“Propaganda outlets that report to the Chinese Communist Party are foreign agents, not ‘journalists',” US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus tweeted on March 26. “Even General Secretary Xi says they ‘must speak for the Party'.”
American intelligence services have long regarded many of the Chinese journalists working overseas for state-owned media outlets as sources for the Ministry of State Security, the People's Liberation Army intelligence corps, or other arms of the Chinese state intelligence apparatus.
In other words, as spies.
On March 2, the Trump Administration cut the number of visas for Chinese citizens working at Chinese media organisations in the US to 100, resulting in the effective expulsion of 60 journalists.
The Chinese government decided who returned home, meaning the spies probably stayed. As payback, it expelled almost all the American journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal working in China.
In Australia, journalists were about to turn their attention to a Labor MP with a history of close interest in China – and possibly connections with Chinese state journalists.
Praise for the leader
Shaoquett Moselmane, the child of Lebanese immigrants, had posted an article on his website praising Chinese President Xi Jinping's leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"He mustered the resources of the nation and together with the great people of China – fought it and contained it," the NSW upper house member wrote.
Moselmane's post was first reported on March 31. Two days later his parliamentary leader, Jodi McKay, issued a mild rebuke.
"I have spoken to Mr Moselmane and have indicated his comments were inappropriate, particularly given what NSW is currently dealing with," she said in a letter to radio host Alan Jones.
A few days later, more pro-Beijing comments by Moselmane came to light. The assistant president of the NSW Legislative Council had declared the public narrative that the coronavirus began in Wuhan was racist.
"Today, the obsolete scum of 'white Australia' is once again flooding, and the theory of yellow fever has once again surfaced," he had written on February 5 for the East China Normal University.
"Some mainstream media have bred and spread these racial viruses in our multicultural community with the purpose of inciting hatred. Today, media xenophobia and full-scale war against China have become the norm."
Moselmane's outspokenness – which was remarkably similar to the Chinese government's position – got him demoted to backbencher, which cost him $57,525 a year.
A visit from ASIO
Worse was to come. At 6.30am on June 26, agents from ASIO arrived at his neat suburban home in south Sydney with a search warrant.
They were there to investigate an alleged plot by the Chinese state to influence Australian politics. The home of Moselmane's part-time electorate officer John Zhang was also searched by the domestic security agency.
Moselmane wasn't charged, but took indefinite leave from Parliament. "I have done nothing wrong," he said.
What almost no one knew at the time was that ASIO appears to have had questioned, on the same day, at least two Chinese state-employed journalists.
After being visited by ASIO, Tao Shelan, the Australia bureau chief of the China News Service, and Li Dayong, China Radio International's Sydney bureau chief, left the country, according to media reports.
News of the ASIO interviews was revealed on Wednesday by the Global Times, a media outlet that is regarded as a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. Australian security sources confirmed the information.
On August 14, Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist working for a Chinese government television network, went missing in Beijing. She had been arrested and was "suspected of carrying out criminal activities endangering China's national security", the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
Close to home
After Cheng was detained, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advised The Australian Financial Review's Shanghai correspondent, Michael Smith, to leave the country.
He booked a flight for September 3. The night before, shortly after midnight, seven officials arrived at his home. Another seven visited an ABC journalist in Beijing, Bill Birtles.
They were told they were people of interest in a legal case and would not be allowed to leave China until they had answered questions relating to the investigation.
The next morning the two journalists sought the safety of Australian diplomats, who kept them protected in diplomatic residences for five days while negotiations about their departure took place between the two governments.
After five days, the journalists agreed to answer questions from the security services if they were granted exit permits. Smith said the one-hour interview was "unremarkable".
They left straight after. The day after both journalists arrived home in Sydney, the Global Times reported that ASIO had questioned four of its journalists and taken their computers and phones. Two academics' visas were cancelled.
"The raid was a horrendous violation of the basic rights of the Chinese journalists and freedom of the press," the Global Times said.
"Australia is waging an intensifying espionage offensive against China – sending agents to China to spy, gather intelligence and recruit assets, instigating defections among Chinese nationals, spying on Chinese students and organisations in Australia, feeding fake news to media to hype up the 'China espionage theory', the Global Times had learned from a source with a Chinese law-enforcement agency in June."
Presumably, both countries spy on each other. The consequence of the mutual suspicion will be an Australia less informed about China, given no Australian media outlets now operate there.