Foreign interference and deference to foreign powers

On Monday evening, the Australian ABC network broadcast its Four Corners current affairs show, with a feature slot (the link will take you to the video or to a full transcript) on what they describe as the PRC’s “covert political influence campaign in Australia”.

Somewhat corrupted as the system might be, they seem to take this stuff quite seriously in Australia: just this week, there have stories expressing concern about the Opposition leader attending the wedding of the daughter of a PRC billionaire (and donor) who was then a resident of Australia but has subsequently been stripped of his residency and right of return on security grounds.   And, around issues raised in the ABC programme, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been out calling for action around claims that a Liberal minister had allowed preferential access to this same billionaire.   Sure, it is election time (and Turnbull no doubt wants his revenge on Peter Dutton) but the contrast to New Zealand is pretty stark.   As Turnbull put it, “this is the national security of Australia”.   The programme including comments from the former ALP senator forced to resign over his too-close ties to PRC-linked interests.

The programme has clips from Andrew Hastie, the chair of the federal parliament’s intelligence and security committee, and from Christian Porter, Australia’s Attorney-General, responsible for the foreign interference laws.

ANDREW HASTIE, MP: In Australia it is clear that the Chinese Communist Party is working to covertly interfere with our media and universities and also to influence our political processes and public debates.

and

ANDREW HASTIE, MP: We’ve had multiple briefings at the top secret level from ASIO and other agencies that foreign interference is being conducted in Australia at an unprecedented level.

and

ANDREW HASTIE, MP, CHAIR, COMMITTEE FOR INTELLIFENCE & SECURITY: There are several authoritarian states who are involved in foreign influence across the globe. But in Australia the Chinese Communist Party is probably the most active. China is seeking to influence our elites, particularly our political and business elites, in order to achieve their strategic objectives.

There is chapter and verse –  including emails –  on one particular episode of the PRC embassy/consulate pressuring a local council to decline sponsorship from one of the few Chinese-langugage media outlets that won’t bend to PRC pressure.

Or accounts of an ethnic Chinese radio host –  himself too scared to talk to the ABC –  whose programme was stopped because he wouldn’t bend to the demand to not say anything negative on air about the PRC or the CCP.

We had comments from John Garnaut, previously Fairfax’s correspondent in Beijing, and then senior adviser to Malcolm Turnbull (and author of a classified report on PRC influence/interference in Australia).

Of the aforementioned billionaire

JOHN GARNAUT, FMR ADVISOR PM, MALCOLM TURNBULL: There is a lot of well documented evidence, to use your word, of Huang Xiangmo’s umbilical connection to political organizations which were guided, if not controlled, by Beijing. He was the president of the most important United Front work department platform in Australia.

JOHN GARNAUT, FMR ADVISOR PM, MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, it tells us how cheap our political systems are. I mean, it’s extraordinary that nobody did any due diligence, any serious background checks for so long. In fact, it was the case also, people weren’t even reading the newspaper. So, political systems and parties just took what they could for as long as they could get away with it. And the danger was, that they were becoming financially dependent on a foreign political system. And that is a precarious place to be.

SAM DASTYARI, FMR ALP SENATOR: I’ve been very upfront and honest. I was too close to the big donors like Huang Xiangmo, I paid a very, very high price for that, I resigned from Parliament because that was the most appropriate thing that I could do.

Dastyari goes on to note his (successful) efforts to get approval from Peter Dutton for an (almost unprecedented) private citizenship ceremony for the wife and children of the billionaire.

Of the billionaire, Andrew Hastie observes

ANDREW HASTIE, CHAIR, COMMITTEE FOR INTELLIFENCE & SECURITY: He did have a lot of access. Um, he was photographed with a lot of senior figures. undeniably, he had a lot of influence. And, um, you know, you can make the connection between his donations and that influence.

Later in the programme it turns to the situation of Professor Anne-Marie Brady, whose house was broken into the day before she was due to testify before Hastie’s committee.

PROF. ANNE-MARIE BRADY, UNIVERSITY OF CANTERBURY: There are many indications that from the start, from what was taken and what was left behind, that make it look like it was not your normal burglary, for example, targeting of a broken laptop. Of no value to anybody, unless you wanted to know who my contacts are or get other evidence off my laptop. Taking a burner phone that I’d last taken to China, but not taking cash, not taking other valuables that are of great re-saleable value. That’s unusual.

ANDREW HASTIE, MP, CHAIR, COMMITTEE FOR INTELLIFENCE & SECURITY: We were very disturbed. We had an esteemed academic from New Zealand, telling us that she’d had her, ah, home broken into, her laptops taken from her, and she was suggesting foreign interference. We took it very seriously.

The presenter goes on to report that

Government sources [NB, presumably Australian government sources] have confirmed to Four Corners that intelligence assessments identified China’s spy service, the Ministry of State Security, as the prime suspect behind the intimidation of Brady. Just after she was called before the Australian parliament, Chinese intelligence agents interrogated her academic collaborators in China about her testimony, which had been published on the parliamentary Hansard record.

PROF. ANNE-MARIE BRADY, UNIVERSITY OF CANTERBURY: There was a visit to the university who had hosted me in November 2017, also from the Ministry of State Security, and they were upset that I had spoken to Hansard about that evidence. All these kind of factors told me that I was of interest to the Ministry of State Security in China.

There is more on the intimidation and imprisonment of a couple of Chinese-born Australians.  Well worth watching and reading.

Perhaps the other bits worth quoting relate to the question of political donations.  Here is Hastie

ANDREW HASTIE, MP, CHAIR, COMMITTEE FOR INTELLIFENCE & SECURITY: When it comes to donations, particularly, politicians should be naturally circumspect about who they receive donations from. Particularly if donors have connections to overseas, and particularly to foreign governments who are seeking to influence our political processes.

Would that we heard anything of the sort from any New Zealand MP.  The programme goes on from there to focus on one particular donation

Jack Lam is a member of three organisations involved in the Chinese Communist Party’s united front overseas influence network. He also a fugitive. In 2017, Lam was charged with paying a 1.3 million dollar bribe to senior immigration officials in the Philippines.
After fleeing the Philippines, Jack Lam visited his Australian golf club, twin creeks. It was there in February 2018 that Lam and fellow director Tommy Jiang hosted a golf day. Their special guest was Tony Abbott, who as prime minister had been warned by ASIO about foreign influence and donations. A fortnight later, Tony Abbott was again hosted by Twin Creeks, this time for an event supporting his local liberal party branch. Mr Abbott told the fundraiser he was no friend of communism, while the liberal party later declared $40,000 in services donated by Twin Creeks.

JOHN GARNAUT, FMR ADVISOR PM, MALCOLM TURNBULL: Look, if I was a politician, I wouldn’t be taking money from somebody who is involved in a foreign propaganda outlet.
NICK MCKENZIE: Why not?
JOHN GARNAUT, FMR ADVISOR PM, MALCOLM TURNBULL: Because there’s at least the risk of the perception of conflict of interest, of being tainted.

That’s all Australia, of course.  But why, given what we know about Australia, and the work of people like Anne-Marie Brady on New Zealand, why would anyone suppose that the situation here would be any less serious?  The names, laws, and precise details will differ, but the interests – on both sides of those corrupted exchanges – won’t be.

But what do we have here?  Take those Four Corners comments about the Brady break-ins.  The Prime Minister has shown a longstanding preference for nothing uncomfortable to be discovered about those break-ins, never once making a robust public defence of Brady’s position and the appropriateness of her work. It all seemed embarrassing and potentially awkward for the government.

The Herald had an article on Tuesday following the Four Corners programme, which included this (with, incidentally, a Huawei advert appearing between the second and third paragraphs when I downloaded the article)

But last night Australia’s Four Corners current affairs TV show said conclusions had been reached behind closed doors in Canberra.

“Government sources have confirmed to Four Corners that intelligence assessments identified China’s spy service as the prime suspect behind the intimidation of Brady,” the programme said.

The claims were rejected last night by Ardern, the minister responsible for national security, who said she had seen no such assessment.

“This claim is completely wrong. I have received no advice identifying the Ministry of State Security as the prime suspect.”

It is a strange comment, because the transcript suggests that the comment was about Australian government sources.  What would our Prime Minister know about the views of the Australian security services on such issues?    Perhaps the ABC meant New Zealand government sources, but even if so, given her clear lack of interest in any embarrassing outcome to the Brady case, why would she even necessarily know who  the New Zealand Police and security services regarded as the prime suspect?    Perhaps it would be constitutionally appropriate for her to be told if she asked, but if her office made clear that she didn’t want to know any potentially embarrassing (but not beyond reasonable doubt) stuff I doubt they would be rushing to tell her.  After all, Andrew Little, not her, is Minister for the SIS, and Stuart Nash, not her, is Minister of Police.  It might be quite convenient for her not to know, given her apparent desire to keep firmly on the right side of Beijing.

Ah, but of course we have the inquiry into potential foreign interference being conducted by Parliament’s Justice Committee.  Under pressure –  after attempting to block Anne-Marie Brady from appearing –  the committee finally opened public submissions.  But who chairs the committee?  Why, the same person who (a) tried to block Brady, and who (b) has strong connections to various United Front bodies, and is on record as supporting, for example, PRC perspectives on Tibet.  I don’t suppose he will be fronting for any current affairs programme any time soon on PRC interference in New Zealand, or that he would have much credibility if he did.

This morning, the heads of the GCSB and the SIS appeared to testify to this inquiry.  The text of their public remarks is here.  It was all pretty tame and, mostly, quite convenient stuff.   They claimed they would give more material in a classified briefing to the committee –  of the sort which, if disclosed, would “be likely to affect New Zealand’s national interests in an adverse manner”.  You mean like naming names (countries or individuals), which would no doubt be uncomfortable for our politicians, but might well be in the interests of our country?

There were a few interesting snippets nonetheless.

NZSIS and GCSB therefore use “foreign interference” only to describe an act by a foreign state, or its proxy, that is intended to influence, disrupt or subvert a New Zealand national interest by covert, deceptive or threatening means.

That must be frightfully convenient.  So if, for example, someone who had served in a foreign state’s military intelligence and had close ongoing ties with, including business interests in –  all of which had been widely known for some time – was sitting in the New Zealand Parliament that wouldn’t count as “foreign interference”?  I guess not, it is more like “domestically-chosen subservience”.

Offering well-paid jobs to former members of Parliament and ministers in entities owned or controlled by foreign state wouldn’t count as “foreign interference” either on this definition.  The incentives in those arrangements are quite obvious.

Much of the GCSB/SIS commentary seems very concerned with material along a spectrum of what they label “misinformation”, “disinformation” or “malinformation” (you can look up their definitions for themselves).  As they note, there wasn’t much sign of this stuff in the 2017 election.  On the other hand, there is a very major media outlet that runs People’s Daily articles, has a Chinese-language outlet, which is alleged to select stories for their acceptability to Beijing, translate articles in similar directions, and where the parent outlet allows one its staff –  who serves on the Advisory Board of the government-funded smooth-the-Beijing-waters propaganda body  –  to write about PRC issues (at all, let alone with no disclosure of that potential conflict).

Is there some good stuff?  Sure.

Motivated state actors will work assiduously over many years, including in New Zealand, to covertly garner influence, access and leverage.

But there is also quite a bit that reads as if the GCSB/SIS would really preferable the great unwashed were not even aware of the issue (emphasis added)

I would also note, given public commentary on these issues, that interference efforts do not need to be successful to cause damage to our democracy. Trust in the institutions of government and democracy can easily be eroded.

and

Whether or not interference activities are effective, growing awareness of them creates room for the perception, domestically and internationally, that foreign states wield improper influence in New Zealand. This perception may be concerning to New Zealand’s partners and may degrade confidence in our values and democratic institutions;

Perhaps you didn’t intend to convey a sense that it would be better if only all this were kept under wraps, but that is how it read to me.

What about some other good stuff?

Manipulation of expatriate communities is a vector for interference. Some states engage overtly or covertly with their diaspora as a means to achieve strategic aims. NZSIS is aware of efforts by foreign states to covertly monitor or obtain influence over expatriate communities in New Zealand. Shared culture, language or familial connections can facilitate this. Ongoing family ties in the foreign state can be leveraged to suppress unwelcome political or religious activity.

Foreign language media is another way through which expatriate communities or diaspora populations can be influenced or mobilised towards particular issues, including issues relevant to elections.

Which country has a large diaspora here, where such issues might be relevant? North Korea?  No.  Russia? No.   Iran?  No.   (Not even what is left of ISIS).  So I guess that leaves the PRC.  But haven’t people in a position to know suggested that the chair of the committee hearing this evidence is close to the PRC embassy?

On political donations, they pull their punches.

….political donations are a legally sanctioned form of participation in New Zealand politics. However, NZSIS becomes concerned when some aspect of the donation is obscured or is channelled in a way that prevents scrutiny of the origin of the donation.

One of the main reasons we become concerned about these activities is because as relationships of influence, or a sense of reciprocity is established, they may be used as leverage to facilitate future interference or espionage activity.

I have already commented on the constraints we face in talking about specific intelligence. However, in broad terms, I can say that we have seen activities by state actors that concern us.

So it wouldn’t raise concerns with the SIS if a New Zealand citizen with close ties to the PRC /CCP authorities arranged for fully-disclosed and lawful substantial donations to a political party?

Or if such donors –  often photographed with New Zealand political figures –  were being given royal honours?

I guess not, because after all whatever motivations the PRC might have, in the end it is willed deference, and deliberate looking the other way, by New Zealand politicians.    Remember that Andrew Hastie quote from the Four Corners programme

ANDREW HASTIE, MP, CHAIR, COMMITTEE FOR INTELLIFENCE & SECURITY: When it comes to donations, particularly, politicians should be naturally circumspect about who they receive donations from. Particularly if donors have connections to overseas, and particularly to foreign governments who are seeking to influence our political processes.

Would that they were, would that they were.

Quite probably the heads of the SIS and GCSB are well-intentioned people, but when I got to the final page of their testimony there was a line that highlighted the kabuki-theatre nature of this inquiry.

We also need to equip those on the front line of our democracy – Members of Parliament, Ministers, political parties and relevant government agencies – with the capability to identify and protect themselves from foreign interference risks.

It is our political parties, members of Parliament, and ministers who are the real problem here (enabling most –  but not all –  of what probably should be of real concern), and yet Kitteridge and Hampton have to go through the motions of pretending they are the solution.

This is a Parliament where not one member, from the Prime Minister down, will express the slightest concern that Jian Yang –  acknowledged former member of the PLA intelligence system, someone who acknowledges misrepresenting his past on his residence/citizenship firms, someone who was a CCP member (and experts tell us no one leaves voluntarily) –  sits today –  as he has for eight years now –  in the New Zealand Parliament.  One where the presidents of the National and Labour Party compete in their gushing praise of Xi Jinping and the CCP.  One where the government refuses to say anything about gross human rights abuses, and the Opposition foreign affairs spokesperson channels CCP propaganda.  And where close to these things know that there is a significant issue around political donations, and yet no party is willing to take a lead, acting in a “circumspect” way, even around transactions that may be lawful but are not proper.

There was one last story out of this morning’s select committee hearing, reporting Jami-Lee Ross

The now-independent MP followed up his question by asking if Bridges had been basing his comments on a briefing from her when, in an alleged conversation between Ross and Bridges on May 14 last year, Bridges said the Chinese community were keen on a Chinese minister in a future Government.

“He said to me ‘I can’t do it because basically the spooks are telling me he’s a Chinese spy’,” Ross said.

Can’t imagine who he was referrring to…..

Wouldn’t it be pretty dreadful if such a person were still sitting in the National Party caucus?

Surely such a thing couldn’t happen?

But in New Zealand it seems to.

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Foreign interference and deference to foreign powers

  1. Unfortunately in NZ we appear to have a bunch of politicians from all parties that are either sold out to being subservient to the Chinese Communist Party designs and strategies, or they are scared stiff not to upset the “apple cart”, in fear that the country will not be able to sell those “apples” in the future.

    The first group have put self interest and family enrichment ahead of country, ethics and values (many ex National MP’s in this shameful group). The second group are moral cowards (I’d include the PM in here) they have allowed China’s bully tactics to cow them into avoiding disagreement with China on any issue. And that is where NZ differs from Australia. Somewhere along the line NZ departed from the “Western Alliance” of nations. We are now an unreliable friend of Australia, the US, Canada and other nations that shared the values we as a nation use to support. If Huawei is given the 5G contract in NZ, I do rather hope the US cuts of intelligence co-operation with NZ. There needs to be a consequence for backing a hostile state, and everything about interference in NZ is hostile and about manipulation. Continue down this track Jacinda and NZ will have about as much independence as Hong kong has now.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks Michael. It is not a lack of information or intelligence that is the problem. It is a lack of ethics among our careerist politicians that is undermining New Zealand. They know very well where the tainted money is coming from and what is expected of them. Some of them seem ready to perform to order, spouting CCP-friendly talking points on controversial issues as and when required. MMP has weakened accountability, the public seem easily distracted, and both major parties are compromised so these issues are conveniently ignored to their mutual benefit. New Zealand has been sucked into China’s maw remarkably quickly and it would take a herculean effort to get us out.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There is also an ideological issue amongst journalists and academics

    The thing which really annoys me at the moment is the way immigration is framed as a problem.It goes to Alis point [the arguments against immigration are unsustainable] It’s a very simple and inaccurate response to what’s happening in the world. We are globalising; we are part of a new era of globalisation and this country is actually transitioned into that, particularly with it’s connections to the Pacific and Asia in a way that is quite impressive in many, many ways but at the same time we really need to reframe what is happening or provide an understanding and that’s what frustrates me at the moment.
    http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/smarttalk/20170813

    Of course there is a page missing form Spoonley’s statement but it gets the Smart Talk tick from RNZ.

    Adern said she only thinks of people as individuals but individuals may have group allegiances.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The implications of what Jami-Lee Ross is alleging about a Chinese politician who can’t become a minister because the spooks think he’s a spy has ramifications not only for Bridges (if the allegation is true). The SIS and GCSB would have briefed both Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern on their suspicions, which means they can’t have thought it important to raise the alarm. They, too, must be complicit in allowing someone who may be a foreign agent to sit in our Parliament.

    Like

  5. “Perhaps you didn’t intend to convey a sense that it would be better if only all this were kept under wraps, but that is how it read to me.” (re GCSB/SIS commentary)

    I agree and think this is quite an insidious and outrageous thing for agencies charged with identifying security threats to even hint that such a course of action might be desirable. At least Australian politicians have recognized the problem and taken action. The contrast with NZ is, as you say, stark.

    Like

  6. Greetings, Michael Reddell ; ~ )

    (I’ve lurked for a year or more, although utterly uneducated formally in economics, politics, in interest…)

    I’ve recently (reading UK blogs) been alerted to this blog, and her books:

    http://dianawest.net/

    See the left-hand column reviews for one.

    It’s more Russia related, but looks interesting, and maybe comparable?

    ~ Ross Matheson

    Like

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