journalists in Australia and made representations with relevant Australian authorities to safeguard legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens”.

Zhao said officials seized laptops, cellphones, and a child’s toy tablet from the homes of reporters from outlets including state news agency Xinhua and the China News Service.

Earlier, the Global Times attributed the claims to “a source close to the matter” and accused Australia of displaying hypocrisy in its calls to uphold freedom of the press. The article referred to the episode as a “serious political incident” that was “poisoning relations” between the two countries and “revealing the ghost of McCarthyism”.

Earlier, Xinhua said the journalists were interrogated for several hours on 26 June – the same day that the AFP, as part of a joint investigation with Asio, raided the Sydney home of Moselmane over alleged foreign interference.

It then reported the Chinese journalists were told to “be silent” about the incident.

China News Service said four journalists from three Chinese media organisations in Australia were questioned over alleged breaches of the foreign influence transparency scheme.

That scheme, which was launched in late 2018, requires individuals or entities to register certain activities – such as communications – if they are taken on behalf of a foreign principal.

The episode may help explain why China updated its travel advice in July to say that Australian law enforcement agencies “have arbitrarily searched Chinese citizens and seized their articles, which may cause harm to the personal and property safety of the Chinese citizens in Australia”.

At the time, that updated travel advice was seen as a direct response to Australia updating its own advisory for China to say authorities have detained foreigners on alleged national security grounds and that Australians may be at risk of arbitrary detention.

Cheng, an Australian citizen, was arrested in Beijing on national security grounds last month, China’s foreign ministry spokesman revealed on Tuesday, speaking just hours after two other Australian journalists arrived home after fleeing the country.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith left China on Monday night after being questioned by China’s ministry of state security.

Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, on Tuesday labelled it as a “very disappointing series of events”.

Labor’s agriculture and resources spokesperson, Joel Fitzgibbon, said it was “the lowest point in our relationship since Tiananmen Square” and he sheeted home blame to the Australian government.

“When the security of Australians living in China comes under a cloud, then we know we’ve got a very serious problem on our hands,” he told radio 2CC on Wednesday.

Australian diplomats in Beijing first cautioned Birtles that he should leave China early last week. That warning was repeated two days later, prompting the ABC to organise a flight out on Thursday.

But according to the ABC, before he could leave, police officers arrived at Birtles’ apartment around midnight on Wednesday, as he was hosting farewell drinks. He was reportedly told he had been banned from leaving the country and would be interviewed over “a national security case”.

Birtles then arranged to be picked up by officials from the Australian embassy and spent the next four days hiding in the embassy in Beijing, where he was contacted by Chinese officials demanding an interview.

After initially refusing to speak to police, he was eventually interviewed by Chinese authorities on Sunday, accompanied by Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher. The interview went ahead after officials agreed he could leave the country if he spoke to them.

Birtles told the ABC on Tuesday he felt the interviews were acts of harassment towards the Australian journalists, rather than a legitimate part of an investigation.

“It felt very, very political, it felt like a diplomatic tussle in a broader Australia-China relationship more than anything specific related to that case,” he said.

Smith was visited by Chinese police about the same time, and he took shelter in the Australian consulate in Shanghai. AFR editors called the matter “regrettable and disturbing”.

Relations between Australia and China have been strained over a range of issues, including Australia’s forthright early call for an independent international investigation into the origins and handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Beijing has taken a series of trade actions against Australia, including imposing steep tariffs on Australian barley, suspending import permits for several red meat processing plants and investigating Australian wine exports.

– with Reuters