Professor Anne-Marie Brady
Supplementary Submission to the New Zealand Parliament Justice Select Committee Inquiry into Foreign Interference Activities, 2019


In July 2017 Chinese media jubilantly reported that China was climbing up the global soft power ratings—China is now on a par with Italy, ranked at 25th in the world for soft power. China’s strenuous united front efforts of the last few years have posted a return and it is increasingly able to use its soft power magic weapons to help influence the decision-making of foreign governments and societies.

New Zealand, like many other states in the world, is becoming saturated with the PRC’s political influence activities, and due to its pattern of engagement with China and its natural assets, it may even be experiencing more political influence activities than most.

New Zealand’s closest ally, Australia, is taking the threat of China’s accelerated foreign influence activities in their country extremely seriously. Australia is planning to introduce a law against foreign interference activities at the end of the year and may ban all foreign political donations.

Each state resists political interference in its affairs by other nations. The PRC frequently berates the USA and other states for perceived interference in China’s domestic politics, and promotes the non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states as an important principle of its foreign policy —though as shown, the united front strategy has always gone against that ideal.

For a small state like New Zealand, which is a former colony of one great power and has been under the shelter of another for more than 60 years, it can often be a challenge as to how to defend the nation against foreign political interference. It takes the political will of the government of the day, as well as that of the people of the nation, to do so.

New Zealand has a range of legislation that could deal with some of the foreign influence activities listed in this study. The New Zealand Security Intelligence (SIS) Act (1969) states that the SIS is charged with “the protection of New Zealand from acts of espionage, sabotage, and subversion, whether or not they are directed from or intended to be committed within New Zealand; the identification of foreign capabilities, intentions, or activities within or relating to New Zealand that impact on New Zealand’s international well-being or economic well-being…the protection of New Zealand from activities within or relating to New Zealand that are influenced by any foreign organisation or any foreign person…”

The SIS Act defines subversion as “attempting, inciting, counseling, advocating, or encouraging… the undermining by unlawful means the authority of the State in New Zealand.” The Act empowers the SIS to respond to cases of subversion and foreign interference in New Zealand politics, interaction with agents of a foreign country, cooperation to influence the foreign and economic policy and public opinion of New Zealand, and acts which deliberately and covertly advancing the agenda of a foreign country at New Zealand’s expense. However, only the Minister of SIS can issue requests to investigate potential cases of subversion and espionage when it concerns political parties. Without government permission, the SIS may not engage in any investigations which will harm another political party, so its hands are tied without political instruction to act.

The Electoral Act (1983) Article 51: B states members of parliament must step down if they “t ake[s] an oath or make[s] a declaration or acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign State, foreign Head of State, or foreign Power, whether required on appointment to an office or otherwise from swearing loyalty to another state.”

The Commerce Commission manages the issue of media monopolies in New Zealand. Yet there is no law in New Zealand against the official information service of one country controlling a sector of the media environment via cooperative agreements, mergers, and key personnel. New Zealand’s regulation of media competition has so far focused on ownership, although the public interest is also a concern.

New Zealand has had reforms in how political donations are reported, but more needs to be done. In 2017, Fairfax media website Stuff launched a campaign for transparency in political donations. They argued that the identity of all donors should be promptly disclosed to the Electoral Commission and that loopholes allowing donors to be masked by trusts and other aggregators, such as fundraising dinners and auctions, must be closed. New Zealand may also wish to consider passing legislation to ban all foreign donations.

New Zealand has relatively few public intellectuals, but the right to free speech and intellectual freedom for New Zealand academics—the society’s critics and conscience—is protected under legislation: the Education Act (1989), Part 14 which requires all government institutions and agencies to protect academic freedom, and the Human Rights Act 1993 Article J, which prevents discrimination on the basis of political opinion.

Many of the political influence activities China directs at New Zealand, unless they result in treason, the paying of bribes, or other forms of corruption (Crimes Act 1961) are not illegal. They are instead matters of propriety and national security; which are always subjective. The Cabinet Manual of the New Zealand Parliament advises that Members of Parliament must behave in a way that maintains the confidence of the public and be seen to maintain the confidence of the public—but that is all in the eye of the beholder. The Manual has nothing to say about ex-ministers of parliament or their relatives.

The SIS Act was passed during the Cold War, when New Zealand politicians were very conscious of PRC and USSR united front organizations and most kept well away from them. Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk (1972-1974) was so anxious about united front activities that he kept file cards on members of the factions of the New Zealand communist movement, so as to ensure that Labour MPs did not unwittingly become associated with any of them or their united front activities. But several decades have passed since the Cold War ended, and political elites in New Zealand may not be prepared for the new global battle for influence. Small states are particularly vulnerable to foreign influence activities: our traditional media has limited resources and lacks competition; our tertiary education sectors are small, and despite the laws on academic freedom, easily intimidated.

New Zealand’s needs to face up to some of the political differences and challenges in the New Zealand-China relationship and to investigate the extent and impact of Chinese political influence activities on our democracy. This study is a preliminary one, highlighting representative concerns. New Zealand would be wise to follow Australia’s example and take seriously the issue of China’s big push to increase its political influence activities, whether it be through a Special Commission or a closed-door investigation.

It may be time to seek a re-adjustment in the relationship, one which ensures New Zealand’s interests are foremost. Like Australia, we may also need to pass new legislation which better reflects the heightened scale of foreign influence attempts in our times. New Zealand can find a way to better manage its economic and political relationship with China, and thereby, truly be an exemplar to other Western states in their relations with China.

Democracies have magic weapons too: the right to choose our government; balances and checks on power through the courts; our regulatory bodies such as the Commerce Commission and the Press Council; the legally-supported critic and conscience role of the academic; freedom of speech and association; and the Fourth Estate—both the traditional and new media. Now is the time to use them.


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