Spies, sabotage and political donations: why China is dominating the news

From an academic suspecting foul play to the spooks blocking Huawei gear in the new broadband roll-out, China is suddenly in a lot of headlines. Don Rowe rounds it all up.

“China’s covert, corrupting, and coercive political influence activities in New Zealand are now at a critical level.”

So began Dr Anne-Marie Brady’s 2017 policy paper regarding the dangers a rising China poses to New Zealand.

A year on, Dr Brady says she has been the subject of break-ins, burglaries, harassment and even vehicle sabotage, and believes it is a response to her work, prompting suspicions of what an unprecedented attack on a New Zealand academic by a foreign power.

On Wednesday a group of 35 academics including the dean of law and head of political science at Canterbury published an open letter in support of Dr Brady, an internationally respected researcher.

“We take very seriously the news reports that Professor Brady has been repeatedly burgled and had her car tampered with because of her academic work regarding the influence campaigns of the People’s Republic of China,” they said.

“We also support Professor Brady’s continued requests for police protection for herself and her family. Academic freedom means no individual or their family should be placed in danger because of their research. Therefore we wish to clearly and unequivocally state that as academics at University of Canterbury we totally reject any attempt by any government, institution, corporation or pressure group to influence or curb academic freedom.”

The letter represented a marked development in how far academics are willing to go to support Dr Brady. As Tze Ming Mok wrote in the Herald last month: “In my experience, wonks from across the academic, business, quango and government sectors are extremely concerned about the extent of China’s influence campaign here. But they can’t say much publicly or their own Chinese government-linked funding, or their access, or their negotiations – even in some cases, their families – could come under pressure.”

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) and New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters shake hands in Beijing on May 25, 2018. – Photo: THOMAS PETER/AFP/Getty Images.

In some Chinese communities in New Zealand that pressure is already being felt. In another open letter, co-signed by 29 signatories and published Monday, Amnesty International spokesperson Margaret Taylor told RNZ the harassment of Dr Brady had had a chilling effect on many Chinese in New Zealand who feared being targeted by their former government.

“People who have spoken to us, and they are very brave for doing so, are terrified that if they do speak out they will come under the attention of the Chinese authorities. Many of them don’t speak to their family members, they’re too scared to contact anybody at home,” she said.

Chen Weijian fled to New Zealand from China almost 30 years ago, narrowly avoiding prison for working on a pro-democracy newspaper. Last month in a story calling New Zealand ground zero for Chinese influence, Weijian told NPR that Beijing had reached him even in Auckland. In 2012 a pro-CCP newspaper sued his publication out of existence on defamation charges after he criticised them for being too heavily pro-Beijing.

“Their paper was funded by businesses supported by China’s government,” he said. “So an overseas Communist Party’s propaganda wing crushed our democratic newspaper here in New Zealand.”

Dr Brady’s Twitter currently has a Chinese idiom pinned to the top of her feed, “‘Kill the chicken to scare the monkeys’ #杀鸡儆猴 (shā jī jǐng hóu) – to harm someone in order to intimidate others.”

But what does China want from New Zealand? A lot, according to Dr Brady’s 2017 paper Magic Weapons. New Zealand is responsible for the security and foreign affairs of the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau. With the Pacific a key stage in the posturing between China and the United States, the geopolitics of small island nations takes on a greater importance to the bigger powers. Alongside New Zealand those nations are also money laundering hotspots.

China also seeks to secure their food and energy supply, and with masses of cheap arable land, as well as untapped oil and gas reserves, New Zealand is one way to do that. We’re also a player when it comes to Antarctica as an established Antarctic state with one of the closest points of access. Finally, New Zealand is also the weakest link in the 5 Eyes alliance, providing an easy-in to the intelligence operations of China’s rivals. 

In a statement sent to the Spinoff and other media last month, the Chinese Embassy in New Zealand said, “non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs has always been one of the core principles in China’s foreign policy. China never uses any person to interfere in any other country’s domestic affairs. Those speculations on China’s role in New Zealand politics are totally groundless.”

Some commentators are skeptical of Dr Brady’s conclusions. Columnist Fran O’Sullivan, Head of Business at NZME and member of the NZ China Council Advisory Board, said Dr Brady should “steer clear of China Derangement Syndrome”. Magic Weapons, O’Sullivan said, is not a peer reviewed academic document. Brady countered by pointing to three peer reviews of her paper as part of the book in which it was published.

No one could reasonably dispute China’s pursuit of political influence in the region, however. That can in part be traced back to the Belts and Roads Initiative. Tonga now owes almost a third of its annual GDP in Chinese loans. There are rumours of communication between China and the government of Vanuatu to establish a Chinese military base in the region. Papua New Guinea owes $590 million, almost one quarter of its total external debt. Negotiations and outcomes around Taiwan and the South China Sea depend on political power in the region, Chinese academics told Victoria University.

While New Zealand doesn’t owe China huge chunks of our national GDP, we are nevertheless heavily dependent on their trade. In 2016 there were fears of a trade war when inquiries into steel dumping antagonised Beijing, and the major newspapers carried dire warnings of farmers walking off their land amidst a decimation of agriculture. Rumblings

Chinese influence in domestic New Zealand politics has been central to two major stories this year.

Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges in parliament during happier times, last November. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

In one of the secret recordings Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross released to media as part of his attempt to burn down the National party, there is discussion about how to deal with a donation from a Chinese businessmen and adhere to donation rules. The pair also speculate on bringing in another Chinese MP – suggesting their value as worth as much more than Indians or other ethnicities.

The National party fundraising machine was a big part of John Key’s domination of New Zealand politics, and Ross, as MP for Botany, was an important part of that. He served as the Botany bagman, helping to secure money from the large Chinese population in his electorate. Questions also remain over Jian Yang, the National MP who served as an educator for Chinese spies but failed to disclose his links to the CCP when he arrived in New Zealand.

Beyond affirming her support for academic freedom, the response from Jacinda Ardern has been muted, something academics call “disturbing”. Labour have been poor in recent years at navigating Chinese issues – few people have forgotten 2015’s “Chinese sounding names” controversy – but nobody was writing open letters then. 

Winston Peters is playing it with soft hands too, going on RadioLIVE to blame racism for the suspicions. Bizarrely, the conversation started with a discussion on bare feet before Peters pivoted, suggesting that some New Zealanders have suspicions of Chinese influence because “they don’t like Chinese, full stop.” “The Chinese work hard, they save hard, they are family-oriented and more importantly – they have a long-range focus, like all great countries do.”

But still there are things happening on a governmental level.

This week GCSB Director-General Andrew Hampton blocked Spark from using Huawei gear for its pending 5G mobile network after “a significant network security risk” was identified. Australia banned Huawei from its 5G network an US intelligence has warned the company are carrying out intelligence work for the Chinese government, a claim they deny.

And, as Matt Nippert reported, when the Herald revealed that police, Interpol and the SIS had been investigating the Brady burglaries for seven months, Defence Minister and New Zealand First MP Ron Mark tweeted a link to to the story, saying “We live in interesting times” – a play on the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

Nobody would deny that we do. More interesting still will be how Jacinda Ardern responds, a choice that could set the tone for China’s engagement with New Zealand and perhaps beyond.

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.