4. China claims 'need new evidence'

The issue of Chinese interference in New Zealand has flared up again - but is there any substance to the latest stories? Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Allegations of Chinese interference in New Zealand politics have reared their head again, with suggestions the country is a “soft underbelly” for interference efforts. But one Kiwi expert suggests we need more evidence to back up the “hype” around the allegations.

Is New Zealand really a “soft underbelly” for Chinese infiltration?

That was a conclusion from a recent report published by (although not the official view of) the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the findings of which made it into the pages of international media.

Discussions about China’s growing power and the role it plays within New Zealand have been going on for some time, spurred in part by a Newsroom investigation into National MP Jian Yang and his ties to military intelligence.

But the publication of the CSIS report, coupled with a former CIA analyst’s claims before the US Congress that New Zealand’s role in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance should be reconsidered, have thrust the issue back into the spotlight.

Is there fire to accompany all this new smoke, or is it all much ado about nothing?

'Hype without evidence'

The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Jason Young, the acting director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre, suggests both the Canadian and US reports are based in large part on the ‘Magic Weapons’ report published by Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady last year .

Brady’s report, which detailed concerns about China’s attempts to influence migrant communities and take over ethnic media among other issues, received media coverage at the time.

However, Young says the latest round of coverage has done little to advance the case made by Brady.

“For many of us it’s just more hype around the same types of questions without new evidence.”

“This isn’t the evidence to say someone’s guilty or someone’s innocent, or there is not a problem, but there’s sufficient information there to suggest there is an issue or at the least a very real risk.”

Former CIA analyst Peter Mattis, whose questioning of New Zealand’s role in Five Eyes attracted attention here, conceded as much in an interview with RNZ’s Morning Report.

Mattis said his comments were based on previous media reporting done in New Zealand as well as Brady’s research, and was quick to add that did not mean New Zealand should be kicked out.

“This isn’t the evidence to say someone’s guilty or someone’s innocent, or there is not a problem, but there’s sufficient information there to suggest there is an issue or at the least a very real risk,” he told RNZ.

Former minister Peter Dunne, who in 2016 accused New Zealand of being “the mouse that scuttled for cover” when it comes to China, says successive governments have been “scared stiff” of offending the country due to concerns about trade reprisals.

“I think it’s an absolute fear now of China’s economic power and it being used against us.”

Dunne is less sure about allegations of Chinese spying, saying, “I’m not sure they’re doing that to any greater extent than other countries”, but is critical of New Zealand’s unwillingness to speak out against China on human rights issues.

“We’ve got to the point now where they know we’re never going to say anything.”

Different take across the Tasman

New Zealand need look no further than across the Tasman for a different approach to China - and the problems that could accompany it.

The Australian government has been notably more hardline in its stance, drafting “foreign interference” legislation and commissioning a secret report into the Chinese government’s influence efforts.

In return, China has come down hard, with a diplomatic freeze of sorts in place.

Australian Trade Minister Steve Ciobo was denied a meeting with his Chinese counterpart during a recent trip to Beijing, while wine exporters have reported “go-slow” delays at the border.

James Laurenceson, the deputy director of the Australia-China Relations Institute, says the two countries’ approaches have differed in part due to the active role taken by Australian intelligence organisations.

“The debate in Australia has been very heavily securitised: you can clearly see the position of the security agencies in the Australia debate.”

Media leaks about Chinese concerns have been common, with the Australian government “willing to fan those leaks”.

“We’re not talking about empirics, we’re not furthering the debate, all we are having is a more extreme and radicalised position being put forth...[and] we don’t talk about the bigger issues.”

“The New Zealand government’s line tends to be to dampen reports down, but in Australia it goes in the opposite direction,” Laurenceson says.

He also suggests New Zealand has been more willing than Australia to scrutinise the allegations of foreign interference, and is unequivocal about which approach he favours.

“I can’t point to one single advantage of the approach Australia has taken," Laurenceson says, although Dunne suggests New Zealand would be less likely than Australia to face China's wrath, as a "very small fish in a very big pond".

Young believes the debate in New Zealand is becoming counterproductive, with opposing sides staking out increasingly polarised positions on the topic.

“We’re not talking about empirics, we’re not furthering the debate, all we are having is a more extreme and radicalised position being put forth...[and] we don’t talk about the bigger issues.”

Talking more about China

So what is the solution?

There are some who suggest the Government should be more upfront about how it addresses the issue of foreign interference, encouraging rather than ducking discussion.

There are suggestions the China situation has parallels to the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, where a failure by the last government to communicate created an information vacuum that was filled by partisans on each side.

Young says the Government’s messaging on the issue has been “quite minimal”, influenced in part by the sensitivity of allegations related to espionage or foreign influence and the role of our spies.

“The Government has got a responsibility to set China policy, to engage with China, and also have ground rules.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made some steps in that direction, he says, pointing to her recent speech at a China business summit outlining her view of the region and the kind of relationship that was needed.

“The argument that New Zealand has somehow changed its security position in relation to Chinese influence, where’s the evidence for that? I can’t see any basis for it.”

More generally, Young says the discussion about China needs to be based more on evidence and less on “hyperbole”.

“If someone is claiming New Zealand is the weak link in Five Eyes, what is the claim based on and what is the evidence behind that?

“The argument that New Zealand has somehow changed its security position in relation to Chinese influence, where’s the evidence for that? I can’t see any basis for it.”

It’s not that there’s nothing to talk about, he says: given China holds very different views to New Zealand and other countries, there are valid areas of concern.

But ensuring those concerns are backed up with evidence is critical to stop the debate from losing shape, he says.