National MP trained by Chinese spies

Updated

MP Jian Yang beside National leader Bill English and with 'Blue Dragons' supporters at a party policy launch. Photo: Tim Murphy

A National Party MP who studied at an elite Chinese spy school before moving to New Zealand has attracted the interest of our Security Intelligence Service.

The list MP Jian Yang did not mention in his work or political CVs a decade he spent in the People's Liberation Army-Air Force Engineering College or the Luoyang language institute run by China's equivalent of the United States National Security Agency.

That agency, the Third Department, conducts spying activities for China.

Newsroom has been told that to have taught at the Air Force Engineering College, Yang would have almost certainly been an officer in Chinese military intelligence and a member of the Communist Party, as other students and staff have been.

Yang studied and then taught there before moving to Australia where he attended the Australian National University in Canberra. He migrated to this country to teach international relations in the politics department at the University of Auckland.

He was hand-picked by National Party president Peter Goodfellow to become an MP on its list in 2011, wooed directly by the former Prime Minister John Key and has been a key fundraiser for National among the Chinese community in Auckland.

As an MP he variously served on Parliament's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (from 2014 until last year), Commerce, Transport and Industrial Relations and Health and Science select committees and is prominent in New Zealand's interactions with the Chinese community and diplomatic and consular missions in Wellington and Auckland. He remains a Parliamentary Private Secretary for ethnic affairs.

Yang confirms

Newsroom has worked with the Financial Times in Hong Kong to investigate Yang's background.

We can reveal Yang confirmed in a recorded interview in Chinese with the Financial Times that he attended both military institutions.

In his comments to the FT researcher, Yang twice urged her to concentrate on the New Zealand election. "You don't need to write too much about myself," he said, adding later: "As for me myself, actually I don't feel it's necessary to include so many detailed things."

Interviewed today, by Newsroom, Yang refused to comment, saying repeatedly on camera: "Ask my boss" and "I have nothing to hide". He then drove away.

Yang later released a statement saying he refuted "any allegations that question my loyalty to New Zealand".

The statement said he had been "nothing but upfront and transparent" about his education and employment.

Yang challenged those who were "propagating these defamatory statements" to front up and prove them.

"This is a smear campaign by nameless people who are out to damage me and the National Party 10 days from an election, just because I am Chinese."

An expert in Chinese intelligence Peter Mattis told Newsroom from the US that someone who attended and then taught at the Air Force Engineering College and the language institute would almost certainly have been an officer in China's PLA and member of the Communist Party.

SIS interest

Newsroom understands New Zealand's Security Intelligence Service has scrutinised him at times over three years, including interviewing one person about him last year.

A hearing of Parliament's Privileges Committee into intelligence surveillance protocols for MPs occurred in late 2013. If an intelligence agency has cause to monitor an MP, the SIS director or Inspector-General of Intelligence is to brief the Speaker of the House. The Privileges Committee, chaired at the time by Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, polices contempts, which can include anything that could impede or restrict the rights of MPs to conduct their business unimpeded.

A Memorandum of Understanding between the SIS and Parliament's Speaker from 2010 says: "The only circumstances in which collection may be directed against a sitting MP is where a particular MP is suspected of undertaking activities relevant to security."

It is not known if the Speaker, David Carter, or Prime Ministers John Key or Bill English, who were the ministers in charge of the SIS, have been briefed on Yang's background or the SIS interest. Comment is being sought from Bill English.

National Party President Peter Goodfellow claimed in an interview with the Financial Times this morning that Yang's education in China was widely known in New Zealand.

Goodfellow said he had “no idea” about any SIS investigation into Yang.

“He certainly gave us his full resume with the two universities – an air force academy and the other one,” Goodfellow said. “You’re making a number of assumptions based on his background and I’d be careful unless you have proof of what you’re saying.”

He also said Yang’s background was “covered in a review of candidates” by a government relations consultancy, Saunders Unsworth.

Interest in Yang's background precedes his moving to New Zealand. It is understood some officials at ANU were suspicious of his close ties to China when he worked there.

China-watchers suggest someone educated at an elite PLA Air Force Engineering College and then at the Luoyang Foreign Languages Institute would have had to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party to be allowed to stay on and teach. It was considered unusual for someone with intelligence connections to be allowed to leave China for Australia to study, or to have done so without the backing of the party or PLA.

Missing decade

Yang's maiden speech to Parliament did not mention his education at the military establishments, although he noted that in 1978, the year Deng Xiaoping began China's economic reforms, "I passed the newly-restored higher education examination and became part of the small group of high school graduates who went on to university".

The missing decade in Yang's CV is reflected in that speech. After saying he entered university in 1978, the next date he gives is: "In April 1989, a great opportunity was opened up for me when I received a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University in the United States."

The Tiananmen massacre and global controversy in June that year prevented him from leaving for that study. Chinese sources do not discuss where he worked for the next five years but he did attend the Johns Hopkins centre for American-Chinese study in Nanjing for one year.

Active politics

In 1994 Yang began postgraduate studies at the ANU, achieving a doctorate and then taking the job in Auckland. He credits professors Barry Gustafson and Raymond Miller with helping him in his political education in New Zealand and colleagues for encouraging the move from political theory to professional politics.

In his maiden speech Yang outlined the failure of socialist economic policies in China before 1978 and its success in introducing capitalism with socialist characteristics, lifting millions from poverty, encouraging entrepreneurialism, personal responsibility, and reward for achievement.

"Reflecting on the way in which China has achieved its positive change and development gives me a firm belief that the policies of the National Party are in the best interests of New Zealand," he said.

Yang's involvement in the foreign affairs and trade select committee at Parliament did not require security clearances because elected MPs are not subject to the normal public service requirements. He is said to be a central figure promoting and helping shape the National government's China strategy and responsible for its engagement with the New Zealand Chinese community.

In 2014, former Prime Minister John Key attended a fundraising dinner organised by Yang for wealthy ethnic Chinese voters, which the New Zealand Herald and Stuff websites reported raised $200,000 for the party's election campaign.

Studying intrigue

The emergence of Yang's study and work at the military intelligence institutions in China has intrigued China-watchers in both Australia and this country. The engineering college is reputedly one of China's 10 top military academies. The Luoyang 'Foreign Language Institute' is part of the Third Department of the Joint Staff Headquarters of the PLA - one of two main military intelligence agencies. The institute, in Henan province in central China, has around 500 teaching staff for 29 languages and has had 50,000 graduates including 100 generals.

The Third Department is responsible for China's signals intelligence operations and for providing intelligence assessments based on information gathered. According to author Mark Stokes in his 2015 The PLA General Staff Department, Third Department, Second Bureau, linguists assigned to that section are sent to Luoyang for language training "then assigned to a Third Department bureau for mission specific technical training".

Yang is understood to have met his wife, Jane, an IT specialist, at Luoyang.

The China expert Mattis, author of the book Analysing the Chinese Military and a former staffer of the US National Bureau for Asian Research told Newsroom the Third Department covered all forms of signals intelligence.

"It could be direction finding for signals, it could be encryption, it could be trying to break the codes of other countries, other militaries - and today that involves computer network exploitation."

Asked if it was conducting spying, he said: "Yes. This is the national signals intelligence authority that pretty much every country has. In the US it is the NSA, in the UK it is GCHQ and in Australia the National Signals Directorate."

Yang's time at Johns Hopkins Nanjing was a strong indicator of his intelligence involvement as in the era he attended many of the Chinese students were from military intelligence.

"It is not definitive, but it is certainly a signal indicator that when combined with others will cleanly identify someone as being a part of Ministry of State Security or military intelligence."

Australia and New Zealand

He said there were two equally plausible scenarios for Yang leaving China for Australia. One was to escape his homeland and put his past behind him to create a new life. The other was to have worked for military intelligence, most likely China's Second Department, dealing in human intelligence.

Since coming to New Zealand in 1999, Yang had been active in semi-official New Zealand discussions and events with China, Japan and Southeast Asian countries.

In the National Party, Yang is prominent with a large group of Chinese members calling themselves the Blue Dragons and campaigning enthusiastically at events during this campaign, including National's launch at the Trusts Stadium in Henderson on August 27.

Asked if it was unusual internationally for someone with a military intelligence background in one country to be an MP in another, Mattis said: "It is something I would have hoped that his colleagues in the National Party would have put to him in the vetting process ... because certainly on its face, it would be quite disconcerting."

"There are countries with whom we are friendly, but there are no friendly intelligence services."

This story has been updated to include Dr Jian Yang's media statement.