Beijing targeted writers over Australia secret inquiry: Report

Relations between Australia and China have been fraught in recent times over fears of Chinese interference in Australian domestic politics.
Relations between Australia and China have been fraught in recent times over fears of Chinese interference in Australian domestic politics.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - Beijing agents pressured two Chinese-Australian authors to provide information about a secret Canberra inquiry into Chinese meddling in domestic politics, local media reported on Monday (April 8).

Mr Yang Jun, a novelist and democracy advocate, and Mr Feng Chongyi, a Sydney-based university professor and former newspaper publisher, were reportedly interrogated over the classified probe.

The pair are both friends of Mr John Garnaut, a former journalist who was heading 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 on 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.

Mr Yang, an Australian citizen whose pen name is Yang Hengjun, has been detained in China since travelling there in January, and 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 that Mr Yang was a former Chinese diplomat, although that has been denied by Beijing.

The ABC report said Chinese agents had previously intercepted and questioned Mr Yang in Sydney in 2018 when he was on his way to meet Mr Garnaut.

Mr Garnaut told the ABC that a Chinese official asked Mr Yang "about me... what I was doing, what I was working on".

Mr Yang's wife, Ms Xiaoliang Yuan, has been banned from leaving China but she spoke to the ABC from Shanghai to urge Australia to help free her husband.

"I think at least the Australian government officials should care for its citizens' well-being when they are overseas, should show their concern," she was quoted as saying.

Prof Feng, a permanent Australian resident, told the ABC he was questioned about Mr 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," Prof Feng said.

Mr Andrew Hastie - who chairs Canberra's intelligence and security committee - told the ABC that 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.