Australia's courtship of China is being tested as criticism mounts here over the government's handling of Chen Yonglin, a senior Chinese diplomat who is seeking asylum.
So far the government has been muted in its response to Mr. Chen's claims that there are some 1,000 Chinese spies in this country, leading to claims that Prime Minister John Howard is putting trade ahead of national security and human rights. The charges have been corroborated by at least one of two other recent Chinese defectors.
The defections come at a time of deepening trade ties between China and Australia. The two countries have just begun negotiations over a free trade agreement, and a $19 billion gas deal is in the pipeline.
After rebuffing Chen's initial request for political asylum late last month, the government now must decide whether to grant Chen and his family - now in hiding - "protection" visas that would allow them to stay. Given the public sympathy surrounding his case, as well as the valuable information he may hold, analysts expect Australia to help Chen, albeit carefully.
"The trick is to allow [Chen] and his family to stay on here without getting the Chinese [upset]," says Alan Dupont, senior strategic analyst at The Lowy Institute, an independent think-tank in Sydney. The government "will do it by emphasizing due process and seeing it as just another case."
One sign of this approach came Sunday when Attorney General Philip Ruddock said that Chen's spy claims would not be considered in his asylum bid as they were made after he filed his application. In a bombshell revelation at a pro-democracy rally earlier this month, Chen said his job as first secretary of political affairs was to spy on Falun Gong practitioners and other Chinese dissidents in the community. He also alleged that Beijing sponsors the kidnapping of dissidents from Australia.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organization - this country's FBI - has not approached Chen for any information beyond his press statements, a decision that worries some observers.
"The security aspect of it cannot be swept under the carpet as they seem to be doing, and even the US would like to be in on this as [the Australians] would naturally be expected to share information with their biggest ally," says Mr. Dupont. The US also passes information to Australia - giving Washington further reason to be interested in what Chen knows.
Since Chen went into hiding, the media have learned of two more defectors. One of these, Hao Fengjun, who belonged to China's state security bureau, talks of an intricate and massive network of Chinese intelligence gathering. He arrived in Australia as a tourist in February, carrying intelligence material that he was sure Canberra would be keen to get its hands on. But until now, the government has shown little interest. The third, a former Chinese security official whose name has not been revealed, was granted protection here.
The Howard government has boosted trade ties with China, following a course set under the previous opposition administration. In 1987, the then Labor government merged the departments of foreign affairs and trade. "There was concern even at that time that it could lead to just this type of dilemma," says Katherine Gelber, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales.
China is now Australia's third-largest trading partner. The proposed free trade agreement would boost Australia's real GDP by $18 billion between 2006 and 2015.
Prime Minister Howard has promised that trade considerations with China will not influence what the government does with the Chen case. But a wide spectrum of politicians have voiced criticism.
"The prime minister in the first week, before Chen went public, was just hoping that he would implode and go quietly back to the [Chinese] Embassy," says Senator Bob Brown, the head of the Greens Party.
Tony Abbott, one of the most right-wing and senior members of John Howard's ministry, sent a strong message last week to the prime minister "that there was no way Chen was going to be sent back." And the main opposition Labor Party has also said that Chen should be given a visa.
The issue has engaged ordinary Australians, such as the parents of the North Newtown Public School, the school once attended by Chen's 6-year-old daughter.
"We are staying out of the politics as we have other Chinese diplomats' children at our school, but this little girl who is on the run with her parents, has brought all sorts of parents together," says Bradley Fromant, a parent who organized a support group to try to get help for the girl.