Security raid on Chinese academic fuels concern over Australia-China exchanges

FILE PHOTO: Illustration picture of Australian and Chinese flags

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A Chinese university scholar had equipment seized and was questioned by Australia's security agency and police in Western Australia last month in an incident that has prompted some Australian academics to reconsider their travel plans to China for fear of reprisals.

The Chinese academic, who specialises in foreign affairs research at a Beijing university, had visited universities in three Australian states in July and August.

The Guardian first reported on Monday that the man had his accommodation raided and his laptop taken by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and Australian Federal Police in Perth, and was told his visa was being assessed for security reasons. He returned to China.

Three sources with knowledge of the matter confirmed some of the details of the Guardian story to Reuters.

The Chinese national had previously studied in Australia and now worked for a Beijing university where he specialised in foreign policy research, one of the sources added.

After years of political dispute, diplomatic ties between the two major trading partners have recently stabilised, with China lifting blocks on several Australian exports and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirming last week he would travel to Beijing this year.

A high-level dialogue between Chinese and Australian academic, industry and media delegations resumed in Beijing on Thursday after a four-year halt. It included a Chinese scholar who had his Australian visa revoked in 2020 by ASIO, amid concern over foreign interference in politics.

James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology in Sydney, said the latest incident had the potential to deter academic exchanges.

"Any Chinese academic with an interest in relations with Australia would surely be re-assessing travel plans fearing the same thing could happen to them. And Australian academics thinking about heading in the other direction would now be anxious about tit-for-tat reprisals by China's security agencies," he said.

Greg McCarthy, head of social sciences at the University of Adelaide, said he was also concerned about repercussions for scholars from both countries.

"If it is true it is disturbing because it affects research between Australia and China," said McCarthy, a former chair of Australian studies at Peking University.

The Australian Federal Police and ASIO declined to comment.

Australia has set up a taskforce to investigate foreign interference at universities, and the Albanese government said in March foreign interference operations targeting academics were a threat to democracy.

In 2020 an ASIO raid on Chinese journalists in Australia preceded China temporarily barring two Australian journalists from leaving the country, in a high-profile diplomatic incident.

The Chinese embassy in Canberra did not respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Christina Fincher)