SYDNEY (Reuters) - A Chinese scholar banned from Australia on security grounds says he has become critical of Canberra in recent years but is no security risk, adding his biggest contribution to a WeChat group at the centre of a security investigation was usually an emoji.
A decision by Australia's national security agency to cancel the visas of two Chinese academics of Australian literature has embroiled Canberra's oldest soft power programme in China in a bitter diplomatic dispute.
One of the banned academics, Chen Hong, had drawn recent attention for criticising the Australian government in the Chinese newspaper The Global Times.
Chen told Reuters in an interview that he became critical of Australia after 2017, when Canberra began a "heatbreaking" noisy political debate about Chinese influence.
"I don't think Australia is a country that should be clamping down on voices," Chen said.
"In my classroom my students all know that I am an 'Australianist'," he said.
Chen teaches Australian culture at the East China Normal University in Shanghai, where he is director of the Australian Studies Centre.
Chen first visited Australia as a 24-year-old at the personal invitation of former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam.
Whitlam established diplomatic relations between Australia and China in 1972, and later headed the government's Australia China Council, which helped fund the study of Australian literature in Chinese universities.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation moved in August to cancel Chen's visa, and that of Li Jianjun, director of the Australian Studies Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University, labelling them a risk to national security, Chen confirmed.
ASIO has declined to comment on its reasons.
Chen said the men were members of a WeChat group with a New South Wales (NSW) state Labor politician and his staffer, whose homes were raided in June by federal police in a foreign interference investigation.
China's foreign ministry said Chinese journalists in Australia were also searched by ASIO, but ASIO has declined to comment, and the government has said only that it takes foreign interference seriously and ASIO acts on evidence. [L4N2GA01N]
High Court documents lodged by the NSW politician's staffer, who is challenging the foreign interference law, show the investigation centres on a private social media group.
Chen says the WeChat group included two Chinese journalists and was used to organise a dinner on one of his visits to Sydney.
Afterwards, people who attended the dinner continued to post photographs and newspaper articles. Chen says he was the least active member, and usually responded with an emoji or meme.
"I cannot establish any remote link between what I have been doing and the allegations that I constitute a risk to Australian security," he said.
Western Sydney University, where Li is studying for a PhD, told Chinese students in an email it was supporting Li to seek a review of the visa cancellation.
The university told Reuters in a statement Li had an "impressive track record". The visa decision was a matter for government, it said, adding it supported new government guidelines on foreign interference.
Jocelyn Chey, a former Consul-General in Hong Kong who also helped establish the Australia China Council in 1979, says she regards Li as "one of our best friends in China".
"Any time I have heard him speak about Australia it has been very positive," she told Reuters in an email.
Two Australian academics who knew Chen said they were surprised by his recent criticism of the Australian government.
"From an Australian point of view, he seems to slip between academic work and journalism and the (China Communist) Party line," said Greg McCarthy, a former chair of Australian studies at Peking University.
McCarthy said he believes Chen felt betrayed as the diplomatic dispute between Canberra and Beijing worsened after 2017. [L4N2G11X9]
"Chen stepped into the middle of politics with a background in literature and an idealised version of Australia," he said.
Chen's engagement with Australia began in 1987 with a PhD on Australia's Nobel laureate Patrick White and he began studying in Australia in 1991. When he returned to Shanghai in 1994, he was asked by his university to interpret for another former prime minister, Bob Hawke, on a business trip.
Chen's university encouraged him to "diversify" from Australian literature, he said, so he "expanded research to Australian politics and foreign affairs".
He said the Global Times is the only English-language newspaper that offers opportunities in China to have his articles published, and his criticism of Australia is aimed at improving relations. He said he continues to write on Australian culture in Chinese literary journals.
Chen visited Australia six times in 2019, including one visit at the invitation of the Chinese embassy, which organised for three Chinese academics to meet with Australian think-tanks - including the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, labelled as "anti-China" by Beijing.
The Chinese embassy paid for his $1,000 airfare, he said. "You can't buy someone for that," he added.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Michael Perry)