University staff and those involved in organising the Dalai Lama’s visit to New Zealand in 2013 say they were pressured by Chinese state officials to scrap events.

Those involved with a further trip planned for last year, which did not go ahead, faced similar political issues in hosting the Dalai Lama.

Those involved in organising a speaking event at the University of Otago, during the Dalai Lama’s tour to New Zealand in 2013, say then-Christchurch Consul-General Madame Tan Xiutian made approaches to university management and staff, requesting they block an event on campus.

A former University of Otago staff member said the consul-general threatened the university, and individuals, in an attempt to stop the event going ahead.

This follows a recent decision by AUT to cancel a Tiananmen Square anniversary event after requests from Chinese officials.

Last year the University of Auckland, which is home to Australasia’s first Model Confucius Institute, decided not to go ahead with a screening of a documentary which was critical of the Chinese language and cultural centres, funded by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Last month, the Auckland consulate issued a statement that thanked students for their “spontaneous patriotism” after a mainland Chinese student pushed a Hong Kong student, who was protesting the current situation in Hong Kong.

These events led to the Government raising concerns with Chinese representatives, reasserting New Zealand’s position on its core democratic freedoms.

Awareness of the issue of the CCP’s influence in New Zealand is growing. Attempts to interfere in events during the Dalai Lama’s visits are another example of how this pressure is exerted.

Requests then ‘threats’

The University of Otago staff member, who asked not to be named, said ahead of the Dalai Lama’s visit in June 2013, Madame Tan approached then-Pro-Vice-Chancellor Sarah Todd at an event to ask her to cancel the engagement.

The staff member said the Chinese official threatened to remove all international Chinese students from university if Todd went ahead with the event.

Todd, along with Vice-Chancellor Harlene Hayne, continued with the event, despite the approach from Chinese officials. 

This has been described by long-time Dalai Lama event organisers as a “unique” response from a university.

Following the event, the staff member said they were personally threatened by Madame Tan, who said she had seen a picture of the staff member with the Dalai Lama. Tan said she would be “watching” the university employee, who interpreted that as a threat.

“It woke me up, I guess. I found it quite frightening.”

Jacinda Ardern has deviated from her usual approach, with MFAT officials raising concerns with China over its recent actions in NZ. Photo: Getty Images

The Christchurch Consulate did not respond to request for comment. However, a Chinese diplomat has told Newsroom that those representing the CCP see it as their right to raise issues of “national security”.

This included any issues relating to Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan as these are officially considered Chinese territories.

Todd is now vice president of Griffith University’s global department, in Australia, and did not respond to request for comment. And Hayne was not available to comment.

However, in 2013, Todd told the Otago Daily Times the university was aware allowing the Dalai Lama to speak on campus could sour relations with its Chinese partners, or lead to a decline in the number of Chinese students.

”It has been given very serious consideration. I think it would be naive not to consider the implications,” Todd said at the time.

“We would hope that people would understand our support of the concept of academic freedom and that the university is not endorsing any particular view or any particular stance.”

She did not disclose the exchange between herself and the Chinese official.

While in Dunedin, the Dalai Lama also spoke at the city’s town hall. Mayor Dave Cull declined an invitation to introduce the Dalai Lama. Emails between Cull and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which are understood to contain advice, were not released, with MFAT citing a threat to the country’s international relations.

“They’ve become more brazen as time moved on. The more funding and international students, the more confident they are that they can tell universities what to do.”

In 2013, the Dalai Lama also visited the University of Canterbury, where he spoke at a student event, hosted by the University of Canterbury Students’ Association (UCSA).

Then-UCSA president Erin Jackson said the student-focused event was well-received by the hundreds of students who attended.

Jackson said she was asked to meet with consulate officials to explain why the event was taking place.

However, the Chinese representatives accepted the UCSA’s reasoning, and it was “pretty straightforward”, she said.

Dalai Lama Trust NZ marketing manager Neil Cameron said during a previous visit in 2011, the university suggested the student association would be better placed to host the event, rather than the university proper, for political reasons.

It is understood officials made approaches to the student association regarding the event in 2011, which did not go ahead. The Dalai Lama instead held a free service at the CBS Arena, and met families of earthquake victims.

Cameron said these types of approaches by CCP representatives in New Zealand was nothing new, but the nature of the requests had changed over time.

“They’ve become more brazen as time moved on. The more funding and international students, the more confident they are that they can tell universities what to do.”

Cameron said the average New Zealander did not know this type of influence was a reality, “and I don’t think they want to know about it”.

Interference issues ongoing

Last year, the Dalai Lama was due to again travel to New Zealand, but the trip was cancelled due to his travel arrangements.

But before the trip was cancelled, work was under way for him to attend an event with Brain Research New Zealand, in Auckland.

Dalai Lama Trust NZ secretary Simon Harrison said those from the institute, which is affiliated with the University of Auckland, were eager for the event to go ahead.

However, it is understood university management thought it would be politically unpalatable to have the event held at a university facility, or carry any university branding.

Like his colleague, Harrison said attempts to block events involving the Dalai Lama in New Zealand had been happening for many years.

“Academic freedom is the freedom to say unpopular things, not to only say things the CCP agrees with.”

In 1997, Chinese officials made their protestations publicly, which resulted in an even bigger turnout at events. Since then, approaches and requests had been made privately.

In 2007, Harrison wrote an open letter to then-prime minister Helen Clark regarding her decision not to meet the Dalai Lama, accusing her of “succumbing to diplomatic pressure from the People’s Republic of China”.

Peters, who was foreign minister, extended a letter to meet the Dalai Lama on his ministerial letterhead. When it came time for the meeting, no one was allowed in the room, other than Peters, his private secretary, and the Dalai Lama, and Harrison said Peters “proceeded to act only in the role of leader of New Zealand First”.

He believed this change of position was in response to diplomatic pressure.

‘The freedom to say unpopular things’

ACT leader David Seymour, who is an outspoken advocate for free speech, wrote to the Auckland Consulate earlier in the month to raise concerns about Chinese officials’ interference in New Zealand’s internal affairs.

Seymour said if Chinese government representatives couldn’t appreciate that free debate and academic freedom on university campuses was an internal matter for New Zealand, “then we’ve got a real problem”.

Recent comments that academic freedom was being abused on university campuses revealed a misconception of academic freedom.

ACT’s David Seymour says NZ only has itself to blame if it does not articulate and stand up for its ‘cherished values’. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“Academic freedom is the freedom to say unpopular things, not to only say things the CCP agrees with.”

New Zealanders were gradually becoming aware and alarmed at the role Chinese diplomats have been attempting to play in New Zealand’s internal affairs, which was critical, he said.

Only in recent weeks have the prime minister and foreign minister made specific public statements about China’s recent behaviour.

In the past, Peters has said New Zealand did not engage in megaphone diplomacy. But Seymour said justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done.

“In my experience, you never beat a bully by placating them. We’ve got no one but ourselves to blame if we don’t articulate and stand up for our cherished values of academic freedom and freedom of expression.”

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