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An incident at the Opera House
The mainstream press has ignored the link between the Chen Yonglin defection and the visit to Australia of top Chinese politician, Wu Banggou

By Gavin Gatenby
12 June 2005

On the evening of Monday 23 May, three days before the Chinese diplomat Chen Yonglin walked into the Immigration Department building and requested political asylum, I and hundreds of others witnessed a curious incident at Sydney Opera House.

My partner and I had gone with a friend to hear a Mahler concert. Arriving an hour early, so we could eat at a small café under the forecourt, we were struck by an unusual number of NSW Police dressed in dark blue jumpsuits and combat boots assembling on the forecourt. They had a sniffer dog and while we were dining they came past, in pairs, looking among the potplants for bombs or concealed weapons.

When we left the café and strolled across the forecourt towards the staircase to the lobby, the police were lined up along the driveway (which had been closed) surveilling the crowd streaming into the building.

We were already speculating that a VIP was expected, but who could be so important as to warrant this level of police activity? None of us could recall having seen or heard any media reports of a state visit of major importance, and we wondered whether the Prime Minister, John Howard, would be attending.

We were waiting in the foyer when I became aware of several big, square, Chinese men mingling in the crowd. They were wearing identical smart black business suits and had two-way radio wires coming out of their ears. They wore small red and gold lapel badges depicting the Chinese flag and had a second badge, a red triangle, pinned beneath it. They were, I suddenly realized, security guards.

My partner (who hadn't noticed the men) was standing beside a litter bin at the top of the stairs. As I watched, she crouched down, put her shoulder bag on the floor and started to rifle through it, looking for something. The nearest black-suited Chinese man acted swiftly. He strode over, asked my partner to move and sort of hussled her away from the stairs in the brook-no-nonsense manner of the well-trained secret service bodyguard.

At that point I looked down the broad staircase and saw a flying wedge of about 20 black suited men coming up. They were shielding three or four people, one of whom was vaguely familiar. Like the men staking out the foyer, the human shields all wore the small Chinese flag and the red triangle. I noticed that at least two were European. Were they ASIO?

The flying wedge barged through the crowd in the foyer and went on up the stairs towards the stalls. When we entered the hall the whole party was seated in one of the best stalls.

At the end of the concert they formed up into the wedge and escorted the VIP out. It was then that I noticed that no less than three black suited men had also been seated at the ends of each of the rows near the stall.

The incident was a remarkable demonstration of security muscle and I expected the visit of the Chinese VIP would make the media the next day, but there was just a resounding silence. Nothing in the papers (that I saw), nothing on TV or radio. I had to read the English-language internet versions of the Chinese press, from China, to find that our mysterious Mahler fan was Wu Banggou, the Chairman of the National People's Congress, no less, and that he was in Australia to negotiate a landmark trade treaty.

The Opera House incident took place on Monday 23 May. On Thursday 26 May, Yonglin tried to defect, allegedly with compelling information about the harassment and even kidnapping of Australian followers of the religious sect, Falun Gong, and of a huge network of Chinese spies operating in Australia. His application was indignantly rejected by Immigration officials who immediately phoned the Chinese Consulate, forcing Chen to flee on foot, with his family, to Central station where he caught a train to Gosford and went into hiding.

Recall that Chen was the diplomat, based in the Sydney consulate, whose job it was to “monitor” Falun Gong. In the eyes of the Chinese secret service and Australian security the sect would have been the only credible threat to Wu Banggou’s safety while he was in Australia. And I’d hazard a guess that their assessment would have been that a lightning demonstration against him was the most likely form the threat would take. Any such incident would have been, at most, an embarrassment, so why the extraordinary media black-out on the existence of Wu Banggou’s visit?

The answer is, of course, that our burgeoning trade relationship with the market Stalinist regime is seen by the Australian capitalist class and its managing political elite, as crucial for Australia’s economic future; so crucial, that nothing must be allowed to embarrass China’s rulers. As noted by various mainstream press reports, this policy has even involved failing to follow the Bush administration’s line on the need for China to revalue its currency and indications that Australia may not come to Taiwan’s aid if it was attacked by China.

While Wu Banggou would have brought his own security detail to Australia, we may be sure that security planning would have started well in advance of the visit and that Chen Yonglin would have been a key player because of his knowledge of the structure and activities of the local Falun Gong organisation. In the normal course of events he would have been present at the Opera House on that Monday night, if only because of his ability to recognize Falun Gong members within the audience.

To hear the mainstream press tell it, the trigger for Chen’s defection was simply that the term of his posting to Australia had come to an end. The story goes that, having developed a visceral dislike of the regime he served or, alternatively, a great fondness for life in Australia, he decided this was his last chance to gain asylum. Chen’s story is that he feared his successor would deduce that he had formed relationships with Falun Gong practitioners and had gone soft on the sect.

I have no way of knowing if that is true, but there is good reason to doubt if it represents anything like the whole truth.

Security planning for Wu Banggou’s visit would have begun weeks before his visit. It would probably have involved high-level secret service officers visiting Australia and supervising the preparations. They would certainly have held joint planning sessions with ASIO in relation to the Falun Gong threat and operational details of the Chairman’s itinerary. They (and perhaps ASIO) would have picked Chen’s brains in relation to potential threats, especially from the sect that it was his job to monitor and harass. They would have pored over his files. His every action would have been scrutinized, if only because a failure of duty or judgement might have compromised the operation.

It is far more likely that Chen’s alleged sympathies for Falun Gong, or indeed any other misdemeanor, would have been suspected or detected as a result of this intense level of attention than it would have been in the aftermath of his departure for China when his successor was feeling his way into the anti-Falun Gong assignment.

Think about it. Here’s a man who has been at the centre of his country’s overseas espionage operations against a religious sect perceived to be a threat to China’s rulers. He has just spent an intense few days briefing his country’s secret service operatives and liaising with ASIO over high-level security for one of his country’s top leaders during negotiations in which both nations have much at stake. He could not have chosen a worse climate in which to defect. It follows that Chen was probably in more immediate danger when he walked into the Immigration office than he has been willing to admit or the mainstream press has so far implied.