PM orders investigation of burglaries of China expert

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last week ordered security agencies to investigate break-ins at the home and university office of an academic researching China’s influence in the country. The academic had been warned that she could be targeted if she did not toe Beijing’s official line.

The burglaries were revealed when Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and an expert on China and polar policies, gave evidence to an Australian parliamentary committee this month via a remote link.

Brady’s house was broken into on 14 February in circumstances which she described as “suspicious”, she told the Australian Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee on 15 February. Her university office had been broken into in December.

The Australian committee is investigating Chinese influence in Australia, including at universities, as part of a review of legislation that would, among other things, ban foreign donations to Australian political parties.

Although the legislation being proposed in Australia does not mention China, it comes in the wake of huge publicity of Chinese ‘soft power’ activities and attempts to influence Chinese politicians and university academics, and has angered Beijing.

Brady revealed to the Australian committee that three laptops, phones and USB storage devices were stolen, but no valuables were taken from her home, adding that she had been warned in advance via an anonymous letter that those who do not toe Beijing’s official line were being targeted.

“If it were in response to the work she’s [Brady’s] doing, everyone would be concerned, so certainly if there’s evidence of that we should be taking stock of it and taking action…” Prime Minister Ardern said during a routine press conference in Wellington on 19 February.

New Zealand’s Education Minister Chris Hipkins said in a written statement last week that he could not comment on the Brady case as the police are still investigating the burglaries. However, he said: “Academic freedom is a long and cherished part of our democracy and it shall remain so."

Brady linked the break-ins to research she has conducted on China’s global influence campaign. She said following a recent visit she made to China, sources she had talked to were subjected to visits from authorities.

"People I've associated with in China, just last year, were questioned by the Chinese Ministry of State Security about their association with me," she told the committee.

Chinese pressure

Brady also said the University of Canterbury had been pressured following earlier work on China's Antarctic policy. She told the Australian parliamentary committee China's non-state activity was co-ordinated under the United Front banner, and represented a broad attempt to sway both public opinion and the political elite globally to support China’s assertive new foreign policy under President Xi Jinping.

Concerned about academic freedom, Sharn Riggs, national secretary of the Tertiary Education Union, said Brady’s claims were without precedent in New Zealand. "This is quite extreme, and obviously very concerning to have a member’s personal safety put in danger, but also from a policy perspective around academics’ right to investigate and publish in these areas," she said.

University vice-chancellors “need to ensure that staff who are researching in controversial areas have protection” and “present in a vocal way that this is what academics are and this is what they do", Riggs told local media.

United Front work

"Australia and New Zealand appear to have been a test zone for 'United Front' activities in recent years. And it's now reached a critical level," Brady said in a report published in September by the Wilson Centre, Washington DC, entitled Magic Weapons: China's political influence activities under Xi Jinping.

China’s President Xi Jinping has used the term “magic weapon” to refer to China’s United Front Work Department, which promotes the Communist Party’s objectives overseas and which Brady says is used to co-opt foreign academics, entrepreneurs and politicians to promote China’s perspective in the media and academia.

Brady outlined a number of political tactics used by the Chinese government to exert influence abroad, including setting up academic partnerships with foreign universities and academic publishers, then imposing China’s censorship rules as part of the deal; offering strings-attached academic funding through the Confucius Institutes and other China-connected funding bodies; and investment in foreign research centres.

“As in many other countries in the world, each university campus in New Zealand now has a Chinese Students and Scholars Association, one of the main means the Chinese authorities use to guide Chinese students and scholars on short-term study abroad. The New Zealand organisation was formed in 2012 and links all the Chinese student groups on the various tertiary campuses in New Zealand. The New Zealand Chinese Students and Scholars Association is "under the correct guidance" of the People’s Republic of China representatives in New Zealand”, her report says.

Similar claims about United Front work have been made recently in the United States by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and in Australia, including to that country’s parliamentary committee on intelligence and security.

Brady’s study also details extensive links between China and former New Zealand politicians and their families, and also highlights significant political donations.

Brady said members of New Zealand’s ruling and opposition parties had travelled to China and praised Xi Jinping. "These kinds of political actions by our political leaders have a chilling effect on debates. Under Xi Jinping there's been a real increase in this kind of activity on a level we haven't seen before," Brady told the New Zealand Herald newspaper.

"It has had a silencing effect in our universities and policy debates. It's created a situation where people are afraid to raise challenging issues to do with China within the state sector and within our universities. We should be able to raise a range of views on China, but mouthing the slogans of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] is not raising a range of views," she is quoted as saying.

China’s interest in New Zealand

Brady noted that from a foreign policy perspective New Zealand is of interest to China, in part because the New Zealand government is responsible for the defence and foreign affairs of three territories in the South Pacific: the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau – which potentially means four votes for China at international organisations.

New Zealand is also a claimant state in Antarctica, where China has a long-term strategic agenda that requires the cooperation of established Antarctic states such as New Zealand.

According to the Brady’s Magic Weapons paper, what she refers to as ‘Chinese polar officials’ in 2015 pressured the University of Canterbury, Antarctica New Zealand, the Christchurch City Council and New Zealand diplomats in China over her unpublished research on China and Antarctica.

The “interference” stopped when the University of Canterbury’s vice-chancellor, Rod Carr, backed Brady’s right to academic freedom, which is enshrined in New Zealand law.

Brady said the influence campaign being waged in New Zealand would be of concern regardless of its source. "It'd be the same if it was any country: it's not about China, but it's our country and our democracy where we value freedom of speech and association. It's our right to choose our government."