As New Zealand takes a harder line on Chinese interference on university campuses, Beijing has bit back.

The Chinese government has hit back at an official rebuke over its diplomats’ interference in New Zealand universities, claiming its actions are “beyond reproach” and calling on officials to “take off their tinted glasses” on the matter.

The fiery response comes after Chinese diplomats were called in for a telling off for intervening in events at Auckland universities which were critical of China.

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

Separately, altercations between students during Hong Kong protests at the University of Auckland led to a statement from the consulate criticising media reporting and “express[ing] its appreciation to the students for their spontaneous patriotism”.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern revealed officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade had called in Chinese government representatives to reiterate the importance of upholding and maintaining freedom of expression in New Zealand, including 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,” Ardern said.

Chinese actions ‘beyond reproach’

Asked about New Zealand’s actions at a daily media briefing in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying claimed the University of Auckland protests were led by “a very small number of people with ulterior motives” who had “peddled ‘Hong Kong independence and stirred trouble for anti-China purposes”.

“This has encountered strong indignation and firm opposition from Chinese students on campus.”

Hua said the Chinese consulate had “clarified the facts and stated our stern position”, while asking Chinese students in New Zealand to “appropriately express their appeal” following New Zealand’s laws and university regulations.

“It is just fulfilling its duty and this is beyond reproach. We advise certain people in New Zealand to take off their tinted glasses, discard double standards and stop condoning the anti-China separatist activities by ‘Hong Kong independence’ forces under the cloak of ‘freedom of speech’.”

Hua also took a hard line over similar Hong Kong-related altercations at Australian universities,  saying it was “strongly misleading” to suggest that the Chinese consulate in Brisbane was interfering in Australia’s internal affairs by supporting Chinese students’ “patriotism” there.

“Why not ask the relevant party this question: were they grossly interfering in China’s domestic affairs when bolstering those who made inflammatory remarks of ‘Hong Kong independence’ at Queensland University? Do you think that issuing anti-China separatist remarks means freedom of speech and expression of patriotism is not?”

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has taken a firmer line against Chinese interference on New Zealand campuses. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times has accused Australian media of bias in their reporting of university skirmishes over Hong Kong, while claiming experts were concerned about Western universities “becoming a breeding ground for secessionist forces”.

The Global Times article also sought to cast doubt on the motivations of pro-Hong Kong protesters, quoting one Chinese student as saying: “The ‘students’ who claim to support Hong Kong’s ‘democracy’ act as if they are prepared to provoke us, not as students but as paid professional actors.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters refused to single out China’s actions earlier in the week, saying that “running round and shouting from the rooftops is not our style”, but he took a harder line during an interview with Sky News on Wednesday.

“We made it very clear that that’s not acceptable in New Zealand. We stand up for free speech, we have done since 1854 and we’re not going to change and we expect all visitors here, all representatives from governments here whether they are consuls or diplomats, to respect our law of freedom of speech.”

Peters told Sky News he was confident the Chinese consulate would be receptive to New Zealand’s message, but would not comment on potential consequences if a similar event was to  occur again, saying: “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, hopefully we won’t have to.”

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

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