China has alleged Australian authorities interrogated and raided the homes of Chinese state media workers in Australia in June, a move that Beijing says led to the evacuation of two Australian journalists from China this week.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Wednesday said Australian security intelligence agents raided the homes of four Chinese journalists working for Xinhua News Agency and China Media Group.
The agents seized the journalists’ work computers, mobile phones and children’s tablets and electronic toys, the spokesman alleged.
Zhao said Australian officials cited a possible violation of the country’s foreign interference laws for their raids in June, but did not provide a “reasonable explanation” for the searches.
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“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.
“We ask Australia to immediately stop such blatant irrational behaviours, stop harassing and oppressing Chinese personnel in Australia under whatever pretext.”
Reuters news agency said the Australian foreign affairs department did not immediately respond to a request for comment
A spokesman for Australia’s Attorney General Christian Porter declined to comment on “operational matters” when asked about an earlier report on the Australian raids by Xinhua, but added that authorities “take issues of foreign interference very seriously”.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) also declined to comment on the Xinhua report.
Xinhua reported that the Chinese journalists were told to “be silent” about the incident, without detailing how many were questioned or citing sources for its report.
The Chinese embassy in Canberra said it had provided consular support to the journalists, in response to a question about the raids.
The allegations of the Australian raids in late June is the latest tussle in a deteriorating relationship between the two major trading partners, and comes just a day after the two Australian journalists flew home from China with the help of consular officials.
The ABC’s Bill Birtles, based in Beijing, and AFR’s Michael Smith, located in Shanghai, were questioned by China’s state security ministry.
The two Australian journalists who arrived home from China on Tuesday had sought shelter in the embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai after police entered their homes a week ago and told them they were barred from leaving China.
They had been questioned in the case of Cheng Lei, an Australian national and anchor for China’s state broadcaster CGTN, who was detained by China last month.
Chinese officials confirmed on Tuesday she was being held on suspicion of illegal activities that endanger China’s security.
The departure of the two reporters leaves the Australian media organisations with no correspondents in China for the first time since the 1970s.
China’s relationship with Australia has worsened this year after Beijing promised trade reprisals and said it was angered by Australia’s call for an international inquiry into the source of the coronavirus pandemic.