China's soft power push

Supporters pose with a banner and Chinese flags as they wait for visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to drive past on his way to meet with Bill English in New Zealand. Photo: Bernard HIckey

As China continues its rise on the world stage, some are concerned about how the country is seeking to exert influence. Is it scaremongering, or should New Zealand be more worried? Sam Sachdeva and Shane Cowlishaw report.

While questions remain over National MP Dr Jian Yang and his time at Chinese military intelligence schools, there is a separate and broader discussion taking place about China’s attempts to influence the global environment.

As the United States turns inward under Donald Trump, room is opening up at the top of the world order - and China knows it.

Speaking to the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to position his country as a potential leader on trade and in other areas.

As part of that, there have been efforts to accrue power both soft and hard - an approach that has ruffled some feathers along the way.

Jason Young, the acting director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre, said China’s soft power push was a result of what he called a “PR problem” for the country.

“One of the things which China’s been concerned about is as their economic and material power has grown in the world, their influence in terms of being able to attract and to persuade publics, not so much governments, publics in foreign countries hasn’t kept pace, so they feel that they lack soft power.”

Young said the Chinese government focused its official efforts in a number of areas: it funded programmes at universities and schools, such as Victoria University’s Confucius Institute, to improve foreign populations’ understanding and appreciation of Chinese culture, while also seeking to present China as a world leader in areas such as the high-tech sector.

There was also a push for countries to accept the Chinese system of governance as it was, “which is quite different to even just 10 years ago, they didn’t speak so much like that”.

Concerns in Australia

While concerns about Chinese influence in New Zealand have largely stayed below the surface, the same is not true of our neighbour, Australia.

In early June, a joint investigation by the ABC and Fairfax Media revealed Australia’s national security agency had warned the country’s major political parties about accepting donations from billionaire donors with links to the Chinese Communist Party.

The investigation raised concerns about Chinese influence beyond political donations, detailing the detention of a Chinese-Australian academic, Chinese government support of overseas student associations to encourage patriotism, and Chinese-language media outlets allegedly funded by the Chinese Communist Party.

Other Australian media have covered Chinese students' complaints about Western teaching methods, as well as Chinese funding of Australian university institutes.

Chinese company Huawei was blocked from tendering for Australia’s National Broadband Network due to cyber security concerns, while a proposed undersea internet cable to the Solomon Islands set to be built by Huawei has reportedly been red-flagged by the country’s spy agencies.

Eyebrows have also been raised in some quarters by China pouring money into infrastructure and development projects in the Pacific, including government buildings in Tonga and a $42m hospital in Samoa.

Professor Richard Rigby, of Australian National University’s China Institute, said the debate about Chinese influence in Australia had gathered steam in the past few years, with Chinese-language media becoming more aligned with the Chinese government’s views.

There were aspects of Chinese influence in the region that could be viewed both as a natural development, or as concerning, he said.

“All these things, it’s possible to give a sinister interpretation to them, very Fu Manchu-ish, but on the other hand a lot of it is just very very natural: as the Chinese population grows it also changes its character.”

Professor John Fitzgerald, of Swinburne University’s Centre for Social Impact, said China’s approach to managing Chinese communities overseas was designed to win allies, undermine resistance and overcome enemies.

The overriding party agency that handled the work, the United Front Department, should literally be translated as the “United Battlefront Department.” As the name implied, it operated as if China were at war, seeking to “defeat” sceptics overseas.

“China’s emerged as an important, powerful, prestigious wealthy player, but it's still deploying a very old style of battlefront politics which risks undermining its credibility in other countries that are otherwise well disposed.”

Transparency critical

Young said he distinguished the state-led initiatives from the issues causing concern in Australia, which were “more about trying to grow attractiveness” and likely at least one step removed from the Chinese government.

Across the ditch, the issue of China’s influence was framed as “the economic opportunity of China versus the security risks to the US-led order”, creating greater anxiety than in New Zealand, while there was also a higher number of Chinese students studying in Australia.

While China’s involvement in New Zealand was primarily focused on cultural areas and “relatively benign”, Young said that did not mean we should shy away from considering the impact of the country’s rise.

“As China becomes a more powerful player in the region, it is going to have more influence and it is going to want to have more say and it’s going to want to be part of conversations and be part of the dialogues and discourses here in New Zealand.

“That’s something which I think is good and I welcome that, but it has to occur on terms which New Zealanders are comfortable with.”

Rigby agreed, saying there was no point in taking a backward step in relations given China’s economic importance but governments were being increasingly cautious about how they dealt with the superpower.

“I think what New Zealand has to do is make absolutely certain it safeguards the integrity of its own democracy, of its political system, that its alert to any untoward attempts to influence New Zealand, and that could be from Australia, not just China.”

Young said New Zealand could benefit from a better understanding of the interests of the different Chinese “actors”, whether state-aligned or not, and how they were funded.

“That can only be good for democracy if we know who’s saying what, just in the same way as we have very clear rules for elections and who funds what parties and all of that sort of thing, transparency has got to be good for having more informed and better debate.”