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Asylum requests complicate ties between China, Australia

BEIJING—Asylum requests by two apparently fearful Chinese officials in Australia are casting light on China's overseas espionage efforts as well as its growing clout in regional affairs.

China and Australia on Thursday downplayed concerns that the asylum requests would harm booming trade ties between the nations. But the cases underscore the growing strength of China's economic locomotive and the distress that other nations in the region feel at crossing swords with Beijing on unrelated political issues that might disrupt trade.

The cases involve Chen Yonglin, a 37-year-old diplomat who recently quit China's consulate in Sydney, and a second Chinese citizen, Hao Fengjun, a self-proclaimed 32-year-old security operative. The two emerged separately in the past week to assert that China maintains a vast network of informants in Australia to keep tabs on Falun Gong, a quasi-religious meditation movement that Beijing considers an evil cult, and pro-Taiwan and pro-Tibet activists. Both men seek asylum in Australia.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Thursday that the two men were telling "fabrications and lies" and China's relations with Australia "should not be compromised by these words and people."

Responding to opposition charges that his government is afraid of offending China, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said in Sydney that trade ties with Beijing wouldn't come into play in deciding the cases.

"I want to cut right to the point about that. There's been a lot of nonsense talk over the past little while about this," Howard said. "It's not going to be influenced by the amount of iron ore or coal we sell to China."

The media in Australia have seized on the cases, putting the conservative Howard government on the hot seat amid burgeoning trade ties with China.

"It's causing quite a brouhaha," said Bruce Jacobs, a China expert at Monash University in Victoria, Australia. "One of the big issues is how much does the huge and booming trade relationship with China play into this?"

China has surged to become mineral-rich Australia's third-largest trade partner, with trade valued at nearly $23 billion a year. The two nations agreed in April to begin talks on a multibillion-dollar free-trade agreement. Australia also has agreed to sell a huge amount of liquid natural gas to China, and seeks a separate deal to sell uranium.

While the asylum cases have made front-page headlines in Australia, Chinese censors have blocked all news, even blacking out cable-television newscasts of the story.

Chen quit his job as first secretary at the Chinese consulate in Sydney last month, going underground with his wife and 6-year-old daughter while seeking asylum. In a letter May 25 to Australia's Immigration Department, made public Thursday by the opposition Greens party, Chen said he was tormented by nightmares from monitoring Chinese dissidents.

He wrote that he "would rather die than be forced" to go back to China, where he fears he'll face punishment for his belief that members of Falun Gong, who practice breathing exercises and meditation, shouldn't be persecuted.

China banned the movement in 1999, jailing tens of thousands of followers. Human rights groups say hundreds of sect members have died in prison.

Hao said he was a member of a department of China's Public Security Bureau in the port city of Tianjin entrusted with monitoring Falun Gong activity overseas. He said he arrived in Australia in February on a tourist visa.

Australia's attorney general, Philip Ruddock, said the nation's intelligence agencies were looking into claims by Hao and Chen that China maintains 1,000 informants, spies and "friends" in Australia to help it monitor activists.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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