Newsroom Pro's 9 things at 9: Joint Newsroom-FT investigation finds National List MP trained Chinese spies; English says he knew about it

National MP Jian Yang at the Education and Science select committee. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In today's email we detail the reaction to the Newsroom/Financial Times joint investigation into National list MP Jian Yang.

1. Jian Yang trained Chinese spies

Newsroom and the Financial Times yesterday published the results of a joint investigation into the background of National list MP Jian Yang.

We reported he studied and then taught at an elite Chinese spy school before he moved to study at the Australian National University and then to New Zealand, where he became a National list MP in 2011. He confirmed in an interview with the FT over the weekend his background with the school run by China's military intelligence apparatus.

We also reported he did not mention in his publicly-available 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.

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 yesterday by Newsroom in Auckland, Yang refused to comment, saying repeatedly on camera: "Talk to my boss" and "I have nothing to hide". He then drove away. He had declined repeated interview requests over several days.

Later yesterday after we published our story, Yang confirmed to New Zealand media he had taught spies, but denied being a spy. He said his background with Chinese military intelligence was widely known in the local Chinese community. Bill English also said he had come to know of Yang's background in Chinese military intelligence.

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," he said.

We also reported that Yang had been scrutinised by the Security Intelligence Service at times over a period of three years, including interviewing one person about him last year. The SIS has publicly said it would not comment on operational matters, especially investigations of individuals. Yang denied yesterday having had any contact with the SIS.

Here is our full initial report by Mark Jennings and Melanie Reid on the investigation on Newsroom.

I'd also recommend watching the full video report by Mark Jennings that is included with the report.

2. Why his links to China matter

Jian Yang 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. He has been re-selected high on the list for the 2017 election.

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 Education 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.

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.

Newsroom understands some officials at the ANU were suspicious of his background when he was there.

Yang has represented New Zealand on numerous official trips to China and has been present at many high level meetings between then Prime Minister John Key and China's leadership.

As the FT's Asia Editor Jamil Anderlini reported yesterday at the same time as Newsroom: "He has consistently pushed for closer ties with Beijing and for international policies and positions echoing those of China’s Communist party."

"The fact he has served for six years in the governing party of a member country of the “five eyes” intelligence alliance raises questions about western preparedness to deal with China’s increasingly aggressive efforts to influence foreign governments and spy on them."

The FT published this picture of Yang with Senior Colonel Wang Liwei, defence attache, at an event held at the Chinese embassy in Wellington to mark the 88th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army in 2015.

3. What is this 'Third Department' ?

Yang said yesterday he had worked at the Luoyang 'Foreign Language Institute' as an English teacher, but it's worth digging a little deeper.

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 book 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.

Peter Mattis is an expert in China military intelligence and the author of the book Analysing the Chinese Military. He is a former staffer of the US National Bureau for Asian Research. He 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, Mattis said.

"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."

4. But didn't he declare it?

A key question for Yang is why he did not clearly declare his involvement in China's military intelligence establishment in any of his English language CVs published on National Party websites or talk about it in his maiden speech in Parliament.

He did not mention in that speech 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."

Goodfellow told the FT's Jamil Anderlini Yang that had told the National Party about his decade in China's military intelligence establishment and that there had been media coverage of it and it was "of some small public knowledge in New Zealand."

Goodfellow also said the information was included in a review of Yang's background by public and government relations firm Saunders Unsworth at the time Yang was put on the party list in 2011.

However, the party president's claim that Yang was vetted by Saunders Unsworth has been challenged by one of the company principals, Mark Unsworth. Asked by Newsroom if the firm had undertaken vetting on Yang, Unsworth said:

“No never – we don’t do work for political parties. We don’t vet politicians, I probably interviewed him for my book sometime after he entered Parliament. Did Peter Goodfellow say this? This is most strange. I will check with my colleagues but I feel sure we would not have done this. We just don’t do this sort of work.”

Goodfellow said he could not recall if the party knew Yang had spent a decade at the People's Liberation Army-Air Force Engineering School and the Luoyang Foreign Languages Institute but it did know about him studying there.

Told the two venues were commonly training grounds for Chinese intelligence officers, and the language institute was specialised in preparing spies linguistically, Goodfellow said "He is a very good linguist."

Here is the full story on Newsroom of what Goodfellow said the about vetting of Yang on Newsroom, including the audio of Anderlini's interview with Goodfellow.

The National Party released to the media yesterday a CV that it said Yang had provided to the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing in 2012.

It stated:

"EDUCATIONAL QUALIFICATIONS:

1999: PhD, International Relations, Australian National University
1995: MA, International Relations, Australian National University
1990: MA, American Studies, Luoyang PLA University of Foreign Languages, China
1989: Certificate, American Studies, Nanjing University, China
1982: BA, English, Air Force Engineering University, China"

There is no mention that these universities in China are part of the 'Third Department' or any acknowledgement of their links to military intelligence.

5. But did he disclose it to Internal Affairs?

The New Zealand Herald's Nick Jones reports this morning that Yang had told the Herald he did not disclose the names of the Air Force Engineering University or Luoyang People's Liberation Army University of Foreign Languages when making the applications that led to him to being granted New Zealand citizenship in 2004.

He said he had instead gave the names of two Chinese universities for civilians that had "partnership" status with the military institutions where he taught.

Asked if he made a false declaration on his citizenship application, Yang said giving the name of "partnership" universities instead of the institutes he actually worked and studied at was not a false declaration and was required if he was to leave China.

"It is not a false declaration. When I left China I was asked by the system to use my partnership universities. That is why I used those universities in applying for jobs, even at the University of Auckland," Yang was quoted as saying.

"That's my CV. It is not that I am deliberately trying to cover-up. It's because the system asked me to use the partner university. That is the reason. When I left China I was told, basically, 'use your partnership university'. And I did that. And ever since then, I stick with my partner university...China in those years was closed.

"It was over 20 years ago...they asked the military - people working in the military or studying in the military - when they leave China [to] use your partnership university. So that's what we did."

The NZ Herald's political editor Audrey Young focused on the incorrect declaration in her opinion piece on the matter that called on English to show much stronger leadership.

"What matters is whether he told the truth to New Zealand authorities in gaining entry to the country and in gaining citizenship which he gained in 2004," Young wrote.

"And what also matters is whether anybody in National was aware that the truth of his former employment had not been told. Making anything other than a true declaration to gain citizenship in 2004 is a career ending move, not to mention unlawful," she wrote.

6. 'It's an operational matter'

Yang acknowledged at a news conference in Auckland yesterday that he had taught spies and Bill English also acknowledged that he knew about that. English would not confirm or deny if the SIS had investigated Yang.

Yang said his job was to teach students to how to listen, read and write English.

"If you define those cadets or students as spies, yes, then I was teaching spies. If that is the case. I don't think [they were spies]. I just think they are collecting information through communication in China. If you define that way, then they were spies. But for us, it was just collecting information."

Yang agreed when he was asked if his students were using the English they were learning to monitor the communications of other countries.

"If you say spying, then spying," Yang said.

Yang said he was a civilian officer in the PLA, but not a ranking military officer. Asked if he was a member of the Communist Party, Wang said he was but stopped being a member when he left China in 1994.

English said at a news conference in Auckland yesterday he knew his Yang attended military intelligence schools in China and when asked directly if he knew Yang trained at schools that produced spies English said: “that’s my understanding of the meaning of military intelligence”.

Questioned if he was happy to have someone who’s been a member of the Communist Party and a ranking PLA officer sitting on a foreign affairs and trade committee, English replied "I think we need to be careful here because Dr Wang is now a New Zealand citizen."

"We are talking about a New Zealand citizen here."

English would not comment on whether the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) had scrutinised Yang over three years, as reported by Newsroom in a special investigation. He said it was an operational matter.

Newsroom sources have told us that in 2016 Yang was investigated by the SIS. The Prime Minister at the time, John Key, would have had to give his permission for any investigation.

In 2016 Yang was taken off the select committee for Foreign Affairs, defence and trade.

Speaker David Carter confirmed to Newsroom he would have to be informed of any monitoring of an MP by an intelligence agency.
However, he refused to say whether he had been briefed by the SIS director regarding any concerns about Yang.

“That would be not appropriate for me to make any further comment on that at all,” Carter said.

7. 'NZ a soft target'

The FT's Jamil Anderlini followed up on yesterday's article with an analysis piece in today's FT, in which he described how China exploited the vulnerability of open democracies and how soft targets such as New Zealand were testing grounds for global espionage.

"It is entirely possible that Jian Yang, an MP for New Zealand’s governing National Party since 2011, severed all ties with Chinese military intelligence when he left China in 1994 and has had no contact with any Chinese agents since then," Anderlini wrote.

"But the fact he was able to enter parliament with very little scrutiny and serve on a committee overseeing foreign affairs, defence and trade, and that his education and military intelligence background appeared nowhere on his official biographies in New Zealand, raises some troubling questions," he wrote.

"People in other western democracies may put this down to naivety on the part of innocent Kiwis. But western intelligence analysts say relatively “soft targets” like New Zealand and Australia are just testing grounds for China’s global espionage activities. In the past five years China has massively expanded its efforts to infiltrate, influence and spy on western democracies and these efforts have already been remarkably successful in countries like Canada, the US and the UK."

Anderlini, who is an award-winning journalist who has worked in China for a decade, also made a point about the impact of Yang's disclosures on the local Chinese community in Auckland.

"Even if Mr Yang has never worked for China’s intelligence services in New Zealand, his occasional references in Chinese language media to his time at the innocuous-sounding 'Luoyang Foreign Languages Institute' would have acted as an intimidating dog whistle for the overseas Chinese community in that country — most Chinese speakers would know, or could easily discover, that the institute is the main linguistics training facility for Chinese military intelligence," he wrote.

"Far from evidence of racism, an investigation by intelligence agencies into Mr Yang’s background and current activities is aimed at protecting those members of the Chinese immigrant community who have chosen to leave authoritarian China and settle in a democracy."

To see the video of these news conferences go to our news article on Newsroom.

8. China's soft power push

Newsroom's Wellington-based Foreign Affairs and Trade Editor Sam Sachdeva has also been looking into the extent of China's push for soft power around the Asia Pacific.

Sam reported 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.

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”.

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.

See Sam's full report on China's soft power push on Newsroom Pro, where it was published first this morning.

The picture above is of pro-China groups lined up on Tinakori Road outside Premier House before the arrival of Premier Li Keiqiang earlier this year.

9. One fun thing

I missed the apparently entertaining interview/clash/stoush Winston Peters had with Guyon Espiner today on Morning Report. I am reliably informed it is unmissable and that Winston accused Guyon of all sorts of things. I will listen later after two more strong coffees.

But here's some reaction to it on Twitter, including from Guyon himself: "Statement responding to allegations by Winston Peters about my role in the neo-liberal Labour government of 1984: "I was 13 years old." ENDS"

Moana Maniapoto: "@SusieFergusonNZ Could you interview @GuyonEspiner? Given he's been running the country for the last 30 years & all. Don't interrupt him tho"

GCSB Intercepts: "Surveillance feed of Guyon Espiner interviewing Winston Peters right now on RNZ." (It links to a minions gif that is sort of fun.)