19 Oct 2018

Academic warns against interference after National revelations

1:03 pm on 19 October 2018

An academic who specialises in studying China's political influence in New Zealand says politicians need to upskill to prevent foreign government interference.

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Photo: Wilson Centre

It's been revealed that in a phone conversation National's leader, Simon Bridges, and the former MP Jami-Lee Ross discussed a relation of a wealthy Chinese businessman going through candidacy school.

The businessman has been at the centre of claims of a $100,000 donation to the party.

University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady told Morning Report politicians needed to look deeper into the connections of donors.

"The real threat that I'm paying attention to in this story is the failure of our political parties to prevent foreign government interference into our democratic political processes.

"The matters we need to look into is the connection of some of these donors, not all of them... to the Chinese party state. The Chinese Communist Party is an elite party and they have a tactic, which was set by Lenin... and it's called the United Front. It's a way to influence non-party members and in the case of foreign policy, foreigners."

Prof Brady said New Zealand politicians should be wary of the intentions behind any donations.

"It seems that they think that they can take this money and then maintain independent foreign policy and independent New Zealand domestic politics, but it's very clear that the money comes with strings attached and that was revealed in that conversation that Jami-Lee Ross played to us all this week.

"One of the things we need to do in New Zealand is to start to see China the way it really is.

"We need to upskill our local politicians and our national politicians in our public sector. In the 'abc' of the Chinese party state, we've got to be able to engage with China and understand it, but also recognise the risks."

However, she said there was a fear of speaking up on issues to do with China in New Zealand, illustrated by the Belt and Road Initiative and subsidising of independent courses in Chinese history and politics at univerisities in exchange for Chinese government framed ones.

A greater understanding of China's political affairs could help prevent potential interference, she said.

"China has emerged a sort of meshing of CCP interest with commercial interests and military interests, so a bit of 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours', where certain figures known to be loyal to the party will be rewarded with business contracts and opportunities.

"Understanding this is part of having a really constructive relationship with China... at the same time as setting boundaries about unacceptable behaviour."

Tiananmen square in Beijing, China.

Tiananmen square in Beijing, China. Photo: 123RF

She said now was the chance for New Zealand to address the problem of foreign political interference, as other countries have been doing recently with regards to Russia and China.

"The government needs to do its own research... into the extent of China's political interference activities into our country. They need to research it and they need to tell the public the changes that they recommend.

"There's a real opportunity now to pull together and look at things like electoral financing and conflicts of interest of our MPs, stand down periods of MPs and also whether it's okay to be a member of a foreign political party and a New Zealand political party."

Prof Brady said the matter was more complex than deciding by merely categorising whether the person was wealthy or Chinese and the New Zealand-Chinese population needed to be protected from any risk.

"We don't want to shame people. We want to focus on pulling New Zealand together.

"We need to restore the integrity of our Chinese New Zealand community... We need to return our Chinese language media to what it used to be - a genuine New Zealand Chinese media and [one] that's not getting directives from Xinhua as it is at the moment."

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