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China envoy alleges spy network

Special report: Eye on China
Beijing (China)

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- A senior Chinese diplomat on the run in Australia claims China has a network of about 1,000 agents in the country who have been involved in kidnappings of dissidents.

The diplomat, Chen Yonglin, said his work in Australia included monitoring the activities of dissident Chinese groups, including Falun Gong practitioners and supporters of Tibet, Taiwan and Uighur separatists in western China.

Chen, 37, consul for political affairs at the consulate-general in Sydney, left his post on May 26 and has sought political asylum from the Australian government for himself, his wife Jin Ping and their six-year-old daughter Chen Fangrong.

Chen made his claims in a letter made public by Australian media and in an address to a pro-democracy rally in Sydney on Saturday marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing on June 4, 1989.

The Chinese embassy says Chen's accusations are "fabrications" and that he simply wants to live in Australia rather than returning to Beijing.

An embassy statement issued on Sunday night said: "To achieve the aim of staying in Australia, Chen Yonglin fabricated stories which are unfounded and purely fictitious."

A spokesperson for Australia's immigration department told CNN on Monday that Chen's visa application was lodged on Friday and would be processed "on its merits" in the normal way.

He said any plea for political asylum by Chen was a matter for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who flew out of Australia on Monday for India, had said earlier that immigration officials were assessing Chen's appeal for a special "protection visa" and were weighing up whether he would now face persecution if he was forced to return to China.

In interviews with Australian newspapers and television, Chen said his initial request for political asylum had been refused within 24 hours by Australian immigration officials, who encouraged him to return to his post at the Chinese consulate.

He said the Australian officials had alerted his superiors, prompting him to flee Sydney last week.

The immigration spokesperson confirmed to CNN that the department had contacted the Chinese consulate to check that Chen was on its staff. But he said that once Chen's visa application was lodged, the immigration department had not passed any information on to the Chinese authorities, in line with its privacy obligations to visa applicants.

On Saturday, Chen appeared at a Sydney rally to mark the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.

"I feel very unsafe," Chen told the rally, according to The Associated Press. "In 16 years, the Chinese government has done nothing for political reform. People have no political freedom, no human rights."

Chen said he had worked at the Sydney consulate for four years, during which time he monitored dissident activities in Australia.

A Falun Gong spokeswoman, Kay Rubacek, told Australian television she was shocked by Chen's move. She said Chen in the past had taken photographs of peaceful protests outside the consulate in Sydney.

Chen's case comes at a delicate time for the Australian government, which is seeking to negotiate a free trade agreement with China and has hosted numerous high-level visits from China recently.

The last was by Wu Bangguo, chairman of the National People's Congress, who toured Australia last month.

Australian exports to China have mushroomed in recent years, particularly in the commodities sector, where coal, iron ore and other metals are much in demand to feed China's booming economy. China is now Australia's third largest trade partner, and two-way trade is running at about $23 billion a year.

Last week, The Australian newspaper reported that the country's domestic spy agency ASIO had set up a new counter-espionage unit to boost its surveillance of Chinese and Russian spies looking to steal Australian technology secrets.

The newspaper said government sources believed Chinese agents in Australia now outnumbered Russian agents. It quoted the sources as saying spies used diplomatic cover and also were posing as business people and professionals.

China has 40 registered diplomats in Australia, compared with just 11 for Russia.

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