Academic calls on new government to take a fresh look at NZ's relationship with China & face up to some of the political differences and challenges

Xi Jinping

New Zealand’s new government ought to take a fresh look at the country’s relationship with China, argues University of Canterbury professor of political science Anne-Marie Brady.

In a paper published on Tuesday Brady says New Zealand, alongside other nations, is being targeted by a concerted foreign interference campaign by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

“The campaign aims to gain support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government’s political and economic agendas by co-opting political and economic elites. It also seeks to access strategic information and resources. China’s efforts undermine the integrity of our political system, threaten our sovereignty, and directly affect the rights of Chinese New Zealanders to freedom of speech, association, and religion,” says Brady.

“The new Labour-New Zealand First-Greens government must develop an internally-focused resilience strategy that will protect the integrity of democratic processes and institutions, and should work with other like-minded democracies [such as Australia and Canada] to address this challenge.”

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

The government, she argues, needs to make legislative and policy changes that will better protect New Zealand’s interests and help protect the country from foreign interference activities more broadly.

Under the leadership of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, China is claiming a leadership role in global affairs and pursuing an assertive foreign policy, Brady adds. Under Xi the country aims to lead “Globalisation 2.0”, through a China-centric economic order with a new economic and strategic bloc known as One Belt One Road. The assertive foreign policy includes the expansion of CCP political influence activities known in China as united front work.

“The CCP’s united front activities incorporate co-opting elites, information management, persuasion, and accessing strategic information and resources. It has also frequently been a means of facilitating espionage. One of the key goals of united front work is to influence the decision-making of foreign governments and societies in China’s favour,” says Brady.

“New Zealand appears to have been a test zone for many of China’s united front efforts in recent years. Australia has also been severely affected, and the government there has now made strenuous efforst to deal with China’s influence activities. The CCP leadership regards New Zealand as an exemplar of how it would like relations to be with other states in the future. The PRC’s political influence activities in New Zealand have now reached a critical level,” Brady argues.

“It is time to strengthen efforts to withstand foreign interference in the New Zealand political system.”

She suggests New Zealand is of interest to China’s “Party-State-Military-Market nexus” for a range of significant reasons, detailed below:

 The New Zealand government is responsible for the defence and foreign affairs not only of New Zealand, but also of three territories in the South Pacific: the Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau, which means four potential votes for China at international forae.
 Since 2011 when legislation was passed to encourage offshore managed funds to invest in New Zealand, our nation has developed a shameful reputation as a hotspot for global money laundering. The Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau are also well-known money laundering nations.
 New Zealand is a claimant state in Antarctica and one of the closest access points there. China has a long-term strategic agenda in Antarctica that will require the cooperation of established Antarctic states such as New Zealand.
 New Zealand has cheap arable land and a sparse population, and China seeks access to foreign arable land to improve its food safety.
 New Zealand supplies 24 percent of China’s foreign milk, and China is the biggest foreign investor in New Zealand’s dairy sector.
 New Zealand is useful for near-space research; an important new area of research for the PLA.
 New Zealand has unexplored oil and gas resources and China is expanding its offshore oil and gas exploration.

With NZ a member of the Five Power Defence Arrangement, Brady suggests China would like to get NZ to stop spying on China for its Five Eyes partners, which would be a major coup for Xi’s goal of turning China into a global great power.

“New Zealand is valuable to China, as well as to other states such as Russia, as a soft underbelly through which to access Five Eyes intelligence.”

Brady argues China’s political influence activities in NZ can be summarised under the following categories:

 targeted efforts to co-opt the New Zealand business, political and intellectual elite in order to get them to advocate for China’s interests in New Zealand and internationally. The means used are business opportunities and investments, honours, political hospitality, scholarships, party-to-party links and vanity projects.
 targeted political donations via ethnic Chinese business figures with strong links to the CCP.
 massive efforts to bring the New Zealand ethnic Chinese language media, Chinese community groups, and New Zealand’s ethnic Chinese politicians under CCP control, and efforts to influence their voting preferences.
 the use of mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships with New Zealand companies, universities, and research centres; so as to acquire local identities that enhance influence activities as well as provide access to military technology, commercial secrets, and other strategic information.

Meanwhile, she notes China hasn’t needed to pressure NZ to accept China’s soft power activities and political influence given successive NZ governments, dating back to when diplomatic relations were established with the PRC in 1972, have actively courted it. More recently NZ was the first western country to sign a cooperation agreement with China on One Belt One Road.

“The new government has an opportunity – if we can borrow a phrase from Chinese diplomacy – to ‘light a new stove’ and re-adjust New Zealand-China relations,” says Brady.

“The Labour-New Zealand First-Greens government must now develop an internally-focused resilience strategy that will protect the integrity of our democratic processes and institutions. New Zealand should work with other like-minded democracies such as Australia and Canada to address the challenges posed by foreign influence activities – what some are now calling hybrid warfare. The new government should follow Australia’s example in speaking up publicly on the issue of China’s influence activities in New Zealand and make it clear that interference in New Zealand’s domestic politics will no longer be tolerated,” says Brady.

She goes on to say the new government needs to establish a genuine and positive relationship with the NZ Chinese community, independent of the united front organisations authorised by the CCP that are aimed at controlling the Chinese population in NZ and controlling Chinese language discourse in NZ.

“The New Zealand Chinese population are entitled to the same rights to freedom of speech, association and religion in New Zealand as any other permanent resident or citizen. Not to address the issue of the CCP’s efforts to control this group of New Zealanders is to ignore the basic human rights of 200,000 of our own people,” Brady argues. 

Additionally she says:

 The new Minister of SIS must instruct the SIS to engage in an in-depth investigation of China’s subversion and espionage activities in New Zealand. NZ SIS can draw on the experience of the Australian agency ASIO, which conducted a similar investigation two years ago.
 The Prime Minister should instruct the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to follow Australia’s example and engage in an in-depth inquiry into China’s political influence activities in New Zealand.
 The Minister of Commerce and Consumer Affairs should instruct the Commerce Commission to investigate the CCP’s interference in our Chinese language media sector—which breaches our monopoly laws and our democratic requirement for a free and independent media.
 The Attorney General must draft new laws on political donations and foreign influence activities.
 The New Zealand Parliament must pass the long overdue Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism legislation. New Zealand should show leadership in the South Pacific by encouraging Niue, Tokelau, and the Cook Islands to pass similar legislation to end their participation in money laundering activities. We can also help them and our other Pacific partners by offering scholarships for their young diplomats to study courses on Chinese politics and international relations in New Zealand, to enable them to proactively engage with China.
 The new government can take a leaf out of the previous National government’s book and appoint its own people in strategically important government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs) which help shape and articulate our China policy, such as the NZ China Council and the Asia New Zealand Foundation. What is needed is contestable, deep policy advice on the changing global order, not “no surprises” and silencing of debates.

Brady notes it’s often said NZ isn’t important to China and if we offend the Chinese government we risk our trade with them.

“It is simply not true that New Zealand is not important to China. And when our national interests may be threatened, the government should be prepared to weather temporary short-term blow back, for long-term political and economic gains.”

“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,” says Brady.

‘Sir John Key sings China’s praises’

Meanwhile a press release sent out Tuesday on behalf of new consulting, accounting and legal firm K3, takes a different perspective on the NZ-China relationship. Entitled “Sir John Key sings China’s praises,” it notes Key spoke at length at K3’s launch party about NZ’s relationship with China.

“As PM I went to China seven times and everyone knows that I’m a massive China fan. I think the opportunities are enormous, the country is amazing, and the leadership is doing extremely well,” Key was quoted as saying.

“If you look at China, they have some of the most impressive leadership that you’ll find and they’re developing some of the most amazing technology.” The K3 press release said Key had said China’s tech industry was out-stripping Silicon Valley and predicted it would be well ahead of the United States in a decade.