Chinese diplomat claims asylum in Australia

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Depending on whom you believe, China's political consul in Sydney is either a passionate convert to democracy, or a man who simply does not want to go home.

Depending on whom you believe, China's political consul in Sydney is either a passionate convert to democracy, or a man who simply does not want to go home.

Either way, Chen Yonglin, who has been on the run since defecting from his post 12 days ago, represents a diplomatic nightmare for Australia. Canberra wants to forge closer ties with China and is in the throes of negotiating a free trade agreement. If it gives sanctuary to Mr Chen, Beijing will be deeply displeased. If it hands him over, it will face opprobrium at home.

For Mr Chen, the signs so far are not encouraging. Indeed, his attempts to jump ship have met with a near farcical response from Australian officials. They not only rejected his request for political asylum without interviewing him, he claims, but also telephoned his superiors at the consulate-general to report him.

The Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, refused to comment last night on efforts by the diplomat to seek asylum. She said an application for ordinary refugee status was now being considered but made clear that he should not expect special treatment.

Emerging from "semi-hiding" at the weekend to address a rally to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre, Mr Chen, 37, said his defection was inspired by sympathy for Chinese dissidents and opposition activists. After years spent monitoring their activities in Australia as part of his job, he said, he now espoused their cause.

The young diplomat also claimed he was being followed by Chinese spies, who wanted to kidnap and repatriate him. His friends say he fears for his life if forced to return to China.

Yesterday, the Chinese ambassador in Canberra, Fu Ying, declared Mr Chen's motives for quitting his job were far more mundane. To put it bluntly, he was nearing the end of his four-year posting and, having tasted the good life in Australia, did not want to leave.

Ms Fu scoffed at his "wild stories" that Australia was home to hundreds of Chinese spies involved in persecuting and abducting dissidents. She chided him for tarnishing China's image in an attempt to secure Australian citizenship, and said she was sure he would be in no danger if he went home.

Mr Chen, who is being looked after by Chinese friends in Sydney, along with his wife and six-year-old daughter, left the consulate-general on 26 May.

He told the Sydney Morning Herald that he went straight to department of immigration offices, where he presented his diplomatic identity card and a letter requesting political asylum. To his horror, he received a call soon afterwards from his boss, whom officials had called. They say they only telephoned the consulate to verify his identity.

Asked whether Australia's actions in making his application public had put Mr Chen's life at risk, Ms Vanstone said: "I think at this point, from the information I have, it's been handled appropriately."

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