In a rare move, the Government has raised concerns with China over recent actions that fly in the face of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and academic freedom. Laura Walters reports.

The Government has rebuked China over its recent comments and actions where it sought to suppress freedom of speech and voiced support for violent opposition to Hong Kong protestors in New Zealand.

On Monday, Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials met with Chinese Government representatives in New Zealand to reiterate that freedom of expression would be upheld and maintained, which included on university campuses.

This is a significant move for a Government that has largely spoken generally about foreign interference and about democratic principles, while avoiding specifically mentioning China’s behaviour in recent years under an emboldened president.

Along with New Zealand adding its name to a public letter regarding the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, this public reproach seems to signal a change in Jacinda Ardern’s approach to China.

On Tuesday, Ardern confirmed MFAT reiterated the New Zealand’s position on freedom of speech, particularly on university campuses.

“We guard that, that is part of who we are. And I think it is important for those that may take a different view that we are very clear on our expectations.”

MFAT also raised concerns about recent statements from Chinese officials that suggested pro-Hong Kong protests should not occur, and that violence in protest would be justified.

Ardern said New Zealand valued its freedom of expression, particularly on university campuses and in an academic environment.

“And I’d have an expectation that we actually retain that on our campuses.”

Neither MFAT nor the Chinese Embassy would expand on the discussions.

However, a diplomat at the Chinese Embassy told Newsroom they acknowledged and noticed the comments from the Prime Minister and the discussions were ongoing.

“We have close contact and communications on these issues,” he said.

The official discussions between MFAT and Chinese representatives come in the wake of a rising tide of concern over Chinese interference in New Zealand, and on the same day hundreds of people gathered in support of the Hong Kong protests.

Last week, Newsroom revealed the Chinese Consulate General in Auckland had demanded AUT block an event to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.

Meanwhile, a group of students protesting the situation in Hong Kong were met with opposition from some mainland Chinese students. This led to an altercation, in which Hong Kong student Serena Lee was pushed.

Hundreds turned up to a rally and the University of Auckland on Monday, largely in support of the protestors in Hong Kong. Photo: Tim Murphy

Following the incident, the Chinese Consulate General issued a statement criticising media reports, and saying it “expresses its appreciation to the students for their spontaneous patriotism”.

This was widely interpreted as praise for those Mainland Chinese students who opposed the protestors, including the student who pushed Lee.

The Chinese Embassy diplomat said the statement from the consulate had been misinterpreted.

The Consulate General was asking students to express their concerns in the proper way, in accordance with the law and regulations, he said

“They are not sending this statement to support one side of the students. No matter whether they’re from mainland China or Hong Kong, they are Chinese students.”

As for the consulate’s attempts to block events on university campuses, including the Tiananmen Square event and a screening of a documentary criticising Confucious Institutes, the diplomat said: “The embassy and the consulate have the right to raise our concerns, if the issue is about the national security and sovereignty.”

He said Chinese Government officials had a close working relationship with all New Zealand universities.

An ongoing issue

On Tuesday, about 250 people gathered for another rally in support of those protesting further control by the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong. The rally was civil and well-ordered, with police and university security present.

During the rally, those within the Hong Kong and Chinese diaspora community also spoke about the harassment and intimidation they had faced.

Claims regarding the harassment of some in the Chinese community are not new, especially among dissident populations, but it seems to be increasing.

Professor Anne-Marie Brady has long raised issues about united front work in New Zealand and potential risks to the country’s democratic systems. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

University of Canterbury Professor Anne-Marie Brady has raised these issues on multiple occasions, and has herself been subject to sustained intimidation and harassment.

And Amnesty International has now also joined the group of voices, saying New Zealand held onto the principles of freedom of assembly and expression.

“And this is a reminder that these principles are not to be traded away by government or universities,” community manager Margaret Taylor said.

“There has been a rise of complaints about threats and intimidation from the Chinese Government and pro-China representatives aimed at people living in New Zealand. The fearful reports of Uighur people living here, the case of Anne-Marie Brady, the reported physical attack on a student at Auckland University last week — these events are not acceptable.”

Meanwhile, submissions to the current Justice Select Committee’s inquiry into foreign interference have largely focused on Chinese interference by way of donations and through united front work.

No to megaphone diplomacy

The Government’s decision to raise these issues through diplomatic channels, and alert media, mark a deviation from its usual approach with China.

In the past, Ardern has been criticised for not publicly calling out China on human rights. And as recently as Monday, she refused to name China when talking about foreign interference, saying “we have not taken a country-specific approach because we should be live to this issue generally”.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters also refused to single out China this week.

“Whether specific of generic or general, the fact of the matter is, freedom of speech is what we stand for, and we do not want that in any way compromised in our country, no matter where you come from, whoever you are, no matter how big or small you are, we expect you to respect that,” he said.

Peters said megaphone diplomacy was not the way to address these types of issues.

“Running ‘round and shouting from the rooftops is not our style, we tell them quietly.”

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