NZ and Australia Ground Zero for Chinese Influence
Chen Weijian rests on his balcony, listening to the cicadas in a leafy suburb of Auckland, Rob Schmitz reports in an NPR broadcast. He moved from China in 1991, escaping imprisonment for working on a pro-democracy newspaper.
He restarted the newspaper in New Zealand, but even there, Beijing caught up with him, he says: A pro-Chinese Communist Party newspaper in Auckland sued him for defamation after he criticised it for being too pro-Beijing. Ongoing legal fees forced his paper into bankruptcy in 2012.
“Their paper was funded by businesses supported by China’s government,” Chen says. “So an overseas Communist Party’s propaganda wing crushed our democratic newspaper here in New Zealand.”
Ever since, Chen says, he has watched as China’s Communist Party makes deeper inroads into New Zealand’s society and government, becoming a major trade partner and expanding beyond trade to finance, telecommunications, military cooperation and cooperation on the Antarctic. Last year, local media reported that a prominent, Chinese-born member of New Zealand’s Parliament, Jian Yang, had lied to authorities about his education background on his citizenship application for New Zealand.
Yang declined an interview request from NPR. He admitted to journalists last year that he was a member of China’s Communist Party, though he insisted he has not been an active member since he left China in 1994. He has steered clear of the media spotlight since the scandal hit.
In 2008, New Zealand became the first developed country to sign a free trade agreement with China. As a result, trade between the two economies has tripled in the past decade, largely because of China’s thirst for imported New Zealand milk: A quarter of all imported milk in China comes from the tiny island nation.
“A lot of countries ask: ‘Why did China negotiate a free trade agreement with New Zealand? They’re so small,’” says Charles Finny, a consultant with the Saunders Unsworth lobbying firm in Wellington who served as the lead negotiator for New Zealand in its free trade agreement with China. “The reason, I think, was that by negotiating an FTA with New Zealand, you learn how to do the negotiation. That’s pretty good practice for when you actually get to negotiate with bigger players, and if you make a mistake, it’s not going to be fatal for your economy.”
Finny believes the same to be true in politics. He says China has most likely been using New Zealand as a testing ground for diplomatic relations with other developed nations.
In a report released last year, Anne-Marie Brady, a University of Canterbury professor in Christchurch, takes a deep dive into the activities of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department – an agency Brady says Chinese leader Xi has revived, directing it to guide, buy and coerce political influence abroad.
The report, “Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities Under Xi Jinping,” includes a comprehensive analysis of China’s foreign influence operations under the Communist Party.
In her report, Brady, a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., examines how the United Front operates abroad, helping influence media, politicians and members of the Chinese diaspora. Her detailed investigation of China’s influence operations in New Zealand includes discussion of Yang and other Chinese-born members of Parliament and the fundraising efforts they’re involved in for their respective political parties.
“If a country like New Zealand – a fiercely independent, democratic country like New Zealand – if we can’t protect sovereignty and uphold the integrity of our political system at the same time as maintaining a positive relationship with China, then we’ve entered a very dangerous era in global politics,” she says. “It should be possible for a small state or a medium-sized state or a large state to say to another state: ‘It’s not OK for you interfere in my politics’ and continue to maintain a positive relationship with that nation.”
In the summary of her report, Brady writes that democracies have magic weapons, too: the right to choose governments; checks on power; freedom of speech and association and a free press. Now, she writes, is the time to use them.
Original article by Rob Schmitz, NPR, October 2, 2018.
Illustration by Angela Hsieh.