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Name: Antony Loewenstein
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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Chen Yonglin

The desperate sight of Chinese diplomat Chen Yonglin claiming asylum in Australia is a major scandal. His claims are explosive, including the alleged presence of 1000 Chinese spies monitoring so-called pro-democracy groups here, the ongoing persecution of dissidents in his home country and the secret kidnapping of Chinese citizens in Australia.

He should be granted asylum.

The Australian editorial today rightly expresses concern with Yonglin's treatment at the hands of the Immigration Department (and this is despite Murdoch's previous overtures to the Chinese authorities): "According to Mr Chen, Immigration Department officials rang his diplomatic bosses to establish his identity. In Mr Chen's view this put him at great risk. Similarly it is bizarre that some agency of the Government has not debriefed Mr Chen at length."

China's Ambassador to Australia, Fu Ying, may claim that Yonglin's claims are fanciful and that he wouldn't face any reprimand if he returned to China, but her words are hollow. The Sydney Morning Herald reports today that Yonglin has good reason to fear going back to China. Furthermore, Yonglin claimed asylum in America after Australia refused him protection here without even an interview.

The SMH today: "The Federal Government has denied that its negative attitude to Mr Chen's asylum bid and offer of intelligence information was linked to its pitch for a free trade deal and multibillion-dollar gas contract with the emerging economic power. However, the Australian National University's Professor Hugh White said: 'China has made it clear consistently that the development of an economic relationship is dependent on Australia being sympathetic to China's concerns on political and security issues.'"

This is surely a time to offend China, if granting asylum to Yonglin would indeed cause this. The Age's Tony Parkinson agrees. The dissident's human rights are clearly an issue and his claims too disturbing to simply allow him to return to China. The Age's editorial rightly states: "It is proper for the Government to act as discreetly as possible, but it would be shameful were Australia to betray its own values by sacrificing an individual on the altar of commercial relations with China."

Ambassador Fu claims that China is no longer "behind a bamboo curtain" but sadly the facts do not support her claim. Even the Australian's Greg Sheridan argued last week that Australia should stand up to China over human rights, rather than simply avoiding the issue and begging for trade benefits. Listening to Fu on Lateline last night, one wondered why she'd even bothered to come on the program. She answered little, revealed nothing and portrayed a benign China not out to spy on anyone. She did say, however, that the Australian government had asked her if Yonglin would be persecuted if he returned to China. Amanda Vanstone, what did you think the Ambassador would say, you clueless woman?

Amnesty International reported in late May that thousands of Chinese citizens are still routinely sent to "re-education" camps (RTL): "People receiving RTL terms have no access to a lawyer, there is no court hearing, and “sentencing” is usually decided by the police alone. Under the current system, people can be detained in an RTL facility for up to four years. Those serving terms of RTL are at high risk of being beaten or subjected to other forms of torture or ill-treatment..."

Amnesty's 2005 Report revealed an appalling picture of gross human rights abuses across China: "The authorities continued to use provisions of the Criminal Law relating to 'subversion', 'state secrets' and other vaguely defined national security offences to prosecute peaceful activists and advocates of reform." Under such a definition, surely somebody such as Yonglin would be targeted.

The Australian government should protect Yonglin and listen to his claims. The sight of the Howard government refusing to take responsibility for this man's plight shames us all.

UPDATE: Crikey reports today on the mainstream media's initial failings over this story and the historical parallels:

"[A] senior player on The Australian...claimed that Yonglin spent much of Friday offering his story to The Sydney Morning Herald, but had no joy so he switched to the Murdoch flagship late in the day to try to get some publicity ahead of his public appearance on Saturday. The SMH quickly realised the error of its ways and led Monday's paper with the story."

"All of this rekindles memories of the Mordachai Vanunu case in the 1980s when the Israeli nuclear whistleblower failed to interest the SMH, Daily Telegraph or The Australian in his story, which was eventually picked up by The Sunday Times in London. It was David Jenkins at The SMH who said no, and Piers Akerman on The Australian."


Anonymous Joe2 said...

This is a big story that will go to ground. The Greens have decided to pay for this blokes legal fees.

Suspect that it will go nowhere because of media/government disinterest. Ruppy won't touch it.
Neither will John.

Let's face it,this annoyance would only get in the way of business.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005 5:14:00 pm  
Blogger Antony Loewenstein said...

The story may well go away, but the principle surely stands. The guy is making huge claims, and should be investigated. You wouldn't want to know how the Chinese govt infiltrates Oz?I would...

Tuesday, June 07, 2005 10:02:00 pm  
Anonymous joe2 said...

Antony, if it were a Labor government, would it be "reds under the beds"?.Probably not,now.

A liberal government, so far, gets away with it and no scrutiny and no diplomatic incident.

If these "huge claims" have some credibility, i would have thought,in a less sycophantic society, we would demand that a number of people leave this country forthwith.

Not talking about asylumn seekers.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005 6:42:00 pm  
Blogger Shay said...

As an Aussie living in Beijing, I find the claims of a "network" of 1000 or so spies completely credible. The concept of spying on one's neighbours has long been entrenched here, having its roots in the paranoia of the Cultural Revolution, or perhaps even earlier.

I live in one of the standard shoebox apartments here, and in each group of apartments (usually about 15 buildings in the enclosure, less if they are newer and larger), there are designated people, usually older busybodies, who wear a red armband and are in charge of reporting anything unusual to the authorities. They are paid a stipend for this, and neighbours can report anything unusual to them. Everyone knows that if something unusual is going on, only your family and closest friends can know, because anybody could be an informer. I once had a policeman show up on my doorstep asking to see my registration papers, as all foreigners (and people registered in another province) must register with the local police bureau. Luckily my employer had submitted my papers that day. How did he know I was there? Someone must have told him.

This relates directly to Australia because it has infiltrated Chinese culture. When Chinese work or study overseas, they usually are close to the rest of the Chinese community in the area. If someone is involved with Falun Gong, or any other movement which protests against the Chinese government, someone in the local community will inform the Chinese government. These are not "spies" in the Cold War sense of the word, nor are they usually in the country specifically for this work. But they do it in return for something, I don't know what. Perhaps to ingratiate themselves with the government, in the hope of a good job on their return home. Or perhaps money, it's hard to tell.

I have found the Chinese to be an extremely distrusting people toward those they don't know. We share a staircase with 17 other apartments and my wife's family knows the names of the people in maybe three of them. Their generosity towards family and friends knows no bounds, but they do not mix socially outside such circles very much at all. It is easy to see why - you never know who might be telling the government your every move.

Thursday, June 09, 2005 2:08:00 pm  
Blogger Nic White said...

The Crikey report is wrong. According to the people I spoke to at The Australian, Chen offered his story to both at the same time, not one after the other. Fairfax for some reason ignored it, the Australian did not.

Thursday, June 09, 2005 5:18:00 pm  
Blogger Antony Loewenstein said...

Firstly, thanks for your insights, Shay. You should write more about experiences in China as a foreigner. Many people have no idea of what a "capitalism Communism" really means...
Nic, re the media feeding frenzy. I'll take your word on it. Must be said, though, the SMH interviews with Chen was much more insightful than anything the Oz has run....

Thursday, June 09, 2005 5:45:00 pm  
Blogger Nic White said...

Trackback replacement:

Friday, June 10, 2005 1:11:00 am  
Blogger Nic White said...


Friday, June 10, 2005 1:11:00 am  

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