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New Zealand’s security chiefs have called for a more vocal government response to national security threats after a spate of spying incidents highlighted Beijing’s attempts to influence the country’s growing Chinese community.
Briefings prepared for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little, the minister in charge of security agencies, mark the latest official expression of concern over Beijing’s political influence in New Zealand and Australia as they experience a surge in political activity from people with alleged ties to China’s Communist party as their Chinese-born populations surge.
One briefing cites “activities in New Zealand over the past year [that] have included attempts to access sensitive government and private sector information, and attempts to unduly influence expatriate communities”.
While the identity of the foreign governments spying in New Zealand are redacted, security experts say Beijing is stepping up a campaign to influence China’s growing diaspora in the Pacific nation and a host of other western countries.
About 4 per cent of New Zealand’s population, or 171,411 people, identified themselves as ethnically Chinese in the 2013 census, with a further 19,000 Chinese citizens gaining residency over the past four years.
The briefings on New Zealand’s security environment say that until recently it has been rare for the country’s prime ministers or national security system to openly provide information on security matters. Unlike in Australia, where a public debate on Chinese influence has been raging for months and has led to a change in policy, New Zealand’s politicians have been reluctant to discuss the matter openly.
“We think that a wider dialogue with the public, on a regular basis and covering a wide range of national security issues, will support a risk and resilience-based approach to national security by normalising issues that can often seem quite abstract or removed from most New Zealanders,” another of the briefings says.
Beijing on Monday played down the concerns expressed in the briefings, saying it was interesting that “recently, many western countries have spontaneously become concerned about interference in their internal affairs”.
“China has consistently upheld the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries,” said Lu Kang, foreign ministry spokesperson, adding: “And we will absolutely not allow other countries to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
The briefings follow a report by the FT in September about how New Zealand’s spy agency had investigated a Chinese-born member of parliament in connection with 15 years he spent working at elite Chinese military training academies. Jian Yang, an MP for New Zealand’s ruling National party since 2011, denied being a spy, saying the reports were a “smear campaign” motivated by anti-Chinese racism.
“The New Zealand intelligence community is telling the government they have got a problem and they need to deal with it publicly, to put some sunlight on it,” said Anne-Marie Brady, politics professor at the University of Canterbury.
She said China was undoubtedly the country referred to in the security briefing as seeking to influence its expatriate community. A Canterbury university report co-authored by Ms Brady identified Beijing’s financial support for a wide range of New Zealand “United Front” organisations, aimed at advancing Chinese interests.
Wellington remains reluctant to speak publicly about Chinese influence in domestic politics, fearing it could hurt commercial ties with Beijing as it seeks to upgrade its trade deal with China, Ms Brady said.
China is New Zealand’s second-largest trade partner, accounting for 17 per cent of all exports in 2016 and total two-way trade worth NZ$23bn ($16bn).
Western nations including the US, Germany and Australia are increasingly highlighting Beijing’s use of covert espionage, propaganda activities and attempts to influence its Chinese diaspora to advance its interests overseas.
Last week Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cited “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” in domestic politics following the publication of tough new spying and foreign influence laws. That followed revelations that Sam Dastyari, an opposition Labor senator who received Chinese cash, called publicly for Australia to respect China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea — a position contrary to that of his party.
Beijing reacted furiously to the Australian rhetoric, with the Chinese embassy in Canberra deriding the ““irresponsible remarks” made by some Australian politicians and officials “to the detriment of political mutual trust”.
A Monday article in China’s state-run People’s Daily described Australian media’s coverage of alleged Chinese influence as paranoid and racist.
Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju in Beijing