Govt urged to probe China’s influence

The Government needs to open a series of investigations and draft new laws to protect New Zealand from “China’s covert, corrupting and coercive political influence”, a leading academic says.

Under the National Party-led coalition government, New Zealand’s ties grew closer to China, economically, politically and militarily. Two-way trade with China is worth more than $20 billion and Chinese tourists are New Zealand’s second-biggest and fastest-growing, market.

New Zealand’s apparent lean towards China came during a huge expansion of a strategy to shape foreign public opinion under Chinese leader Xi Jinping – described by The Economist last month as the world’s most powerful man. The strategy includes managing overseas Chinese communities, co-opting foreigners to support its goals and a massive propaganda effort.

In a policy briefing to be made public today, University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady says the People’s Republic of China’s political influence in New Zealand has reached a critical level. She says it’s time New Zealand strengthened efforts to withstand foreign interference.

Brady even borrows a Chinese diplomatic phrase – to “light a new stove” – to illustrate the opportunity for New Zealand’s newly elected coalition of Labour, New Zealand First and the Green Party.

The policy briefing says: “It is time to face up to some of the political differences and challenges in the New Zealand-China relationship, including the impact on our democracy of Chinese political interference, and make a re-adjustment in the relationship so that New Zealand’s interests come first.”

A “key finding” of the report is: “China’s covert, corrupting and coercive political influence activities in New Zealand are now at a critical level.”

The briefing builds on a detailed paper Brady presented at a conference in the United States in September.

Brady, an internationally recognised expert on China, calls on:

- The new Minister of the Security Intelligence Service to instruct the SIS to investigate China’s “subversion and espionage activities in New Zealand”;

- The Prime Minister to instruct the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to launch an in-depth inquiry into China’s “political influence activities”, following a similar investigation in Australia;

- The Minister of Commerce to instruct the Commerce Commission to investigate the Chinese Communist Party’s “interference” in the local Chinese language media sector;

- The Attorney General to draft new laws on political donations and “foreign influence activities";

- Parliament to pass “long-overdue” anti-money laundering and terrorism financing legislation to end alleged money laundering in New Zealand, but for similar laws to be passed in Niue, Tokelau and the Cook Islands;

- And Brady also calls on the Government to make appointments to strategically important non-government groups that help shape China policy, such as the NZ China Council and Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Brady tells Newsroom that New Zealand should work with like-minded countries – like Canada and Australia – on investigations into local Chinese influence.

“Over in Australia they’re two years ahead of us on this issue.”

She adds: “We would be very unusual amongst our allies if we don’t address this issue.”

The issue hit the headlines across the Tasman again yesterday, after publisher Allen & Unwin cancelled plans to print a book by prominent academic Clive Hamilton on the Chinese Communist Party’s activities in Australia, fearing a Chinese legal challenge.

Handle with care

Brady says a New Zealand investigation into Chinese influence should be handled carefully and suggested it could be conducted behind closed doors.

“These are sensitive topics and we certainly don’t want to stir up racism. We want to protect people in our society but look at what’s going on and what are the concerns.”

The Government will still make positive noises about China and partner with it internationally – “and so it should”, Brady says.

As she said on TVNZ’S Q+A programme on Sunday: “This is not the time to headbutt China.”

She says there’s little point in finger-pointing about past behaviour. “It’s more about looking forward, [and asking] what can we do better? We need to have a think about our campaign financing; we need to look at best practice internationally.”

New Zealand is at a critically important moment for foreign policy

What is the risk of doing nothing?

Brady: “We’ll be pressured by the Chinese government to continue on the same way that the National government was going.”

Newsroom’s reporting raised the issue of Chinese influence just before September’s election, revealing National MP Jian Yang taught at a Chinese military college before moving to New Zealand and has been scrutinised by the Security Intelligence Service.

Yang admitted he taught spies at a language school run by the Peoples’ Liberation Army, in which he was a civilian officer. Then Prime Minister Bill English said National Party politicians and the Chinese community were aware of Yang’s background.

This week, Foreign Minister Winston Peters, who met his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the Apec summit last Saturday, showed a selective memory about pre-election comments he made about Chinese influence.

Brady’s September paper detailed a range of Chinese activities in New Zealand, including “supervision” of the ethnic Chinese community in New Zealand, effective control by Beijing of the ethnic Chinese media and political donations made by Chinese-linked individuals and organisations. She outlined Chinese influence targeting the National and Labour parties.

Brady’s old university classmate Rodney Jones, a Beijing-based economist for Wigram Capital Advisors, says New Zealand needed greater “realism” about how Chinese politics has changed.

That includes different Chinese ambitions under president Xi and the return of the Chinese Communist Party as the dominant institution.

New Zealand is at a critically important moment for foreign policy, Jones says, as China’s leader talks of a new era for Chinese socialism.

“In an age of reform and opening up, we could hang on to the hope that China would change and reform and become more liberal and be a power that we could work with. But I think we have to recognise that those days are behind us.”

'Weak' arguments

Jones says the need for action in New Zealand to investigate China’s influence shouldn’t be sidelined by “weak” arguments about the two countries’ strong economic links.

“I think we’re losing our values when we say that,” he says.

“When we sent a frigate to Mururoa Atoll [in 1973] there were real consequences. We did that at a time of enormous economic uncertainty – the greatest we faced – and yet the government didn’t blink.”

About 200,000 ethnic Chinese live in New Zealand. Successive governments have courted China since diplomatic relations were established in 1972. In 2008, under Labour Prime MinisterHelen Clark, the country signed a free trade agreement with China.

In 2010, two-way trade with China was $10 billion – with New Zealand’s exports dominated by dairy products, forestry products and meat. That reached $23 billion last year.

China is now New Zealand’s second-largest tourism market, behind Australia, and is this country’s largest source of international students.

Brady says central government bureaucrats concerned about Chinese influence have been hamstrung by the previous administration’s “no surprises” policy on China – a cautiousness to not rock the boat.

Governments across the world are grappling with the same issues.

Mark Stokes, executive director of the United States-based, pro-Taiwan public policy group Project 2049 Institute, says via email that Brady’s “masterful” recent paper outlines a “united front work doctrine” which seems to guide Chinese influence in the US.

In part, he says the doctrine tries to mobilise support for Chinese Communist Party policies on controversial issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, Falungong and the so-called “One Belt One Road” policy.

Stokes: “How effective they’ve been is open to question.”

He adds: “Beyond united front activities targeting the Asian-American community, Beijing’s propaganda system actively seeks to manipulate broader American perceptions of China.

“The propaganda system is particularly active on US university campuses.”

Brady’s September paper outlined a situation in 2015 when “Chinese polar officials” pressured the University of Canterbury, Antarctica New Zealand, the Christchurch City Council and New Zealand diplomats in China over her unpublished research on China and Antarctica. The “interference” stopped when University of Canterbury vice chancellor Rod Carr backed Brady’s right to academic freedom, which is enshrined in law.

Since her latest paper was published, Brady says she’s had positive feedback from many New Zealanders. She’s also just returned from a month-long trip in China. “Nothing happened to me there. I was completely fine.”

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