Bryce Edwards: Navigating allegations of illegal foreign state meddling in NZ 

Bryce Edwards: Navigating allegations of illegal foreign state meddling in NZ 

One of this year’s most potentially explosive and dangerous political issues has been allegations of foreign meddling against the University of Canterbury’s Prof Anne-Marie Brady because of her role as a critic of Chinese state political interference.

It’s a fascinating tale alleging attacks by a foreign state on the politics and democracy of another country. It involves burglary, state spies, police investigations, and suspected sabotage of Brady’s family car. Brady and her supporters say this is a case of a very powerful foreign state carrying out outrageous and illegal actions in New Zealand in order to silence a critic.

Some are even comparing the alleged 2018 interference of the Chinese Government in New Zealand with France’s bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. Certainly, allegations about the sabotage of Brady’s car, raises the spectre of state-sponsored terrorism and warnings have been made in light of the recent Saudi killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

It’s been a slow-burning topic throughout the year, and has finally come to a head with the publishing yesterday of an Open letter to the Government from a coalition of academics and civil society figures, demanding that they stand up in defense of Anne-Marie Brady. In particular, it asks that the Prime Minister and her Foreign Minister “Be very clear that any intimidation and threats aimed at silencing academics voices in this country will not be tolerated.”

This is covered best by Matt Nippert in his report, Burgled professor case: PM called on to defend academic freedom. He points to support for the open letter from the Green and Act parties, and reports that David “Seymour said the nine-month silence from government on the issue was concerning.”

To illustrate Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s reluctance to comment on the issues, Nippert reports that his own “request to discuss the matter” has been consistently declined by the Prime Minister’s office over the last six months.

The instigator of the open letter, Tze Ming Mok, is also reported as complaining that Ardern isn’t doing enough on the issue, saying “The silence is very conspicuous” – see Anusha Bradley’s ‘Shocked and disturbed’ by alleged Chinese govt intimidation. Also, it’s reported that Brady’s experience is having “a chilling effect amongst China-focused experts in this country with many unwilling to comment on the saga publicly”.

Brady is quoted as saying the Police investigation is over, and the ball is in the Government’s court: “The police have done a really great job and a thorough investigation has been completed. The next step now is the political will that needs to have the guts to face up to the situation.”

Matt Nippert has been covering all of these issues in depth, and his article last week is particularly worth reading – see: Report says China researcher Anne-Marie Brady’s car ‘tampered with’. This deals primarily with the apparent break-in to Brady’s garage to tamper with her car tyres: “The Herald understands pressure in the front two tyres had been lowered to around 14 psi, a level at which the low pressure is not obviously visible but that significantly increases the risk of an accident when cornering at speed.”

The article also reports on wider debate over the Brady claims: “The Brady case has sparked furious debate, both within the foreign policy establishment and the New Zealand Chinese community. Auckland councillor Mike Lee suggested on Facebook over the weekend that Brady was inventing her complaints to advance American interests.” The article quotes Lee: “Where is the proof? Or are these smear tactics by an academic who receives funding from hawkish American think tanks?”

In an article from earlier this month, Nippert reports on the debates on Brady and her allegations – see: Suspected sabotage of car belonging to burgled professor and China researcher Anne-Marie Brady. In particular, details of the Police investigation are given: “A Herald investigation into the Brady break-ins can also reveal the case is being handled by the Police’s National Security Investigation Team, a secretive unit that is understood specialises in national security cases – including terrorism – and works closely with the New Zealand Security and Intelligence Service.”

Nippert also draws attention to recent vitriolic responses to Brady in some Chinese-language media: “Commentary in local Chinese-language media has been an especially heated, with a recent op-ed by Morgan Xiao – published simultaneously by SkyKiwi, the Mandarin Pages and the New Zealand Chinese Daily News – describing Brady and other New Zealand-Chinese democracy activists as ‘anti-Chinese sons of bitches’ who should ‘get out of New Zealand’.”

Response to open letter

Jacinda Ardern has now responded to yesterday’s open letter, in a much more robust way than previously: “I absolutely defend the rights of academics to utilise their academic freedom, and of course the rights that are granted to them through our legislation, I absolutely support that and defend that. They should continue to be able to do their work, and with freedom from repercussion and from this Government or any other government.”

In terms of the Police investigation into Brady’s situation, the PM vows to take action if the findings warrant it: “Quite frankly, if I received a direct report that said that there was an issue there, that could be directly attributable to China, or at China’s direction, I would act on that. But I have not received such information.”

This is all best covered today by Laura Walters’ Worldwide calls for Govt to speak up on China, which also reports on a second open letter written by professors Geremie Barmé and John Minford, who have both previously taught Brady, and are recognised China experts. According to this pair,
“international foreign policy experts and researchers have been producing reports backing up [Brady’s] work”.

One of them is quoted warning that the New Zealand Government needed a stronger stance on China because, without this, New Zealand is becoming “internationally regarded as the soft underbelly that’s basically sliding towards becoming a vassal state of China”.

To read the full open letter, see Michael Reddell’s Voices in support of Anne-Marie Brady. And Reddell adds his own comments on “the supine, scared of their own shadow, attitude of the government.” He speculates that the New Zealand political elite may not actually want to see a Police investigation result in any clarity and resolve: “Official Wellington might be thought to have a strong interest in the investigation not coming to a conclusion”.

There’s a very good reason for the New Zealand Government to tread extremely carefully on the topic according to Chris Trotter, who says very frankly that “Pissing-off China… can be extremely injurious to this nation’s economic health” – see: The Case of the problematic professor.

Trotter suggests that those wanting the Government to take strong action are being rather naive and foolish. His point about New Zealand’s economic reliance on China is worth quoting at length: “But do people have any right to answers in a matter as delicate as this one? Is the public entitled to push aside all the geopolitical and economic factors impinging on their government as if they are of no importance? Prattling on about being the ‘critic and conscience’ of society is all very well, but when New Zealand’s universities are so dependent on the continuing inflow of international students, is it really all that wise to antagonise one of the largest contributors to this country’s educational export trade?”

Furthermore, Trotter raises the prospect of agricultural exports and investments being endangered: “And all that Chinese investment in New Zealand’s agricultural sector: all those massive milk treatment plants springing up around the provinces; how keen would the government be to see all that brought to an end? How would Shane Jones respond to the loss of so many well-paying jobs? And David Parker, how would he feel when New Zealand’s perishable exports started piling-up on China’s docks? How would Federated Farmers react to a Chinese freeze-out? Or the Dairy Workers Union, for that matter?”

Trotter goes even further, and questions Brady’s role in the wider US-China rivalry; suggesting that she might be, inadvertently or not, part of the United States’ “soft-power” strategies against China.

As to what the Government should do, Trotter suggests that Ardern learn from the realpolitik way in which Donald Trump dealt with Saudi Arabia and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, making no real moral condemnation but instead pointing to strong trade ties with the rogue state, which enriches America.

RNZ’s Tim Watkin also draws parallels with the Khashoggi affair, but reaches the opposite conclusion, calling for Ardern to take action if evidence warrants it: “If it comes to it, Ardern must use this event to reinforce that principle, not shrink from it. It is past time our leaders – Ardern especially – made it clear just how serious these allegations are. And if the evidence is there, she must not be cowed or muted in her response. Some things are just too important” – see: If Jacinda Ardern wants inspiration on Brady & China, she can look to Khashoggi & Trump.

Watkin’s parallel is also worth quoting at length: “Ardern should look to Trump’s play as she assesses how to respond to the Brady claims. It’s a classic case of how not to respond. If the claims are confirmed – or even considered probable with ‘high confidence’ – then this will be Ardern’s first true test on the international stage. And it cannot be half-hearted or full of weasel words. We look back at the fourth Labour government’s handling of the Rainbow Warrior bombing with little pride, as France (with support from some of our supposed allies) dodged its responsibility. Labour does not want another fail grade when it comes to standing up to power. If China did what Brady claims, the only difference between it and Saudi Arabia is that the Saudis did not fail. The Saudis sought to stifle dissent and free inquiry. They used violence and terror (yes terror; such a murder can send only one message to other critics) to stop an independent press from asking questions and critiquing those in power.”

Finally, in the weekend, visiting former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr went on TVNZ’s Q+A to warn New Zealand against following Australia’s “China panic” – you can watch the 10-minute interview here: Q+A with Bob Carr, as well as the panel discussion that followed: Q+A Panel: Justice and China.