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Chinese academic accused of being an Australian spy slams 'outrageous slander' in Beijing-run tabloid

A Sydney-based Chinese academic has slammed Beijing-run media reports labelling him an Australian spy, three years after an espionage case against him was "closed" by authorities in China.

Feng Chongyi, who was detained for 10 days in China in 2017, told the South China Morning Post that allegations in the Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, were "outrageous slander", as the two countries locked horns again in a worsening geopolitical spat.

The diplomatic war of words between the Chinese and Australian governments has intensified again this week, with each accusing the other of espionage.

On Monday, Chinese state media resurrected a 25-year-old bugging scandal, when Australian agents were alleged to have slipped eavesdropping equipment into the floor slabs of the Chinese embassy in Canberra during its construction in the 1980s, as part of a US-led spying effort.

The Global Times published photos of the 1995 affair, and alleged that Australia had trained nationals in secret locations before sending them to China and Hong Kong to gather intelligence. One of those accused was Feng, an associate professor of China Studies at the University of Technology Sydney, who was stopped from leaving China after he completed a study on lawyers' rights in the country in 2017.

Feng refuted the allegation, saying he was released after Chinese authorities failed to find any wrongdoing. He said that he suspected the article was "contributed by agents of the Chinese Ministry of State Security" and slammed the "propaganda machine of the Chinese Communist Party" for bringing the case up again.

"I was detained by them for intensive interrogations in 2017," Feng said.

The tabloid splash came after Australian police raided the home and office of Shaoquett Moselmane, a member of the Legislative Council of New South Wales, the upper house of the Australian state's parliament, last Friday in an investigation into allegations that his office was infiltrated by Chinese government agents.

A federal officer enters the home of New South Wales Labour MP Shaoquett Moselmane in connection to alleged links to China and allegations of Chinese government influence, in Sydney. Photo: Reuters alt=A federal officer enters the home of New South Wales Labour MP Shaoquett Moselmane in connection to alleged links to China and allegations of Chinese government influence, in Sydney. Photo: Reuters

Moselemane, a vocal supporter of the Chinese government, was suspended by the Australian Labour Party but denied that he had committed any wrongdoing.

"The investigation is linked to other people allegedly advancing the goals of a foreign government, namely the People's Republic of China," Moselmane said in a statement, adding that he was the victim of a "political witch-hunt".

"I am not sure what those goals are. Let me tell you at the outset, according to what I have been told, this is a federal police investigation," he said.

Australia has since committed to spending A$1.35 billion (US$934.7 million) to create more than 500 new jobs in its cyber intelligence agency to combat cybercrime, after a hacking incident two weeks ago by a "sophisticated state-based cyber actor", which local media reports have linked to China.

In addition, Canberra approved a wider A$270 billion budget to fund an aggressive defence strategy that would include "long-range strike" capabilities to "deter or respond to aggression in the Indo-Pacific".

"Tensions over territorial claims are rising across the Indo-Pacific region, as we have seen recently on the disputed border between India and China, and the South China Sea, and the East China Sea," Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in an address on Wednesday.

"Relations between China and the United States are fractious at best, as they compete for political, economic and technological supremacy. The rest of the world, and Australia, are not just bystanders to this."

The Australia-China spat has exploded since April, when Australia elected to help coordinate an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. China responded by imposing a series of trade-related sanctions on Australia in May and June, including a ban on beef exports, an 80.5 per cent anti-dumping duty on barley and warnings issued to Chinese nationals to reconsider travel and study plans in Australia.

The Global Times claimed to have sourced documents outlining Australian government efforts to train Chinese nationals at the Swan Island Training Area, a 175-hectare (432-acre) secret warfare centre and training ground for Australian defence forces in Melbourne.

It also charged that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation had set up an outpost in Beijing to watch activities not just in China but in Japan, South Korea and Mongolia. It was manned by intelligence personnel disguised as diplomats, the report claimed.

An Australian Department of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said the Australian government would not comment on the article, nor on intelligence matters generally.

"Australia's intelligence and security agencies are committed to protecting our national security, including the important work of countering the serious threat of foreign interference," the spokeswoman said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian claimed in response to the state tabloid's attack that the Five Eyes alliance, of which Australia is a part, has long engaged in "cyber espionage, spying and surveillance on foreign governments, companies and individuals in violation of international law".

"This is not a secret to anyone. I am afraid that what is revealed by the Global Times this time is just the tip of the iceberg," he said on Monday, suggesting Australia "abandon the Cold War mentality".

Chen Hong, a professor at the Australian Research Centre at East China Normal University in Shanghai, said rising tensions between the countries were caused by the rise of China and Australia's desire to no longer follow the US, but instead play a bigger role in the region. Growing hostility over Australia's trade dependence on China was due to clashing political values, Chen said.

"China welcomes Australia to play a more active role on the world stage. It does not oppose Australia's relationship and alignment with any other country. However, such alliances should not be at the expense of Australia's relations with China," Chen said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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