CCTV installed in China expert’s office

A suspicious break-in prompts video surveillance of a university professor’s office. David Williams reports.

The university office of a China expert is under 24-hour video surveillance after a break-in suspected to involve foreign agents.

Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s office at the University of Canterbury was broken into last December, after her influential research into the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign interference in New Zealand made international headlines. A month earlier, she had warned: “China’s covert, corrupting and coercive political influence activities in New Zealand are now at a critical level.”

Brady, a specialist in Chinese and polar politics, made headlines again last month, this time after the Weekend Herald revealed that the Security Intelligence Service and Interpol were helping to investigate the February burglary of her Christchurch home.

A sign appeared outside Brady’s university office last week, warning that it’s being monitored by closed-circuit television. Brady is overseas and couldn’t be reached for comment yesterday. But last month she told Radio NZ her office had been broken into two times – “and there may have been others”. “I’m in an older part of the university that doesn’t have CCTV cameras or any kind of very elaborate security.”

In the burglary of her house, thieves took three laptops and two phones, ignoring cash and valuables. Brady has been intimidated several times for her China work, which stretches back to 1990. She told the Herald last month the burglary was a “psychological operation, it was intended to intimidate”.

(A week before the break-in, Brady received a warning letter that she was “about to be attacked”.)

Police said yesterday its investigation into the burglaries is ongoing. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office did not respond to Newsroom’s questions. But in February, Ardern said of the break-in at Brady’s home: “If it were in response to the work she’s doing, everyone would be concerned, so certainly if there’s evidence of that we should be taking stock of it and taking action.”

In a statement sent on Wednesday morning, Minister Responsible for the GCSB and NZSIS Andrew Little says criminal law protects New Zealanders against corruption and espionage. “Foreign interference in New Zealand is totally unacceptable and we remain vigilant of the threat. We are constantly reviewing our safeguards to ensure we have the right tools to respond to foreign interference. We don’t discuss specific countries, operational details, targets, methods or individuals.”

The University of Canterbury yesterday regurgitated a statement it sent to the Herald last month – that it doesn’t disclose details of campus security measures and can’t comment on an ongoing police investigation. The university added that academic freedom of expression was central to the proper conduct of teaching, administration, research and scholarship.

The Chinese Embassy in Wellington did not respond to questions yesterday.

Keep calm, carry on trading

The involvement of Interpol, the international police cooperation agency, and scale and length of the investigation, shows authorities believe the Brady burglaries are more serious than a garden-variety domestic crime.

But Stephen Jacobi, executive director of the NZ China Council, says Brady’s suspicions of a China link haven’t yet been corroborated and there’s nothing to react to until investigating agencies make an authoritative statement. “I don’t think it’s an issue in the relationship at present.”

Jacobi says New Zealand’s relationship with China is extremely good. China is our biggest trading partner, with two-way trade more than tripling, to $26 billion, since a free trade deal was signed in 2008. Last year alone, New Zealand earned $6.6 billion from dairy and wood products exports to China. Meanwhile, China is now New Zealand’s second-largest international tourism market, behind Australia.

The countries disagree over human rights and democracy, and New Zealand’s Government takes issue with Chinese posturing in the South China Sea. (China registered its displeasure over hard-nosed New Zealand defence paper.) But there have still been five ministerial visits to China this year, with another two in the pipeline. Jacobi says it’s hoped Ardern will visit China in the coming months. “The Government has reaffirmed on numerous occasions the strategic importance of the relationship with China.”

Canada has already banned foreign donations to political parties. That’s also proposed across the Tasman.

In June, Australia’s Parliament passed new foreign interference laws. That followed a Government inquiry that uncovered Chinese donations to Australian political parties, and scandals involving cash-for-access. Concern was also mounting over media reports suggesting the Chinese Communist Party’s use of students groups to monitor Chinese studying at Australian universities.

(Newsroom has been scrutinising the New Zealand-China relationship, including revelations that National list MP Jian Yang studied at an elite Chinese spy school and a Security Intelligence Service investigation into a Chinese student at an Auckland university.)

“The long arm of the Communist Party can reach as far as Christchurch in order to intimidate its critics.” – Clive Hamilton

Australian academic and author Clive Hamilton says Australia is sending a strong message to Beijing – “which is that we value our bilateral economic relationship but you must stop meddling in our politics and jeopardising our sovereignty”. New Zealand, meanwhile, should be taking Chinese influence more seriously, he says.

After the February burglary of Brady’s home, Australia’s Charles Sturt University installed CCTV in Hamilton’s Canberra office. Hamilton says Brady is viewed as a heroic figure within China circles around the world, not only for her highly regarded work, but for the intimidation she’s endured. “I’ve found that she’s stoical, professional and enormously courageous.”

He adds: “Anne-Marie Brady is a scholar working in a Western university and she shouldn’t have to take extreme security measures to protect her personal safety. It’s appalling. And yet the long arm of the Communist Party can reach as far as Christchurch in order to intimidate its critics.”

New Zealand intelligence security expert Paul Buchanan, of 36th Parallel Assessments, tells Newsroom our Government’s response to Chinese influence – Brady has called for a series of investigations and new laws – has been tepid, so far. “I think that the cumulative pressure from allied Governments in the wake of the Brady expose may force some changes in the Government’s approach.”

Given the nature of the Brady burglaries, and if they were indeed carried out by people now overseas, Buchanan says “they were more than likely operating on behalf of the Chinese state, if not directly ordered by them”.

The real test for New Zealand will come if police confirm Chinese involvement. There are already claims New Zealand is seen as a “soft underbelly” for Chinese interference. Buchanan says if China’s operations have graduated from influence to criminal activity, that would be a gross infringement of sovereignty that could not be allowed to stand.

Last December, after revelations of foreign espionage and political meddling in Australia, PM Ardern told reporters that New Zealand hadn’t experienced the same sorts of problems, particularly over foreign political donations. “That’s not to say we should be complacent. We have to be vigilant and we are.”

* This story has been updated with comment from Minister Responsible for the GCSB and NZSIS Andrew Little.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners