Beijing claimed Wednesday that Australia's intelligence agency questioned foreign correspondents working for Chinese state-run media, seizing computers and mobile phones in raids apparently linked to a billowing spy scandal.
The accusation, the latest scrap in a diplomatic falling-out that spans security, trade and media freedoms, follows an investigation by Beijing into Australian journalists based in China.
The last two foreign correspondents working for Australian media in China, Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, fled on Monday fearing arrest, while another -- Cheng Lei, who worked as an anchor for Chinese state TV -- is being detained under "national security" laws.
On Wednesday a spokesman for China's foreign ministry added a new layer to the intrigue, saying Australia-based journalists from Xinhua, China News Service and the China Media group were the target of raids by local intelligence agents in late June.
Four journalists were "interrogated... on the grounds of a possible breach of Australia's anti-foreign interference laws", Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing.
They were questioned and had their phones, computers and even their children's tablets confiscated.
"Journalists of the Chinese media in Australia have strictly observed local laws and regulations," he said.
Australia's actions "seriously interferes with the normal reporting duties of the Chinese media... and causes serious damage to the physical and mental health of the journalists and their families."
The four are thought to be back in China, he added.
- Bad relations -
The accusations are the latest saga to unspool between China and Australia.
Beijing is furious at Canberra for taking a leading role in calls for a probe into the orgins of the coronavirus, and has hit back with a battery of tariffs on Australian imports from beef to barley.
China is Australia's biggest export market, but that has not deterred Canberra's outspoken approach to sensitive issues ranging from human rights in the northwestern region of Xinjiang to questions over China's role in Australia's 5G network.
The Australian intelligence activity against the four Chinese journalists is alleged to have taken place on June 26.
ASIO, Australia's main intelligence agency, refused to confirm or deny the raids, while the Australian Federal Police said it had "no comment to make" on the matter.
But court documents show Australian intelligence and police officers raided the home and office of New South Wales state legislator Shaoquett Moselmane on the same day in June, as part of a months-long investigation into covert Chinese influence campaigns in Australia.
The documents also show the raids were related to the activities of a Moselmane aide, John Zhang, who is accused of collaborating with China's main spy agency.
It is believed that Zhang and Moselmane had a WeChat group with the journalists for state-run news organisations who were targeted by the alleged ASIO raids, as well as Chinese state-linked academics.
The group "concealed from or failed to disclose to Mr Moselmane that they were acting on behalf of or in collaboration with Chinese State and Party apparatus," documents lodged with Australia's High Court allege.
One of the academics in the chat group, Chen Hong -- a professor at the East China Normal University and a prominent media commentator -- told AFP on Wednesday that he had learned that his own Australian visa had also been revoked.
"The email actually cited that the visa was cancelled because ASIO made an assessment that I directly or indirectly have a risk to Australia's security, which I absolutely refuse to accept, of course," Chen said.
Both Zhang and Moselmane maintained the chat group was social in nature and have maintained their innocence.
There is no indication the Chinese journalists have been charged.
The timing of the allegations against Australian intelligence by Beijing coincided with a furore over the treatment of the two Australian correspondents in China, Birtles and Smith.
After midnight visits to their homes by Chinese police last week, the pair sought refuge in diplomatic compounds in Beijing and Shanghai.
They were allowed to leave the country only after days of diplomatic wrangling and an agreement that they would undergo questioning before departure.
Both men were quizzed about fellow Australian Cheng Lei, who has been detained in China since last month.
Their case has been seen another blow to press freedom in China and emblematic of rapidly deteriorating relations between Beijing and Canberra.
Several reporters for US media have had their visas revoked and been forced to leave the country -- in what critics have interpreted as targeting of Western media outlets by the Communist Party.