China’s foreign ministry has hit back at the “malicious slander” that its consular officials in Australia may have been involved in infiltrating domestic politics, after reports some officials were named in warrants in connection with a foreign interference investigation.
Amid worsening diplomatic tensions, a foreign ministry spokesperson also accused some unnamed people in Australia of “doing whatever they can to fan up anti-China sentiments and catch eyeballs by smearing and attacking China, which only poisons China-Australia relations”.
The latest barrage of criticism follows reports Australian authorities may have accessed a New South Wales political staffer’s communications with Chinese diplomats and consular officials in Australia as part of a foreign interference investigation.
The joint investigation by spy agency Asio and the Australian federal police became public in late June when officers raided the property of the NSW upper house Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane, who denies wrongdoing.
Australian authorities are investigating whether John Zhang, a part-time staffer to Moselmane, and others used “a private social media chat group and other fora” with the MP in order to “advance the interests and policy goals” of the Chinese government in Australia, according to documents submitted to the high court.
Zhang, who also denies wrongdoing, has launched a legal challenge against the validity of the warrants that were used to search his property in late June.
According to an ABC report, Zhang has written to senior Australian ministers complaining that investigators had accessed his communications with Chinese diplomats and consular officials in Australia.
He has reportedly questioned how this complies with the protections afforded to the communications of diplomatic officials and their families.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said the Chinese diplomatic missions in Australia had been “observing international law and basic norms governing international relations”.
He said people should “stop politicising or stigmatising the normal fulfilment of duty by Chinese diplomatic missions in Australia”. Attempts to fan anti-China sentiments, he said, were “a despicable practice that does no good to bilateral ties”.
“Certain media’s claim of ‘the consulate general and its officials are involved in infiltration’ is just a malicious slander. China deplores and strongly opposes that,” he said at a regular press conference.
“We have never conducted and will never conduct any interference or infiltration against another country. This is not in our genes.”
The Global Times, a Chinese state media outlet, published an article condemning the alleged interception of diplomatic communications as “a ‘stupid’ and ‘vicious’ move”.
Australia’s trade minister, Simon Birmingham, played down the reported consular links to the investigation, saying intelligence agencies and police acted “in accordance with Australian law, and Australian law respects international laws and norms”.
Birmingham said his understanding was that the investigations “relate very much to potential foreign interference activities by publicised figures, who have been identified in the media, who are Australians”.
“Our approach is purely to uphold the laws of Australia and they include bipartisan foreign interference laws that are designed to protect our democracy, protect our systems of government from undue interference, wherever it may come from,” Birmingham told the ABC.
The Australian government has been mostly tight-lipped about the conduct of the foreign interference investigation, which has also been linked to the questioning of several Chinese journalists in June and the cancellation of two Chinese scholars’ visas.
But the attorney general, Christian Porter, argued last week that there would be “few nations on earth where the rule of law is more stringently observed” in the way that warrants were issued.
Diplomatic tensions have also flared this week over comments by Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, criticising the Chinese government over its human rights record.
In a speech to the UN’s human rights council, Payne said more needed to be done to address a range of human rights issues, “including concerning reports of repressive measures enforced against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang”.
Payne also cited “legislation related to national security on Hong Kong, which has eroded rights and freedom guaranteed to the people on Hong Kong”.
Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesperson, tweeted late on Wednesday that Payne was “lashing out” at China without understanding “the real situation in Xinjiang”.
The comments come amid increasing tensions in the relationship between Australia and its largest trading partner, with the government in Canberra insisting it will not hold back in expressing its values even in the face of economic pressure.
Two Australian journalists – the ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith – returned to Australia early last week after being quizzed by Chinese security services and after a diplomatic standoff over an initial ban on their exit from the country.
It followed confirmation that Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen and business journalist for the Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, was taken into secretive detention in China in mid-August over an investigation that Beijing has said relates to national security.
Dozens of people, including Chinese Australians, say they have been victims of Chinese Communist party intimidation in Australia, according to a policy paper published by the China Matters thinktank on Thursday, but few report it to authorities.
The paper cited several reasons that people were reluctant to formally report such cases, including a belief that the Australian government could not protect the victim’s family who remained in China or that “reporting would not change anything”.