China has reportedly accused Australia of “hypocrisy” and “double standards” after claiming four Chinese journalists were unfairly targeted by investigators, months before an Australian journalist was detained in Beijing.
The Xinhua report alleged Australian intelligence agency staff searched the Australian homes of the Chinese journalists in June, questioning them for several hours and removing their computers and mobile phones.
The report from China's state-owned media has raised questions about whether the arrest of Australian journalist Cheng Lei might be part of a diplomatic tit-for-tat.
Cheng, a high-profile business anchor on Chinese state television, has been held in a secret location for more than three weeks.
The ABC's Bill Birtles and Michael Smith from the Australian Financial Review were also rushed out of China for their own safety this week, after being banned from leaving until they answered questions about Cheng.
An article published online for the state-run Global Times said the reported raids “severely infringed on the legitimate rights of Chinese journalists” and “exposed Australia's hypocrisy in upholding so-called ‘freedom of the press’”.
“No matter how hard Australia tries to cover it up, it cannot conceal its hypocrisy and double standards in practising its so-called freedom of the press, observers said,” the article stated.
Bill Birtles posted screenshots of the articles to his Twitter account, saying China claimed the investigators found the reporters “hadn’t done any activities that didn’t accord with their identities”.
The Chinese embassy in Canberra described the reported raids as "quite concerning".
"We have provided consular support to Chinese journalists in Australia and made representations with relevant Australian authorities to safeguard legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens," the embassy told AAP.
The ABC reported the ASIO and AFP raids were part of an investigation into alleged foreign interference linked to former NSW Labor political staffer John Zhang, who was a member of a WeChat group with two Chinese scholars.
The visas of the two Chinese scholars had been revoked, the ABC said.
Included in the investigation are four senior Chinese media officials; the Australia bureau chief of China News Service, China Radio International’s Sydney bureau chief, a media commentator and a leading Australian studies scholar.
Mr Zhang has denied any wrongdoing and has launched court action over the investigation.
Multiple Chinese media stories now out claiming Australian anti-foreign interference investigators targeted 4 Chinese state media journalists in late June, seizing phones and laptops but ultimately finding they hadn’t done any activities that didn’t accord w/ their identities. pic.twitter.com/M1FWgtCbJl— Bill Birtles (@billbirtles) September 8, 2020
Cheng Lei accused of endangering China’s national security
Chinese authorities have given their first indication of why Cheng has been detained in Beijing.
"The Australian national Cheng Lei is suspected of carrying out criminal activities endangering China's national security," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters.
"Compulsory measures have been imposed on Cheng and she has recently been investigated by relevant authorities."
Speaking with ABC News, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the relationship between Australia and China is “spiralling” lower than he’d ever seen it.
He suggested Cheng Lei’s chances of a “good outcome” were slim as a result of the nation’s draconian laws.
“Regrettably, the precedents in Chinese judicial practice is that once a formal investigation has been launched, as I understand has been the case in Cheng Lei's case, then the prospect of securing a good outcome radically is reduced,” Mr Rudd said.
“I've seen this in so many cases over the years. That should not prevent the Australian government from doing everything it possibly can, but I am concerned about where the case has already reached given she was only arrested in the middle of August.”
The federal government is advising all Australians not to travel to China, warning they could face arbitrary detention.
Australia has now been left without any credentialled journalists on the ground in China for the first time in 50 years.
"It is disappointing that after many years, Australia will not have a media organisation present in China, for some period of time," Foreign Minister Marise Payne said.
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