Is China interfering in NZ politics?
By Jim Rolfe Victoria University Centre for Strategic Studies Senior Fellow (author)
New Zealand’s relations with China have come under closer scrutiny over this year. We are the only Five Eyes country to seek an involvement in China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative which is regarded with suspicion by Australia in particular. This has thrown the spotlight on the role of the Chinese community, particularly the work of its United Front organisation, which has been accused by Canterbury University academic Anne-Marie Brady of interfering in New Zealand politics. This analysis is by Jim Rolfe, Senior Fellow at Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies.
Reporting on the relationship between China and New Zealand has taken a strident tone in recent months.
Much of that reporting has been around the nature and perils of Chinese influence over domestic political activity and on New Zealand’s relationship with its international intelligence partners, the so-called Five Eyes grouping.
The serious assertions are that China actively works to subvert political processes for its own ends and that the Chinese influence is such that New Zealand is itself a threat, or in danger of becoming a threat, to the wider Western intelligence system.
If true, these assertions demand the closest attention from the government and the security agencies. There is not, however, much public evidence to support these assertions.
We do however know quite a bit about Chinese influence operations generally.
The main agency responsible for such activities is the United Front Work Department (UF), a creation of the Chinese Communist Party and a component of the Chinese government,.
The UF was formed in the 1930s as a means to link the Communist Party with the wider society to rally the country to defeat common enemies: first, in cooperation with the Kuomintang Chinese Nationalists, against warlords; then from the late 1930s against the Japanese Army; and following the defeat of Japan, against the Nationalists themselves.
From the late 1970s the UF promoted the internal economic reforms of the period and then expanded to focus on the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control and to Taiwan and reunification.
Most recently the UF has widened its operations into the international arena to promote China’s policies and to counter what is seen as anti-Chinese propaganda.
Today, UF activities are undertaken at all levels within a host country from the national to the local and down to individuals and workplaces, and are mostly covert.
We have assertions that the UF attempts to control ethnic Chinese within New Zealand, using both threats and blandishments directly and through control of Chinese language media, and we have assertions that the UF has channelled money and technical support to political and other organisations in New Zealand to attempt to gain influence and ensure that China’s position on issues is favourably received and (importantly) seen as the most valid position and the sensible position for any country to hold.
Some fear that China is, through its influence in specific organisations and with key political actors, in a position to compromise government decision making
Should we be concerned?
At the highest level, it is neither new nor unusual for states to attempt to influence events in a specific country.
What is new and unusual for New Zealand is, according to those who examine the issue, the intense engagement by the UF with our political system, the scale of its activities within overseas Chinese communities and Chinese media, and the willingness to work directly within (but hidden from) national political processes, through funding favoured candidates with anonymous or concealed donations for example.
The worries are that legitimate UF lobbying and influence activities on foreign countries have become illegitimate interference through attempts to subvert national democratic processes by unduly influencing local ethnic Chinese and by secretly funding favoured political parties, people and causes.
The worries continue with the additional assertion that the level of Chinese influence within New Zealand is such that New Zealand might itself be a security risk to its intelligence partners.
Is this a threat?
Possibly so, certainly so if New Zealand’s intelligence system has been compromised, but there is little public evidence for that.
No doubt the government, through the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, has developed its own view on China’s generally unseen activities within New Zealand.
If it has, it has not revealed its conclusions.
But even if UF activities are not a threat to national security in the traditional sense, we should always be wary of any attempts to influence political processes through covert means.
This is even more important when the influencer is a foreign entity.
We should also acknowledge that New Zealand relationship with China is much wider than that of New Zealand possibly being the recipient of unwelcome, even if largely unrevealed, attentions.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each country across the breadth of the relationship.
So long as each side operates transparently, the relationship can survive and prosper.