Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A Chinese diplomat's efforts to secure asylum in Australia are causing political embarrassment for a government hoping to negotiate a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Beijing.
Critics are asking whether Prime Minister John Howard's government is putting trade above human rights by not immediately granting protective asylum to the man, Chen Yonglin, who claims to have sensitive information about Chinese spying in Australia and the kidnapping of dissidents.
Chen says he served as political affairs attache at China's consulate-general in Sydney, but decided to defect and sought asylum on May 26. Immigration officials turned him down, he said.
Fearing for his safety, the 37-year-old then went into hiding with his wife and child, but went public on Saturday, hoping that media exposure would help their cause.
Making an appearance at a rally in Sydney marking the 16th anniversary of the crackdown on democracy activists at Tiananmen Square, Chen said up to a thousand Chinese agents were operating in Australia. He alleged further that in some cases dissidents had been kidnapped and forcibly returned to China.
Chen said his responsibilities as an attache included monitoring Australia-based Chinese democracy activists as well as adherents of Falun Gong, a meditation movement banned in China as a "dangerous cult."
He said over time he came to sympathize with those he was meant to be monitoring, and feared he would be sent home and punished for his views, hence the decision to seek asylum.
Chen also spoke out against human rights abuses in his country and asserted that "this undemocratic government will finally be overthrown by the people in China."
He said he would provide all the information he knows about alleged kidnappings by Chinese agents in Australia in exchange for protection.
After his appearance, he went back into hiding, but reportedly met with lawyers on Monday to discuss the way ahead. In a subsequently published newspaper interview, he complained that when he first approached the immigration department officials had tried to persuade him to return to the consulate and had even phoned his superiors.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer confirmed in a television interview that Chen had applied for a "protection visa," and said the application was under consideration.
He said immigration authorities would have to weigh up the diplomat's claims that he would be persecuted if returned to China.
Downer would not comment on allegations of Chinese spying and kidnappings.
The Chinese consulate-general in a statement said that Chen had "fabricated stories which are unfounded and purely fictitious" in a bid to stay in Australia after a completing a four-year stint in the country.
Trade vs. rights
Despite its concerns about China's human rights record, Australia hopes to be the first Western country to negotiate an FTA with the world's fastest-growing economy. A feasibility study indicates that a deal could boost the Australian economy by almost $19 billion over a decade. (New Zealand has launched separate FTA talks with China.)
But China has made it clear that it expects economic partners to be sympathetic in other areas, especially when it comes to its well-known sensitivities about Taiwan. Chinese diplomats have already warned that ties with Australia ties could be jeopardized if Canberra supported the U.S. - in line with a U.S.-Australian military alliance - in the event of a future conflict over Taiwan.
Australia's Green Party, a longstanding critic of Chinese human rights abuses, urged the government to give Chen special protection and treatment. It also offered him legal assistance.
Another minor party, the Australian Democrats, said the government should investigate Chen's claims.
"Diplomatic sensitivities and desires for a free trade agreement should not be allowed to get in the way of a proper examination of serious human rights allegations," said the party's deputy leader Senator Andrew Bartlett.
"China is still regularly accused of very serious human rights abuses, and we cannot keep turning our eyes away from that fact just because it is inconvenient."
A major labor federation that worries about the impact on jobs of an FTA with China questioned the government's stance.
"I think it's capitalism which is intruding upon the treatment of Mr. Chen," said Australian Workers Union national secretary Bill Shorten. "The obvious question here is if he has some information, why on earth don't we want to hear it?"
Dr. Keith Suter, an Australian international affairs analyst, said Monday the Chen case would be a difficult one to resolve.
In a high-profile case in 1954, a top Soviet KGB agent named Vladimir Petrov defected to Australia. He and his wife lived in a safe house at government expense until they died.
"The anti-communist Chinese lobby are saying that the same should happen [with Chen] now," Suter said.
But, "the USSR was not a major trading partner of Australia 51 years ago, whereas China today is. The trade lobby is saying that nothing should be done to jeopardize the trade."
"The Australian government does not need this type of problem at present - it already has so many other foreign policy issues to deal with," he said.
At the same time, Suter said, the government should not miss the opportunity to find out what Chen knows about Chinese spying activities.
From Beijing's point of the view, the incident was also unwelcome.
"China is trying to invent itself as a nice place to invest and that it will put on a happy Olympic Games [in Beijing in 2008]. It does not like this type of event reviving old memories of the aggressive face of communism."
Australian Falun Gong practitioners called a press conference Monday to speak about their experiences of harassment and interference by Chinese diplomats over recent years.
"The extent to which the Chinese communist regime has gone to, to monitor and interfere in our personal lives is extreme, yet this is still happening all around the world," said Falun Gong spokeswoman Kay Rubacek.
The group said incidents included physical and verbal assaults, damage to cars and personal property, being followed, and being excluded from community events.
"Australian businesses, community groups and various levels of governments have also been threatened on many occasions by the communist regime to not have any connection with or support for Falun Gong."
A contrary view came from the Australian Chinese Students' Patriotic Association, which urged the Australian government to deny Chen's application and deport him.
"Mr. Chen doesn't do anybody any good and his revealing of consular information may badly hurt the ongoing relations between China and Australia especially while the FTA negotiation is in process," said an association representative and Canberra student, Alex Zuo.
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