China’s government has used state media to launch an extraordinary attack on Australia, claiming Australian spies are waging an intensifying espionage campaign.
Beijing’s main attack dog media outlet, the Global Times, published an article saying an Australian spying operation was disrupted in China two years ago.
The jingoistic tabloid posted pictures of what it claimed were items seized, which included a map of Shanghai and a compass.
It also claimed Australian spies were operating under the cover of diplomatic passports from the embassy in Beijing.
The paper said Chinese authorities arrested the Australian spies involved in the alleged operation.
The claims come amid increasing concern about China’s espionage activities in Australia, with China warning it will take stronger measures to crack down on Australian espionage.
Asked about the allegations on Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “I wouldn’t be relying on Chinese state media for your sources for questions.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been approached for comment about the Global Times report.
The article was China’s sharpest criticism so far of Australia, and marks a new escalation in tensions.
It comes just days after an Australian Federal Police raid on the home of NSW Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane, as part of an investigation into allegations that Chinese government agents had infiltrated his office.
Mr Moselmane said on Monday he was not a suspect in that joint espionage investigation by the AFP and ASIO.
Mr Moselmane, who is a member of the NSW Upper House, has been suspended from the Labor Party and may also be suspended from the NSW Parliament.
Chen Hong, a nationalistic commentator at Shanghai East Normal University who has previously been involved in multiple speaking events with Mr Moselmane, told the ABC: “The cold war mentality is damaging to the bilateral relations, which are now already at their historical low.
“It is worrying that the China threat theory is leading to a McCarthyist witch-hunt in Australia.”
USB stick, compass, map seized in alleged 2018 raid
The Global Times article went on to claim that Australia was “a veteran in spying against other countries” and was hypocritical in its criticism of Chinese espionage activities, describing Australia as “the thief who is crying ‘stop the thief’ “.
Citing an unnamed source linked to “a Chinese law-enforcement agency”, the paper alleged that authorities broke up an Australian spying operation in 2018, and arrested the agents involved.
It said items seized during the arrest included a compass, a USB stick, a notebook, a mask, gloves and a map of Shanghai. It said US and Chinese currency were also seized.
It also claimed that Australia’s intelligence agencies were targeting Chinese people living in Australia and other countries, with the aim of getting them to defect and work with them.
It alleged that Feng Chongyi, a China studies professor at the University of Technology Sydney who was briefly detained in China in 2017, has been acting as an “informant to Australian security intelligence agencies”.
The newspaper did not provide any evidence to back up this claim, and Dr Feng denied them when approached by the ABC.
“That is an outrageous slander,” Dr Feng said.
“The Chinese security agency detained me during my academic fieldwork in China for interrogations on suspicion of espionage. I was released because I did not do anything wrong.”
Peter Varghese, the former head of DFAT and the Office of National Assessments, commented on the timing of the article on the ABC’s RN Breakfast this morning, coming just days after the raid on Mr Moselmane’s home.
“I can only assume it’s a bit of coincidence that it follows quite a lot of media speculation in Australia about action against a NSW parliamentarian,” he said.
Relations between China and Australia appear to have deteriorated in recent weeks, with China earlier in June advising its nationals not to study in Australia due to the risk of “racist incidents”.
Last month, Chinese authorities placed new trade barriers on Australian goods including barley, beef and coal.
Those developments came after Australia spearheaded a campaign for an independent international inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic, a move that initially outraged Beijing, although China later decided to support an inquiry.