The Government’s lack of response to the matter of China’s influence has added to the global perception of New Zealand becoming the “soft underbelly” for the superpower’s infiltration, a leading China academic says.

But Jacinda Ardern says her silence over the issues plaguing Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady are appropriate while a police investigation is carried out.

The Prime Minister said if she were to receive a report that attributed the break-ins at Brady’s house, or other alleged intimidation, to China, she would act on it.

On Monday, 29 academics signed an open letter to Ardern calling on the Government to speak up in support of academic freedom, following what has been described as efforts to intimidate China critic Brady.

“We urge Jacinda 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,” the letter said.

The call from the academic community comes after Brady’s house and home were broken into, and electronic equipment taken in February, following her reports into Chinese influence in New Zealand.

Brady’s work has gained international attention from China-watchers and foreign policy experts around the world, including in Australia, the United States, and Canada, as well as in Germany and France.

However, the New Zealand Government has stayed quiet on the subject, saying it did not want to comment during the ongoing police investigation. This was also the Government’s stance when earlier this month, Brady reported her garage had been broken into, and air had been let out of her tyres – something that could have caused the driver to lose control while braking.

The open letter came after two of Brady’s former mentors wrote to the academic community in New Zealand and Australia asking them to back Brady, and her right to continue to raise awareness of China’s role in the region.

Geremie Barmé, who was Brady’s doctoral supervisor at the Australian National University and the founding director of the Australian Centre on China in the World said he decided to act following the car incident. 

On November 17, Barmé and his colleague John Minford – a former teacher of Brady’s – noted their concern about the reported incidents and asked others whose research and teachings involved contemporary China to publicly support Brady and her work.

“Since September 2017, Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s work has attracted overwhelmingly positive global attention. It has also been subjected to vilification by Chinese officialdom.

“Regardless, her work continues to influence the debate about China’s “sharp power” on the international stage, and it contributes to practical policy discussions in Europe, North America and in Australia. This work remains ever more pressingly relevant to the public life, and the future, of her homeland,” it said.

While Brady might be fighting a “one-woman battle” in New Zealand, she was not isolated globally, Barmé said.

This year, international foreign policy experts and researchers have been producing reports backing up her work, but she was one of the first to articulate China’s soft power influence.

International community worried about ‘soft underbelly’

In the absence of a clearly articulated stance from the Government on China, New Zealand had become “internationally regarded as the soft underbelly that’s basically sliding towards becoming a vassal state of China”, Barmé said.

It was time for governments in the region to grow up and chart their own course, rather than take the easy approach of picking the Trump line, or China’s “nothing to see here” line.

New Zealand could no longer “have a bob each way”, he said.

“China’s challenge to everybody in this region … is it requires governments are much smarter in dealing with a rising superpower that is aggressive, totalitarian, bullish and nasty in many ways, but also is varied and complex and interesting and engaging.”

Standing up to China, while still maintaining a working relationship, was difficult.

“It’s hard work and it’s constant work. This Government wants to do good but can’t quite manage to do so,” Barmé said.

“This is the real deal, and New Zealand’s never had to face this … You have to sit down and you have to work out, what is a consistent long-term policy, at least for the life of this Government. And how do you articulate that.

“And I get the sense they haven’t done that; Jacinda Ardern just runs for cover.”

It was important for the Government to have a principled, independent foreign policy, which it could articulate clearly to the public, in order for people to understand the concerns, without the debate becoming anti-Chinese or xenophobic, he said.

There was concern in the international foreign policy and academic communities about the Brady case, he said, citing calls from colleagues at Harvard and Cornell universities.

“And the fact that New Zealand is not acting is something that people are really worried about.”

Calls for independent foreign policy

Thomas Nash, the director of new foreign policy think tank New Zealand Alternative, said the letter was about solidarity with others working on the role of Aotearoa in the world.

“But the wider point here is that foreign policy in New Zealand has been systematically shielded from public scrutiny. This includes our relationships with big powers like China and the US, which are generally reduced to issues of trade and security and not really up for discussion beyond a like-minded elite,” he said.

“When political leaders say that no other country should determine our relationship with other countries, that has to mean something.”

There needed to be more open critique and discussions around foreign policy and the roles different countries played in New Zealand, Nash said.

“Ultimately we know someone is going to have to make a political call on these points, but in an open democracy we shouldn’t leave such questions to be worked out behind closed doors.”

Nash said he hoped the letter would help encourage an open discussion, without fuelling “simplistic caricatures and xenophobia”.

Neither Brady nor the Chinese Embassy in New Zealand could be reached for comment.

PM speaks up, sort of

Amnesty International New Zealand communities manager Margaret Taylor said the organisation was delighted to be able to lend its support to Brady, who had faced isolation for just doing her job.

Taylor said the Government should act on the police findings when released, but in the meantime, Ardern should be more outspoken in denouncing intimidation, and in support of academic freedom.

Brady’s case had already had a chilling effect among the China academic community, with one of the letter’s co-authors fearing she might become a target.

“I can understand why people choose to self-censor,” Taylor said.

On Monday, during her post-Cabinet press conference, Ardern was the most outspoken she’s been in relation to the Brady case.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

Ardern said if the police report pointed to China she would take advice on how to deal with it, but she would not be drawn on what that action may be.

New Zealand-China relations heat up

The letter comes at a time when she was looking towards her first state visit to China, something that now will not happen until at least next year.

Ardern had always planned to visit China this year, but has cited scheduling issues since her return from maternity leave. She would not say whether the scheduling issues were on her side or the side of China’s President Xi Jinping.

The lack of invitation has been regarded by some as a snub, but Ardern said she would not categorise it that way.

Ardern met with Premier Li Keqiang for a bilateral meeting in Singapore during the East Asia Summit earlier this month.

The pair had a brief discussion about trade, including the FTA upgrade, but there were no substantive discussions about the Belt and Road Initiative – signed by the former National government – or Ardern’s visit to China.

However, she did raise human rights issues relating to the Uighur people in China.

In a busy week for New Zealand-China relations, the Government also expects to release its decision on whether it will allow Chinese ICT giant Huawei to roll out its 5G network in New Zealand.

Australia has banned the company, saying the country’s electricity grid and water supplies would not have been adequately protected had Huawei or ZTE, another Chinese firm, been allowed to build the country’s 5G networks.

The US is under pressure to do the same.

In New Zealand, the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act or TICSA, determines how these decisions are made. It was expected Consumer Affairs Minister Kris Faafoi would be involved, but it could be down to GSCB Minister Andrew Little to make the final call.

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