China has accused Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist at state-owned broadcaster CGTN who was detained last month, of ‘endangering national security’ © Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images

Beijing has alleged the homes of Chinese journalists and academics were raided by Australia’s intelligence services, escalating a diplomatic row that culminated in two Australian reporters fleeing China this week.

The allegations, first reported by Chinese state media on Tuesday, claimed intelligence officers in June interrogated the unnamed reporters for several hours, while seizing computer equipment, mobile phones and documents. The officers told the journalists to keep the raids secret, Chinese reports claim.

“We have provided consular support to Chinese journalists in Australia and made representations with relevant Australian authorities to safeguard legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens,” a Chinese embassy spokesman told the Financial Times on Wednesday.

China’s foreign ministry said four Chinese journalists were questioned “without reasonable explanation” and demanded that “Australia immediately stop this savage and unreasonable behaviour”.

Australia’s Department of Home Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the intelligence service, said: “As is longstanding practice, Asio does not comment on intelligence matters.”

The revelation comes against a backdrop of deepening diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Canberra.

Bill Birtles, a correspondent for Australia’s national broadcaster ABC, and Michael Smith, a journalist for the Australian Financial Review, were rushed out of China on Monday after they were questioned by the country’s security agents.

That followed the detention of Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who worked as a news reader for state broadcaster China Global Television Network.

On Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry said Ms Cheng was “suspected of engaging in criminal activities endangering China's national security”, without elaborating. It added that the questioning of Mr Birtles and Mr Smith was conducted “according to law”.

A report by state-owned news agency Xinhua alleged that the June raid on the Chinese journalists was linked to an investigation by Australian intelligence of Shaoquett Moselmane, an opposition MP in the state of New South Wales.

Xinhua claimed Mr Moselmane was suspected of being a Chinese agent because he had “criticised Australia’s anti-China policies”.

Mr Moselmane has told Australian media an ongoing police investigation was related to other individuals, who authorities suspect may have sought to advance the goals of China, but it did not include him.

In an interview with ABC in August, he said police had asked him about a social media chat group that he was a member of that also included Chinese academics and foreign journalists. “There’s nothing sinister. But it’s been made to sound like something covert,” Mr Moselmane said.

Chen Hong, a professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai, confirmed that his visa had been revoked. The allegations that he had used a friendship with Mr Moselmane to influence him are “totally preposterous”, Mr Chen said.

“I am just an academic. I don't represent any government agency.”

“It’s very distressing for me,” he added. “I translate Australian literature. I write books about Australia . . . I think it’s the wrong act to distance someone like me from Australia.”

Xinhua has suggested that case was an example of Australia using laws against foreign interference to unfairly target China.

“No matter how hard Australia tries to cover it up, it cannot conceal its hypocrisy and double standards in practicing its so-called freedom of the press,” wrote the Global Times, a Chinese state-backed outlet known for its nationalist views, on Tuesday. 

“If Australia’s security agencies are raiding the property of Chinese journalists, that obviously raises the prospect of retaliation, as well as giving the Chinese government propaganda material to paint Australia as hypocritical,” said James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at University of Technology Sydney.

However, he suggested there was no equivalence between the treatment that Australian journalists receive in China and that received by Chinese journalists in Australia.

Chinese state media employees posted overseas often play a dual role of both writing publicly available articles and providing reports to Communist party officials. Some employees are intelligence officers posing as journalists, according to western intelligence services.

In the US, the government has recently designated major Chinese state news outlets as “foreign missions”, subject to the same treatment as embassies and consulates, in recognition of the fact they are considered by the Chinese government to be arms of the state.

Since 2012, Chinese president Xi Jinping has reasserted party control over the media by requiring local journalists to pledge allegiance to the country’s leadership. State-run media have promised to act “with the party as our surname”, a promise of complete fealty.

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