More questions have been raised about National MP Dr Jian Yang and his connections to Chinese military intelligence, including whether the vetting process that allowed him to enter Parliament was satisfactory.

After a Newsroom investigation revealed his background, Yang told media he was not a spy, but had taught spies at a languages school run by the Peoples’ Liberation Army in China.

Prime Minister Bill English has defended his MP, saying the party was aware of Yang’s time at military intelligence schools and had no concerns.

However, some Chinese experts have suggested there are questions to answer about how Yang became a New Zealand citizen and then an MP.

Chen Yonglin, a Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia over a decade ago, said Yang would had to have been supported by the Chinese government when he moved to Canberra to study.

While studying in Canberra, Yang was president of the city’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which Chen said suggested he had “obtained full confidence from the Chinese embassy” as the association had ties to the Chinese government.

The Chinese government spent a lot of money in other countries on overseas infiltration and “controlling the Chinese community”, he said.

“He can’t deny he used to be a military soldier.”

Chen Yonglin

Chen said New Zealanders “should be worried” about Yang’s background and how he was allowed to become a citizen.

“Has the New Zealand SIS done its job in allowing such a suspicious background, this military background to become a citizen of New Zealand?

“If his background was KGB, would New Zealand allow him to [become a citizen]?”

Chen said Yang’s claim that he was a civilian officer in the PLA, rather than a military one, was dubious.

“In the Chinese system, military academy students are soldiers, once they are enrolled they serve in the military.”

Students were granted the lieutenant’s rank until they graduated, and if they continued their studies – as Yang did – their rank was captain.

While there were reforms of the military system which changed the role of civilians, they did not take place until between 2006 and 2013.

“[It was] run just totally in a military way – he can’t deny he used to be a military soldier.”

Feng Chongyi, a Chinese-Australian academic who was detained in China for a week and interrogated by authorities after a research trip, said of Yang’s background: “It seems unlikely for more than 20 years now that he maintained that position or connection [to military intelligence], it would be hard to believe that was the case.”

However, Feng said China was putting more emphasis on increasing its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, including with Australia and New Zealand.

The United Front Work Department, focussed on winning over independent Chinese at home and overseas, had been around for decades but become more influential and more aggressive in recent years.

A Chinese man who spent two decades in the PLA told Newsroom: “Anyone who hears Luoyang University in the Chinese military immediately connects it to being a spy.

“It’s a special university to train for spying – even their website shows that.”

A military parade at the  PLA Foreign Language Institute at Luoyang, where Jian Yang studied and worked. Photo: Supplied

The man said there was no possibility Yang could have left China to study overseas without special assistance or permission from the CCP.

“By far the majority of PLA members were not allowed to go overseas privately.”

Merriden Varrall, director of the East Asia Programme at Australia’s Lowy Institute, said China was looking to exert more influence as it continued to boost its global presence.

“China’s rising and becoming more powerful, there’s no doubt it wants to be more influential on the world stage, it would be naive to presume it isn’t using all possible tools both covert and overt.”

Varrall said the reports about Yang would likely reinforce existing concerns within Australia about China, while she was “sure it’s something that will be discussed” with New Zealand’s Five Eyes partners.

The US embassy and the Australian, British and Canadian high commissions all declined to comment to Newsroom.

Varrall said many Chinese people aligned their thoughts with the state, but that did not make them “puppets of the state”.

“Many Chinese people believe and align themselves with that Chinese view about the South China Sea or about Taiwan or about Hong Kong, and it’s not because state is telling them or instructing them or pushing them to say these things, but they genuinely believe it.”

“Openness, diversity and tolerance are the greatest strengths of the world’s liberal democracies. But to autocratic regimes like China, these same attributes are vulnerabilities ripe for exploitation.”

Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times

Varrall said there were valid questions to be answered about the vetting processes in place for MPs.

“Some of the questions should be asked about our institutions and our processes…Australia and Five Eyes countries like New Zealand, we need to be very sure our security vetting processes for our own members of Parliament are absolutely robust.”

In a report for the Financial Times, FT Asia editor Jamil Anderlini said: “Openness, diversity and tolerance are the greatest strengths of the world’s liberal democracies. But to autocratic regimes like China, these same attributes are vulnerabilities ripe for exploitation.”

While it was possible Yang had severed all ties with Chinese military intelligence since leaving the country, the fact he entered Parliament and served on the foreign affairs and trade committee with little scrutiny “raises some troubling questions”.

“People in other western democracies may put this down to naivety on the part of innocent Kiwis. But western intelligence analysts say relatively “soft targets” like New Zealand and Australia are just testing grounds for China’s global espionage activities.”

Anderlini said citizens in liberal democracies should not feel targeted by intelligence agencies because of their ethnic backgrounds, but it was Yang’s time training and teaching at some of China’s top military and intelligence institutions that was most pertinent.

“If he was from, say, Italy, had trained and taught for a decade in Italian military intelligence academies and then became an MP in New Zealand who regularly spoke out on behalf of Italian interests, it would be equally problematic.”

Questions have also been raised about whether Yang told the truth to New Zealand officials when entering the country and gaining citizenship, after he told media he had put the names of “partnership” universities, rather than the military institutions he went to on his application forms.

While a DIA spokesman refused to comment, Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne said he had received no advice “either way” from his officials about Yang.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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