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Beijing accuses Australia of harassing Chinese journalists

BEIJING/SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Chinese government accused Australia on Wednesday of “blatant irrational behavior”, harassment and violation of the rights of its journalists by searching and seizing items from the homes of four Chinese state media reporters.

FILE PHOTO: Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian speaks at a news conference in Beijing, China April 8, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Relations between the two major trading partners have become increasingly strained, and Beijing’s revelation that Australia had conducted the raids in late June came as a well known Chinese academic confirmed that his Australian visa had been canceled on security grounds.

A day earlier, two Australian journalists flew home from China with the help of consular officials, having been questioned by China’s state security ministry, and initially barred from leaving the country.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Australian officials cited a possible violation of the country’s foreign interference laws for their raids in June, but had not provided a “reasonable explanation”.

“The Australian government’s behavior ... 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 behaviors, stop harassing and oppressing Chinese personnel in Australia under whatever pretext.”

Zhao said officials seized laptops, cellphones, and a child’s toy tablet from the homes of reporters from outlets including state news agency Xinhua and the China News Service.

A spokesman for Australia’s Attorney General Christian Porter had earlier declined to comment on “operational matters”, in response to a Xinhua report about the raids, but added that authorities “take issues of foreign interference very seriously.”

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The Australian foreign office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. And the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) also declined to comment.

The Chinese embassy in Canberra said it had provided consular support to journalists targeted by the raids.

Australia’s already tense relationship with China worsened this year after Beijing vowed trade reprisals and said it was angered by Australia’s call for an international inquiry into the source of the coronavirus pandemic.

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 journalist for Chinese state television who was detained in China three weeks ago. Chinese officials confirmed on Tuesday she was being held on suspicion of illegal activities that endanger China’s security.

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The Xinhua report also criticized a search of the home and office of New South Wales state politician Shaoquett Moselmane on June 26, alleging he was targeted after praising China’s achievements in fighting the coronavirus and criticizing Australia’s China policy.

Documents lodged in Australia’s High Court on Aug. 3 show a staff member of Moselmane, John Zhang, is being investigated by the Australian Federal Police for allegedly acting on behalf of the Chinese state in “a private social media chat group” with Moselmane.

Moselmane has said he is not a suspect in the investigation, telling Australian Broadcasting Corp television last month that he participated in “just a social group”, including “a couple of journalists, foreign journalists and one John Zhang”.

Another member of the chat group, Chinese academic, Chen Hong, said his Australian visa had been canceled on security grounds based on advice from ASIO.

Chen, a professor of Australian Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai, said in a statement he had traveled frequently to Australia and believed the cancellation was a “gross mistake”.

Chen said he had been friends with Zhang since 2016 and they met up when he was in Sydney or Zhang was in Shanghai.

Zhang has not been charged with any offense and his lawyers are seeking to have the search warrants quashed, according to the court documents.

Reporting by Brenda Goh in Shanghai and Kirsty Needham in Sydney; editing by Jane Wardell & Simon Cameron-Moore

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