The Chinese Government has condemned allegations that Beijing tried to infiltrate Australian politics as a « malicious smear and slander, » after the ABC revealed police warrants connected China’s Sydney Consulate to the alleged plot.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin responded to a question about the revelations with 90 seconds of stony silence before accusing Australians with « Cold War » mindsets of peddling lies.
The ABC revealed on Tuesday night that a Chinese Consul to Sydney, Sun Yantao, was named in an Australian Federal Police (AFP) warrant, in an investigation into an alleged plot to infiltrate the New South Wales Labor Party.
The search warrants were served on NSW policy adviser and Chinese-Australian community leader John Zhisen Zhang in June as part of police raids targeting the 62-year-old and his boss, state Upper House MP Shaoquett Moselmane.
Mr Wang told the media conference China was « strongly dissatisfied and firmly opposed » to the allegations which were « stigmatising normal operations of China’s diplomatic missions. »
« Some people in Australia are bent on hyping up anti-China sentiments and trying to grab headlines by smearing China and attacking China, » he said.
« We hope that these people discard their Cold War mindsets and ideological prejudice and stop politicising and stigmatising the normal operations of China’s diplomatic missions. »
The AFP and spy agency ASIO are investigating whether John Zhang was part of a group of foreign agents who encouraged and helped Mr Moselmane to champion Chinese Government interests within the NSW Labor Party and to voters.
The warrants named Consul Sun Yantao among at least seven other people whose communications with Mr Zhang were suspected by the AFP to contain evidence of the alleged plot.
Mr Sun is responsible for coordinating relations with the Chinese diaspora, pro-Beijing organisations and China’s foreign influence agency, the United Front Work Department.
The Federal Government sought to dampen the fallout from the explosive revelations, with Trade Minister Simon Birmingham indicating the investigation was not focused on prosecuting Chinese officials.
« My understanding is that investigations that might be under way relate very much to potential foreign interference activities by publicised figures who have been identified in the media, who are Australians, » Mr Birmingham told ABC News.
Former diplomat and senior Defence official Allan Behm told the ABC he feared China’s recent crackdown on Australian journalists in China would be expanded in response to the revelations.
« The Australian Government needs to act right now, » said Mr Behm, who was a foreign policy adviser to the former federal Labor government.
Earlier this month, ABC correspondent Bill Birtles and Australian Financial Review journalist Michael Smith were evacuated from China, following the arrest last month of Australian TV anchor Cheng Lei.
« [The Australian Government] needs to warn Australians who are in China that they must be extremely careful — that they must do nothing that attracts attention or that might otherwise provoke the Chinese Government, » Mr Behm said.
« If they have no real reason for conducting business in China at the moment, they would be pretty well advised to return to Australia. »
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The AFP-ASIO investigation is understood to have fed into the deepening diplomatic crisis between Australia and China in recent months.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings, also a former senior Defence official, said the allegations surrounding the Sydney Consulate would have global ramifications.
« That is a bombshell that will be frankly electrifying through the national security community in Australia, » he said.
« It’s something that will be paid attention to all around the world. Everyone is going to sit up and pay attention to this development.
ABC Investigations earlier reported that senior Chinese media officials in Australia had been targeted and the visas of two leading Chinese scholars were revoked as part of the investigation.
It emerged the journalists were among four questioned in ASIO raids in June, prompting Chinese state media to claim Australia had « severely infring[ed] on the legitimate rights of Chinese journalists ».
The Federal Government recently warned Australians that they are « at risk of arbitrary detention » in China, while the Chinese Government warned its citizens of the risk of « arbitrary » searches in Australia.
Mr Behm, a former adviser to Labor’s Penny Wong when she was foreign minister, questioned whether the Federal Government had a diplomatic strategy to manage the potential fallout from the latest revelations.
« It is a very big move to identify by name a Chinese diplomat, particularly a Consul in Sydney, in a warrant, and it’s an even bigger moment when that warrant becomes public information, » he said.
« I doubt that there was very much at all by way of serious diplomatic consideration given to this — it looks very much like action without a plan. »
« At the moment, Australia’s diplomacy with respect to China is absolutely in the pits, » said Mr Behm, now head of the Australia Institute’s International and Security program.
« It is high time that the Australian government listened carefully to its diplomats and actually build a proper diplomatic policy and a strategic plan in the management of our relationship with China.
« Australians who are resident in China, they could also become subject to all sorts of investigations and visits.
« The Chinese government doesn’t sit down when other governments undertake what it regards as provocation, so we can expect that they will retaliate in one form or another. »
The ABC also revealed that John Zhang has also accused Australian authorities of breaching domestic and international law by accessing his communications with top-level Chinese diplomats and their families in Australia.
Mr Zhang’s emails, messages and records of phone calls with diplomats and their families were contained on laptops and phones seized in the June raids.
Mr Zhang formally complained to Federal Government ministers that his phones and laptops were also searched by the Australian Border Force (ABF) at Sydney Airport in January.
He accused the ABF and AFP of breaching two of the most sacred international treaties enshrined in Australian law — the Vienna conventions on diplomatic and consular relations — which offer protections to the communications of diplomatic officials.
Ben Saul, professor of International Law at the University of Sydney, said it was significant that Australian authorities had managed to obtain communications involving Chinese diplomats.
« Those communications are normally protected from interference by the host state — that is Australia here — under international law and also under Australian law.
« The risk of accessing a foreign government’s consular and diplomatic communications is that it may well invite retaliation by the other states.
« The reason why international law prevents states from interfering in the communications of other states is precisely because all states have a real interest in preventing the other side from accessing their own communications.
« As soon as one state starts accessing the other side’s communications, it really does invite a kind of tit-for-tat escalation and raises real risks of abuse of any access of communications. »
Other international law experts and ex-diplomats, including Mr Behm, described the claim that diplomatic protections had been breached as unconvincing.
They said it would be impossible for Australia to investigate allegations of foreign interference without being able to search the communications of people in contact with foreign governments.
« Mr Zhang’s claim that he has a kind of a carrier’s immunity because the sources of his communication may have diplomatic immunity, I don’t think hold water, » Mr Behm said.
« He is a private citizen who has information on his laptops and under the law, the intelligence authorities are absolutely entitled to look at these laptops and to read whatever information is on it. »
Mr Zhang could face up to 15 years in jail if charged and convicted of foreign interference.
He maintains his innocence and is challenging the investigation and the foreign interference legislation in the High Court.
Mr Moselmane also maintains his innocence, telling the 7.30 program last month police had advised he was not a suspect in the investigation.
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AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)
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