Home World Australia Australia weighed the risks of Chinese journalist raids and went ahead

Australia weighed the risks of Chinese journalist raids and went ahead
Australia weighed the risks of Chinese journalist raids and went ahead avatar

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Australia knew what it was doing when it raided four Chinese journalists, and the government was aware there could be consequences for Australian journalists based in Beijing.

The raids went ahead anyway.

Two Australian journalists, The Australian Financial Review's Mike Smith and the ABC's Bill Birtles, were this week forced out of China after being questioned by authorities.

Scott Morrison has said Australia will stand up for its national interests in cracking down on foreign interference. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Days later, it was revealed ASIO questioned the four Chinese journalists in Australia, and the visas of two Chinese academics were cancelled.

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This immediately sparked a few questions from commentators. First, was it justified?

We don't know everything about the activities of the four Chinese journalists who caught the attention of ASIO.

What we do know is that some of them were part of a WeChat group linked to the office of suspended NSW Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane. A joint ASIO and AFP investigation is currently probing whether there was a plot to influence Australian politics through Moselmane and his former staffer John Zhang.

But activities outside this WeChat group are also of concern to ASIO.

These include allegations some of the Chinese journalists were attempting to influence Chinese-language media organisations within Australia, and reporting back to Beijing on the activities of Chinese-Australians.

They may not have been spies, but ASIO believes they could have been acting on behalf of spies.

The raids on Moselmane and the journalists were the first connected to Australia's foreign interference laws legislated by the Turnbull government in 2018, which criminalise "covert, deceptive and threatening actions" by individuals acting on behalf of a foreign government.

This week, some commentators have been linking what the journalists and academics said publicly or wrote in articles with foreign interference. This is slightly missing the point.

Under Australian law, you can say pretty much anything you want – even if it perfectly aligns with the talking points of the Chinese Communist Party.

You can say that Beijing's actions in the South China Sea are a great urban renewal project. You can say that Chinese President Xi Jinping deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. You only break the law when you are saying these things secretly at the direction of a foreign government to influence local politics.

It should also be pointed out that all Chinese-state linked media operating in Australia are an extension of the CCP's overseas propaganda arm, the United Front Work Department. Australian authorities are not questioning every Chinese journalist in the country. They held a particular concern about the activities of these four journalists.

Did the government consider the consequences?

Of course it did. It would be gross negligence not to.

Members of the national security committee of cabinet, which includes Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne, were briefed on the raids. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was also kept in the loop.

At the time, the government was aware of the risk to Australian journalists in China. But it also maintained that the activities of Australian correspondents in China should not be compared with what the four Chinese journalists had been up to in Australia.

When Australian-Chinese television news anchor Cheng Lei was detained last month, DFAT became more concerned for the safety of Smith and Birtles and then advised their employers to get them out of the country.

The government has not ruled out the possibility that the treatment of Smith and Birtles was retribution for the ASIO raids.

With all that in mind, any Australian government would be reticent to tell ASIO or the AFP not to execute a search warrant because of the policy implications. To intervene, the consequences for going ahead with the operation would have to be huge. In almost every case, security agencies should be left to do their job without political interference.

It should also be pointed out that the ASIO questioning was nothing like the treatment of Smith and Birtles. There was no midnight door knock, no travel ban and the Chinese journalists left the country on their own accord.

But are the consequences worth it?

If the treatment of Smith and Birtles was payback for the ASIO questioning, that's a big price to pay. Australia now has no accredited journalists in China for the first time since 1973.

If the detention of Cheng was also retribution, that's even more concerning.

A few years ago, Australia decided it needed to criminalise covert influence operations after rising concerns about CCP influence within the country. It did this knowing there would be a period of hostilities with Bejing.

The consequences of raiding the properties of Chinese journalists and booting out two academics were always going to be big.

The implications of capitulating at the first hurdle would have been bigger.

Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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