SYDNEY: Beijing agents pressured two Chinese-Australian authors to provide information about a secret Canberra inquiry into Chinese meddling in domestic politics, local media reported Monday.
Yang Jun, a novelist and democracy advocate, and Feng Chongyi, a Sydney-based university professor and former newspaper publisher, were reportedly interrogated over the classified probe.
The pair are both friends of John Garnaut, a former journalist who was heading up the inquiry.
Relations between the two nations have been fraught in recent times over fears of Chinese interference, and as Beijing flexes its muscle in the Pacific islands which Canberra views as its backyard.
A joint investigation published Monday by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and national broadcaster ABC found China had waged an intelligence operation to gain details of the probe ordered in 2016 by then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
At a press briefing Monday, China responded by emphasising its opposition to interference in other countries’ affairs.
“In its international relations, China has always insisted on mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty, and mutual non-interference in internal affairs,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, adding that they did not know the latest on Yang’s case.
Yang, an Australian citizen whose pen name is Yang Hengjun, has been detained in China since travelling there in January, accused of endangering state security.
Monday’s report coincided with a plea from his wife for Australia to do more to secure his release.
Australian media have reported Yang was a former Chinese diplomat, although that has been denied by Beijing.
The ABC report said Chinese agents had previously intercepted and questioned Yang in Sydney in 2018 when he was on his way to meet with Garnaut.
Garnaut told the ABC that a Chinese official asked Yang “about me … what I was doing, what I was working on”.
Yang’s wife, Xiaoliang Yuan, has been banned from leaving China but she spoke to the ABC from Shanghai to urge Australia to help free her husband.
“At least the Australian government officials should care for its citizens’ wellbeing when they are overseas, should show their concern,” she was quoted as saying.
Feng, a permanent Australian resident, told the ABC he was questioned about Garnaut when he was detained for several days during a trip to China in 2017.
“They knew a lot about him (Garnaut). During the interrogation, they did not hide that they were angry with him,” Feng said.
Andrew Hastie – who chairs Canberra’s intelligence and security committee – told the ABC the government has had “multiple briefings” from domestic intelligence agency ASIO and other agencies that “foreign interference is being conducted in Australia at an unprecedented level”.
“There are several authoritarian states who are involved in foreign influence across the globe. But in Australia the Chinese Communist Party is probably the most active,” he added.
“China is seeking to influence our elites, particularly our political and business elites, in order to achieve their strategic objectives.”
The inquiry led Australia to pass sweeping reforms to espionage and foreign interference laws, with China singled out as a focus of concern.