Erik Jensen speaks to former Chinese diplomat-turned-defector Chen Yonglin and finds the extent of China's paranoia about its countrymen in Australia is alarming.
Chen Yonglin talks through the flyscreen door of a house in south-west Sydney. A former first secretary at the Chinese consulate in Camperdown, he is shy about the meeting and takes a few moments before opening the door.
Over the next few weeks, through several hours of interviews, the defector explains his experiences of China in Australia - of watching and being watched, diplomacy and dissidence. He paints, in tiny brushstrokes, the picture of a country intoxicated by its power but wracked by thoughts of weakness. "The Chinese totalitarian system, they know the power is very weak - inside it's very weak," he says. "But they need to keep the image intact, perfect, so that they can continue to keep the integrity."
Six years ago, Richard Jones - then a member of the upper house of the NSW Parliament - spoke at a Falun Gong dinner in Parramatta. He talked about the endurance of its adherents, likened them to Buddhists, affirmed their right to practise. The next morning, on intelligence gathered at the function, the Chinese consul telephoned Jones to express concern at his attendance.
Some time later - between Jones attending a Taiwanese New Year celebration and meeting the Dalai Lama - the then-independent MP was placed on a secret blacklist at the consulate. He was identified as a Buddhist and a supporter of the Falun Gong. He will never be granted a visa to visit China.
"It's such an overkill, such an acute paranoia, to think one person could create waves through 1.3 billion people," Jones says of the ban. "It's a level not only of paranoia but of organisation and of wish to control. It reminds me of East Germany, where every fifth person was a spy."
Chen was the consul for political affairs at the Sydney consulate when Jones was blacklisted. It is on his evidence that Jones knows of it. The Australia that Chen describes is a convoluted net of Chinese paranoia. Favours are done, face is saved. A public relations war is being waged in the diaspora. "The penetration into Australia has been massive, from the top to bottom," Chen says. "In Australia, there is no secret from China."
Jones is not the only politician monitored by the Chinese, though the consulate denies they operated a blacklist of politicians who offended China's position. In the past three years, NSW Greens MP Ian Cohen has spoken at about 10 Falun Gong rallies. He has received three personal letters from the consulate, five general letters about the Falun Gong and other groups, and at least two videos detailing China's views on Tibet and other contentious issues.
"I've been reprimanded and had people from the Chinese embassy [talk] about their displeasure with me," Cohen says. "They use diplomacy but they're strong about it. They use their language very directly."
Six months ago, Cohen was invited to a private dinner with consular staff. He made it a lunch and chose Parliament House as the location. "They were making a genuine attempt to convert me to their point of view," he said. "The can't threaten me. They can only suggest of me."
Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, a former NSW Democrat, spoke at about six Falun Gong rallies before he was identified and received a letter from the consulate. "It was somewhat patronising. It basically said they [Falun Gong] were a cult," Chesterfield-Evans said. "I didn't take it as a threat - my impression was it was step one, 'You are naive'. If I had persisted, step two and three may have been forthcoming."
The letter was part of procedure, says Chen. Everyone at a rally, official or layperson, is identified by consular staff or informants. Prominent participants are contacted. Others are tracked by the consulate, using a network of Chinese bankers and real estate agents who are approached to supply addresses and other details.
"We will write a letter to [a politician] to warn him or her, to tell them that the Falun Gong is a cult and their attendance damages Australian-Chinese relations and there will be no benefit for themselves," Chen says. "It is a warning: if they want to visit China, their visa will not be issued. We give a letter implying that."
The Chinese Consul General, Hu Shan, refused to be interviewed by the Herald and did not respond to an extensive list of questions faxed to him. A vice-consul in government affairs, Peng Douyi, replied but would not answer questions about surveillance and diplomacy. "Falun Gong is a destructive cult that practises human mind-control and behaviour manipulation. It has claimed plenty of innocent lives and damaged many families," he said. "In overseas countries, Falun Gong has become an anti-China political organisation defaming China."
In the three years since Chen defected, having collected the names of hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners, the former diplomat has worked part-time - first as a festival light salesman, now as a rental agent.
He is still cautious about contact. It took a network of informants only four days to find him when he hid in Gosford after defecting. He says he was followed again last year, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation talks in Sydney, though he has no proof other than to say he saw men videotaping him.
When he agrees to an interview, he asks to meet in Hyde Park but eventually nominates a house in south-west Sydney as an alternative. The house is a base for the small group of dissidents operating in Sydney - about 20 people, 100 more if one counts those with a vague association. Dandelions poke through the hurricane fence. There is a flat-pack wardrobe on the porch with rows of shoes inside. Many people use this house. All believe they are monitored by the Chinese.
There are two tiers to Chinese surveillance in Australia, Chen says: a small group of professionals and a larger ring of people offering information when contacted by the consulate. In his time at the consulate, he says, staff did everything from infiltrate pro-Tibet groups to rummaging through the letterboxes of suspected Falun Gong practitioners.
"We collect through many ways - through open publication and personal collection, and through the community. And also through investigation. In Australia, a lot of information can be accessed through the public."
Chen says local councillors are another source of information and "very often" tip off the consulate to rallies in their local government area. He is reticent to give the names of the informants the consulate uses. The consulate uses the information to make sure someone is available to videotape those attending.
Councils are lobbied to block applications for Falun Gong activity. China sees sister-city relationships as a point on which to wedge councils, Chen says. "We will first make representations to the council and demand not to allow such activities. We present to the city council [that] there are not allowed to be such rallies and we threaten it will influence relations with China. We have used sister-city relations and sister-state relations and we often use these to pressure [the] NSW Government." he says.
"The real nature of Chinese diplomacy is how to maintain the ruling of a communist government. It's not about national interest, it's about people's interest."
Midway through 2001, the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority met representatives from the consulate and struck a deal: Falun Gong would not be allowed to criticise China in the authority's parks and would be prevented from holding banners that criticised China. It was one of many deals Chen says he made over four years. The authority refused, when contacted, to deny such a meeting took place.
A spokeswoman, Angela Fiumara, said in a statement: "Falun Gong protesters are among several groups, including buskers and film crews, which the authority has in the past requested relocate to other parts of its precincts based on public access issues. Our current policy does not specifically allow nor restrict demonstrations or the use of hand-held signs and banners by protesters."
The authority places Falun Gong rallies into a category of special events shared by pyrotechnic displays and helicopter landings. Such events require special considerations of public safety and pleasantness and organisers can be forced to hire security chosen by the authority.
Each rally must produce detailed modelling including assessments of alcohol and crowd management. All applications to use the authority's parks were refused in the two years after the meeting.
In the past three years, foreshore land has been used as an assembly point and this year the authority allowed an art display in Darling Harbour. As a condition of its approval, the Falun Gong's marquee could not be open to the view of passers-by.
"After the change in China," Chen says that in the end, "everything will be exposed."