Chen Yonglin

The desperate sight of Chinese diplomat Chen Yonglin claiming asylum in Australia is a major scandal. His claims are explosive, including the alleged presence of 1000 Chinese spies monitoring so-called pro-democracy groups here, the ongoing persecution of dissidents in his home country and the secret kidnapping of Chinese citizens in Australia.

He should be granted asylum.

The Australian editorial today rightly expresses concern with Yonglin’s treatment at the hands of the Immigration Department (and this is despite Murdoch’s previous overtures to the Chinese authorities): “According to Mr Chen, Immigration Department officials rang his diplomatic bosses to establish his identity. In Mr Chen’s view this put him at great risk. Similarly it is bizarre that some agency of the Government has not debriefed Mr Chen at length.”

China’s Ambassador to Australia, Fu Ying, may claim that Yonglin’s claims are fanciful and that he wouldn’t face any reprimand if he returned to China, but her words are hollow. The Sydney Morning Herald reports today that Yonglin has good reason to fear going back to China. Furthermore, Yonglin claimed asylum in America after Australia refused him protection here without even an interview.

The SMH today: “The Federal Government has denied that its negative attitude to Mr Chen’s asylum bid and offer of intelligence information was linked to its pitch for a free trade deal and multibillion-dollar gas contract with the emerging economic power. However, the Australian National University’s Professor Hugh White said: ‘China has made it clear consistently that the development of an economic relationship is dependent on Australia being sympathetic to China’s concerns on political and security issues.'”

This is surely a time to offend China, if granting asylum to Yonglin would indeed cause this. The Age’s Tony Parkinson agrees. The dissident’s human rights are clearly an issue and his claims too disturbing to simply allow him to return to China. The Age’s editorial rightly states: “It is proper for the Government to act as discreetly as possible, but it would be shameful were Australia to betray its own values by sacrificing an individual on the altar of commercial relations with China.”

Ambassador Fu claims that China is no longer “behind a bamboo curtain” but sadly the facts do not support her claim. Even the Australian’s Greg Sheridan argued last week that Australia should stand up to China over human rights, rather than simply avoiding the issue and begging for trade benefits. Listening to Fu on Lateline last night, one wondered why she’d even bothered to come on the program. She answered little, revealed nothing and portrayed a benign China not out to spy on anyone. She did say, however, that the Australian government had asked her if Yonglin would be persecuted if he returned to China. Amanda Vanstone, what did you think the Ambassador would say, you clueless woman?

Amnesty International reported in late May that thousands of Chinese citizens are still routinely sent to “re-education” camps (RTL): “People receiving RTL terms have no access to a lawyer, there is no court hearing, and “sentencing” is usually decided by the police alone. Under the current system, people can be detained in an RTL facility for up to four years. Those serving terms of RTL are at high risk of being beaten or subjected to other forms of torture or ill-treatment…”

Amnesty’s 2005 Report revealed an appalling picture of gross human rights abuses across China: “The authorities continued to use provisions of the Criminal Law relating to ‘subversion’, ‘state secrets’ and other vaguely defined national security offences to prosecute peaceful activists and advocates of reform.” Under such a definition, surely somebody such as Yonglin would be targeted.

The Australian government should protect Yonglin and listen to his claims. The sight of the Howard government refusing to take responsibility for this man’s plight shames us all.

UPDATE: Crikey reports today on the mainstream media’s initial failings over this story and the historical parallels:

“[A] senior player on The Australian…claimed that Yonglin spent much of Friday offering his story to The Sydney Morning Herald, but had no joy so he switched to the Murdoch flagship late in the day to try to get some publicity ahead of his public appearance on Saturday. The SMH quickly realised the error of its ways and led Monday’s paper with the story.”

“All of this rekindles memories of the Mordachai Vanunu case in the 1980s when the Israeli nuclear whistleblower failed to interest the SMH, Daily Telegraph or The Australian in his story, which was eventually picked up by The Sunday Times in London. It was David Jenkins at The SMH who said no, and Piers Akerman on The Australian.”

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