Opinion: Time to discuss China’s soft power in NZ

Political scientist Bryce Edwards argues New Zealand needs to have a careful debate now about China's use of soft power to influence our political system, rather than ignore it and face a nasty one later.

There’s no avoiding it – China’s influence in New Zealand politics is becoming the “elephant in the room” that some wish to ignore, but ultimately needs discussion and debate. Part of this fledgling controversy arises out of the research work of Professir Anne-Marie Brady, who has been highlighting the way the Chinese Government uses various techniques of “soft power” around the world to try to further its interests. And the debate is being fuelled by events in Australia at the moment, with the government there becoming increasingly hard-line about apparent foreign interference in its politics.

If you want to read Anne-Marie Brady’s research on China in New Zealand, her main academic article to read is: Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping

And to read about the current Australian controversy, see the Guardian’s Turnbull says Australia will 'stand up' to China as foreign influence row heats up.

The topic is complicated and fraught, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid it. There are certainly plenty of voices wishing to dampen down any discussion about Chinese Government influence here. Often these voices are coming from business and export sectors, which benefit from a prosperous and harmonious trade relationship with China. They don’t want the status quo endangered, and instead wish to foster even closer ties between our countries.

Labour and National are in consensus over the need for diplomacy rather than debate about China, and understandably see good reason to keep trading partners happy.

Even New Zealand First might be seen to have joined up to that consensus now that Winston Peters is Foreign Minister. As has been widely reported, Peters gave a surprising speech last week at a Confucius Institute event to commemorate New Zealand's 45 years of diplomatic relations with China. In this he preached tolerance, and berated New Zealand commentators for being so harsh about China.

Debate about Chinese Government influence here also seems to have been muted due to fears of promoting illiberalism. Many are understandably uncomfortable with the potential nationalistic, xenophobic, and even racist elements to concerns about Chinese Government interference in New Zealand.

This is especially the case for many on the political left. After all, it wasn’t long ago that the Labour Party campaigned rather shamefully over “Chinese-sounding names”, when it wanted the National Government to ban the sale of houses to foreigners. (Of course, Labour has not apologised or accepted responsibility for the role it played in stirring up xenophobia on the issue.)

That episode illustrates the need for any discussion about Chinese state influence in New Zealand to be sensitive, sophisticated and well-informed. There is the potential for such a debate to descend into all sorts of reactionary and ugly manifestations.

And there will certainly be many who will seek to close down such discussions with accusations of racism or xenophobia. Indeed, in recent days, China itself has been hitting back at Australia, with similar lines of argument.

In having a debate about Chinese Government influence on New Zealand politics, there’s also the need to keep in mind that all states use a variety of methods against each other in order to further their own interests. There’s a long history of other powerful states – from the United States, to the UK, to France – attempting to utilise all manner of underhand methods to influence New Zealand’s internal affairs. While China isn’t necessarily unique in this regard, we also need to study exactly what is different about China’s alleged interventions here.

We also need to keep in mind the fact that the New Zealand Government, too, plays all sorts of nefarious roles in international relations. Some of this is even against China. In 2015, we learned from the Snowden files of GCSB material, that our government spies on many other international governments, including China, whose diplomats and communications in New Zealand have been monitored.

So, we need to be careful not to claim New Zealand is some sort of innocent victim in the field of international relations. But none of these caveats are reasons not to have a discussion about the topic. In an increasingly globalised world, and one in which China plays a stronger role, we need to examine and scrutinise all such vested interests.

The upshot is that this China-New Zealand debate is on its way here. It concerns legitimate questions about power, influence and democracy. And it’s better for us to engage in it properly, than to try to ignore it or wait for it to turn nasty.