SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — According to Chen Yonglin, China's highest-profile defector in decades, the main task of the Chinese Consulate here is to spy on five so-called "poisonous groups" in the Australian community. Once a fortnight, he says, officials file reports about Free Tibet supporters, Taiwan independence advocates, Uighurs who want an East Turkistan homeland, Falun Gong members, and the Chinese pro-democracy movement.
Mr. Chen said in an interview that he knows this because the officials reported to him. Chen served as the embassy's first political officer until he quit in late May. Australia rejected his initial asylum bid, but has granted him a temporary visa. He also requested political asylum from the United States, but says he has not yet received a response.
The Chen case underscores tensions here over human rights as well as differences between Australia and the US over how to deal with a rising China.
Australian politicians and media have criticized John Howard's government for showing too much deference to China when it turned down Chen's asylum request, without an interview, within 24 hours.
They also point to recent revelations that Chinese officials were allowed to privately interview other asylum seekers in Australian detention, as well as a government decision to turn down a US invitation to a forum in January to discuss China. Australia's foreign minister has denied turning down the invitation over fears of angering China.
Australia and China are in negotiations over a free-trade agreement and a multi-billion dollar gas deal.
The Howard government says it will not treat Chen differently from the other 1,000 Chinese who seek protection here every year. While Australia decides on whether to grant him a protection visa, he and his family are in hiding. He has taken his case to the international media to further his cause.
In a face-to-face interview with the Monitor, Chen said he had access to a database with hundreds of blacklisted names. He coordinated biweekly meetings to receive fresh intelligence data - sometimes new names, other times details on family members in Australia or in China. His job, which he took up in 2001, amounted to spying on Falun Gong and opposing demonstrators.
"But I realized soon what [Chinese officials] do with some of these supporters in China," he says. "I did some research and found people who had been jailed and even killed for being Falun Gong.... I began reading about the movement and saw it was peaceful. "
Chen saw he had a chance to help the Falun Gong. He stopped the biweekly meetings, and when he was asked why, said he was too busy with business delegations from Beijing.
And Chen did something more: When Beijing asked for details of the 800 people on the Falun Gong blacklist, he said they were unimportant and details were sketchy. Beijing began thinking that the list was worthless and decided to recompile it, he says. "They ended up with 120 confirmed names and details of Falun Gong [members] who are on the blacklist, and the rest are now gone."
There are up to 5,000 Falun Gong supporters in Australia, most of them of Chinese origin. The movement, which springs from a combination of Taoism and Buddhism, preaches truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.
China outlawed the group in 1999, calling it an "evil cult." Members often protest outside Chinese embassies. At a press conference in Beijing, Shen Guofang, assistant minister of foreign affairs, said that the government had an obligation to "stop any individuals or organizations, be it the Falun Gong or other groups, from disrupting the normal work of China's diplomatic missions in Australia."
Dressed tastefully in a black suit, creamy shirt, and maroon and gold tie, Chen outwardly shows little stress, despite expressing fears that he might be kidnapped by the Chinese authorities, dragged out to the high seas, and put aboard a cargo ship bound for Beijing.
"I have seen the evidence of possible kidnapping. I know how they do it," Chen says. After he applied for asylum, he noticed that, "they began to stake out my house and suddenly, I began seeing more Chinese in the area than before. I knew I had to run."
Chen says he feels let down by Australia. "I feel I have been unfairly treated. When I look at Australian society it is free. I did not expect that they would reject my plea for political asylum."
But he is not wholly surprised. For the past four years, Chen said, he has witnessed a Chinese government strategy to influence Australia. In February 2005, he says, a meeting was organized in Canberra by the then vice foreign minister, Zhou Wenzhong, now the new ambassador to the US, of all senior staffers of Chinese embassies in Australia and New Zealand.
"It was part of what China calls the 'grand neighboring concept,' where the aim is to put Australia within [China's] sphere of influence and to put a wedge between the US and Australia.... And as we can see, this is happening."
A week after Chen was refused asylum in Australia he approached the US Embassy by phone using an emergency number to contact them on a Saturday to say that he would like to apply for asylum.
"I rang them and they said, 'Thank you for the call,' and we will call you back," he says.
When the US Embassy called back, "they said thanks for your request but we cannot help at this stage," Chen says. But he still holds out some hope for US asylum, saying, "So far though I have not got a final phone call response from the American mission."
A US State Department spokesman in Washington says, "It is the policy of the US government not to comment on asylum requests" out of respect for the privacy of the individuals and families involved.
• Howard LaFranchi contributed from Washington.