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The hushed politics of foreign interference

Line of Defence Magazine, Summer 2017/18

Under influence? The Beehive, Wellington. Image by Michal Klajban.Under influence? The Beehive, Wellington. Image by Michal Klajban.


Despite exposés by Newsroom and NZ Herald and a damning report by Canterbury University’s Professor Anne-Marie Brady, the issue of Chinese political interference in New Zealand hasn’t reached anywhere near the fever pitch that it has across the Tasman, writes editor Nicholas Dynon.


Australia’s concerns over China’s soft power activities and political influence have manifested in strong rhetoric from the Australian Government, widespread media interest, the resignation of a Labour Party senator, and the drafting of laws targeting foreign political donations and influence.

And Beijing’s not happy about it. China has summoned Australia’s ambassador Jan Adams for a dressing down as the diplomatic row over claims of Beijing’s meddling in Australia’s domestic politics intensifies.

An editorial in the firebrand Chinese People’s Daily-run tabloid Global Times also hit back: “It's disgraceful that in an era of globalization, some countries exhibit all the symptoms of McCarthyism: suspecting Chinese businesspeople and students, framing China and harassing Chinese visitors on exchanges.”

The same editorial takes a shot at New Zealand, stating that our security agencies - following Australia’s lead – have “expressed concerns about China's political activities in the country, alleging attempts to access sensitive government and private sector information and also influence the overseas Chinese community.”

But in reality, the New Zealand response to the issue has been characteristically muted, with no official public correspondence suggesting Chinese meddling.

Indeed, deputy prime minister Winston Peters’ his first major foreign policy speech was delivered on 5th December to the Confucius Institute of Wellington's Victoria University. China’s network of Confucius Institutes has regularly come under criticism for promoting Beijing’s illiberal values on university campuses around the world.

"We should also remember this when we are making judgements about China - about freedom and their laws: that when you have hundreds of millions of people to be re-employed and relocated with the change of your economic structure, you have some massive, huge problems,” Peters stated during his speech.


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Perhaps the most damming assessment in New Zealand of Beijing’s alleged interference activities is found within Professor Brady’s 57-page report titled “Magic Weapons: China's political influence activities under Xi Jinping”.

An accomplished and world-leading researcher of China’s politics, and in particular the Chinese Communist Party’s complex systems of propaganda and social control, Professor Brady is by considerable distance the most qualified figure in this debate in New Zealand.

In her report, Brady comments that “China hasn't had to pressure New Zealand to accept China's soft power activities and political influence. The New Zealand government has actively courted it. Ever since New Zealand-PRC diplomatic relations were established in 1972, successive New Zealand governments have followed policies of attracting Beijing's attention and favor through high profile support for China's new economic agendas.”

Brady’s evidence-based claims collectively paint a picture of Chinese political influence in New Zealand not dissimilar to that seen in Australia. The report catalogues the infiltration of various groups associated with the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘United Front’ organisation into New Zealand’s political mechanics, and one gets the sense that its 57 pages merely scratch the surface.

For the time being, Wellington remains tight-lipped; evidence, some would say, of the extent to which the Government is reluctant to damage its close – and deferential – relationship with Beijing.

The government's reticence to speak out on the issue of China’s encroachment into the South China Sea, “despite the fact New Zealand has the fourth largest maritime territory in the world and relies on respect for international norms for the protection of its rights, is one telling example of the effectiveness of China's soft power efforts in New Zealand in recent years,” she stated.

“For a small state like New Zealand, which is a former colony of one great power and has been under the shelter of another for more than 60 years, it can often be a challenge as to how to defend the nation against foreign political interference. It takes the political will of the government of the day, as well as that of the people of the nation, to do so.”



Learning from China: ‘Soft war’ and cultural security

Line of Defence, Summer 2017/18


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