BEIJING — The defection of a senior Chinese diplomat in Australia who claims he helped oversee a vast spy network has cast a spotlight on China's espionage activities at a time of increased global trade tensions and concern over Beijing's military spending.
Chen Yonglin, the first secretary of the Chinese Consulate General in Sydney, chose a particularly embarrassing moment to go public against his employer -- a rally last month in Australia marking the 16th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
At an impromptu news conference shortly after Australia turned down his request for political asylum, the bookish Chen announced that he'd spent the last four years managing a network of 1,000 informants and spies in Australia on behalf of the Chinese government.
Their primary target, he added, were members of Falun Gong, a quasi-religious group banned in China as an "evil cult," and those advocating independence for Tibet, Taiwan and East Turkmenistan.
Beijing immediately disputed his claims and similar charges by Hao Fengjun, a second Chinese official applying for an Australian visa. The allegations are "fabrication and lies," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in Beijing. "Sino-Australia relations should not pay a price for two such people and two such incidents."
"We have some Chinese who don't like China that much and want to profit for their own personal agenda," Fu Ying, China's ambassador to Australia, said last week. Chen "now appears to be hating China so much, but China offered him the best a young man can have."
The incident could reverberate beyond Australian shores, analysts said, emboldening China's critics at a time when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other Washington conservatives are expressing concern about Beijing's intentions and questioning its growing military spending.
The case has also embarrassed the government of Prime Minister John Howard, which critics accuse of putting trade ahead of human rights to avoid angering Beijing, a charge the administration denies. China is Australia's third-largest trading partner, with annual bilateral commerce worth $22.7 billion, and a voracious consumer of its natural resources. The two nations are also discussing a free-trade agreement to strengthen ties further.
Opposition lawmakers accused the Howard administration of immediately informing the Chinese government when Chen submitted his application and rejecting his request for a safe meeting place. Last Friday, Australia granted Chen a permanent visa. Hao has petitioned for a protection visa, and his case is now awaiting a decision.
Part of the equation, analysts said, is that neither Chen nor Hao -- who claims to have worked in the Chinese city of Tianjin at a security office charged with stamping out Falun Gong before fleeing to Australia -- appears to be a huge intelligence catch.
"For Western intelligence agencies, knowing how China monitors Falun Gong is not so important," said Steve Tsang, a China scholar at Oxford University. "I suspect that's why they didn't grant Chen's first application. If he was involved in a missile program or counterespionage, that would probably be a different thing."
Like those of most countries, China's intelligence efforts employ a system of concentric circles, analysts said. Unlike U.S. intelligence agencies, with their reliance on satellite data and high technology, China is known for its "humint," or human intelligence.
"They can and do send out thousands of people with limited tasking, flooding the target country," said Larry M. Wortzel, a former U.S. Army attache in Beijing now at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
China has three kinds of spies, asylum-seeker Hao told Australian reporters: "professional spies" paid to collect information, "working relationship" spies operating in business circles and "friends" in less formal networks, a category analysts said Chen's 1,000 spies would fall into.
China employs a relatively small number of well-trained, professional spies, intelligence analysts said, charged with digging up the most sensitive military secrets and strategic policy.
In the second tier, China relies on well-placed front companies and scientists to go after key technologies, including dual military and civilian-use products that are easier to acquire than top-secret military items.
"But you use dual-use or trading companies as far from the embassy as possible," said an intelligence expert who declined to be identified. "They're a big radioactive tag."
In one recent case, a Chinese American couple in Wisconsin was arrested on suspicion of selling China $500,000 worth of computer parts with potential applications in enhanced missile systems.