PM urged to speak out against harassment of China expert

Academics and human rights advocates in New Zealand have urged Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to protect the academic freedom of a professor who has faced months of alleged harassment – including a burgled office – ostensibly for her work critical of China’s influence abroad.

Anne-Marie Brady, a professor of China politics at the University of Canterbury, has conducted research notably on China’s polar geopolitics. Brady has been an outspoken critic of China, including providing evidence to an Australian parliamentary committee in February, and has called for investigations into the Chinese Communist Party's activities abroad, as well as new strategies to counter such influence, describing Chinese influence as a “national security issue”.

“We have been shocked and disturbed by the reports of intimidation and harassment suffered by Professor Anne-Marie Brady of Canterbury University,” say the New Zealand academics, researchers and human rights advocates, according to an open letter to Ardern and Foreign Minister Winston Peters released last Monday.

These included suspected burglaries targeting Brady’s computers, phones and USB drives, and claims that her car was tampered with. “Reports have suggested that these events are related to her high-profile academic work on overseas influence campaigns by the government of the People’s Republic of China,” according to the letter signed by 29 academics and rights groups, including Amnesty International.

The letter urges Ardern “to make a clear statement in defence of academic freedom in New Zealand in light of the Brady case, and to be very clear that any intimidation and threats aimed at silencing academic voices in this country will not be tolerated”.

Implications for freedoms

“Attempts to intimidate and harass one academic in New Zealand have implications for the freedoms of all the others – and indeed for the freedoms of all who live here,” it said.

“Freedom of expression and academic freedom are taken for granted in New Zealand as givens upon which our social and political norms are based. Threats to these freedoms should not be taken lightly.”

A spokeswoman for the prime minister said Ardern “supports and defends the legal right to academic freedom”, but it was not appropriate to comment further before the police investigation had been completed.

New Zealand intelligence agencies have been investigating since February whether Brady has been targeted but have not yet reported back to the prime minister.

"Quite frankly, if I received a direct report that said there was an issue that could be directly attributable to China, or at Chinese direction, we would act on that. But I have not received such information," Ardern said on Monday, adding: “I absolutely defend the right of academics to utilise their academic freedom ... They should continue to be able to do their work with freedom from repercussion from this government or any other government."

Brady told The Guardian last week that she and her family had requested security assistance from the government four months ago but had not had a reply.

China has repeatedly rejected accusations that it is seeking to influence overseas governments.