Professor Anne-Marie Brady at a parliamentary hearing on foreign interference in NZ. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

A fight has broken out among local and overseas academics over an internal review into the work of University of Canterbury Professor Anne-Marie Brady.

Brady is being investigated for her paper that claims New Zealand universities and businesses may be helping China’s military ambitions. Academics named in the paper have complained but other academics have expressed support for Brady.

Dr Catherine Churchman says recent changes in Government policy vindicate Brady’s research.

University of Canterbury Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s research has led to her being silenced by her own university, but the latest alterations in MFAT policy around exports of goods and technology with potential military uses show the Government takes her concerns seriously.

On October 9, with little fanfare, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) expanded prohibitions on the export of goods “that pose security, political or reputational risks to New Zealand”, and although the gazetted document lists only a few trusted countries and allies as exempt from the new regulations and names no country as a target, the change comes on the heels of concerns in many countries around transfers of military technology to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC).

The main worries for New Zealand on this are that assisting the military modernisation of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) will pose a strategic risk to New Zealand and its allies in the long run, and that military-related technology will be used by PRC security agencies to conduct human rights abuses.

This policy shift can be seen as official recognition of the seriousness of a problem addressed in the parliamentary submission in July by Professor Brady to the Justice select committee. The report, entitled “Holding a Pen in One Hand and a Gun in the Other” is meticulously detailed and referenced, and stands alongside other related studies on the topic, such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s series of ground breaking reports on the Chinese military’s efforts to access military technology via university links.

Professor Brady has led the charge in researching the problem as it relates to New Zealand, but instead of congratulating her, a few months ago her own university placed the aforementioned parliamentary submission under “review”. Few details of what this entails (or whether the “reviewers” will be able to read the many original sources in Chinese that Brady’s report references) have been made public.

What is known from media coverage is that the university’s review arises from University of Canterbury academics mentioned in the paper, as well as others from universities elsewhere in New Zealand and overseas, complaining about its assertions. Canterbury’s deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Ian Wright, said the complaining academics believed the publication contained “manifest errors of fact and misleading inferences”.

Following media coverage of these complaints, Brady’s parliamentary submission was assessed by several fellow China specialists such as Adrian Zenz, whose research on China’s human rights abuses against the Uighur people has shaken the world. More than 150 academics, politicians and journalists, including New Zealand’s-own Nicky Hager have signed an open letter in support of Brady and rejecting allegations that the paper contains errors.

As the Communist Party extends its control over ever larger sectors of Chinese society, the boundaries between companies and front organisations for the military or regime have become ever more blurred. By law, any Chinese organisation or company that has three or more CCP members must allow a Communist Party cell to be formed within it. Since 2018, foreign universities with branches in China and foreign companies whose staff are CCP members must permit the setting up of a CCP cell within their organisation. Such cells can act as a conduit for these institutions’ private research and technological developments to become known to PRC authorities whether university administrators, company owners or shareholders wish this or not.

Aiding the process is the PRC National Intelligence Law, passed in 2017, that not only requires compliance with national intelligence work from all PRC nationals, but stipulates this must be carried out in silence. Just in the past month, China’s President, Xi Jinping, has announced that private companies need to be subject to increased Communist Party supervision and should participate in CCP united front work.

As such, any trade or sharing of technologies with possible military applications to PRC companies or institutions carries with it an ever-increasing likelihood that these will end up in the hands of the PLA or Ministry of State Security (MSS). If the PLA learns of a piece of technology acquired by a Chinese company and wishes to replicate it and adapt it for military use, it can simply take it. Private Chinese citizens who conduct research or who own companies have no choice but to acquiesce, and they have zero recourse to a legal system that can protect their rights against the demands of the Communist Party.

Once the PLA or MSS has acquired a piece of technology, those on the New Zealand side of the trade will be powerless to do anything about it. It is entirely possible that a certain piece of technology or technique developed in New Zealand and sold to a PRC company will end up being used to harm or kill ethnic minorities or political detractors in China, or used in warfare against New Zealand or one of our allies.

Even if these companies and individuals mentioned in Brady’s report did not in the past know, or care to find out, about the implications of trading these kinds of technologies to companies and institutions in the PRC, they must certainly be aware now. The new export regulations announced by MFAT are an official recognition of the problem, and should be seen as a vindication of the Brady research.

As for objections to the content of the research, these need to be the subject of open discussion and counter-argument with reference to the facts – that is the proper way to solve academic disputes. To subject Brady’s research to a secretive “review” is harmful to the parliamentary process, and to academic freedom and could stifle the necessary open debate around a widely and (now officially) recognised problem.

Catherine Churchman is a lecturer in Asian Studies at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington and an historian specialising in Southern China-Southeast Asia interactions

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