In an extraordinary radio interview yesterday, Foreign Minister Winston Peters suggested some New Zealanders were being spied on by foreign intelligence organisations and implied China was one.
The interview, with Radio Live’s Mark Sainsbury, was about New Zealand’s relationship with China.
Sainsbury introduced the claims made by Christchurch academic, Anne-Marie Brady who alleged that China had been spying on her because of her widely reported criticisms of Chinese involvement in New Zealand politics.
He asked Peters whether it would be naïve to think that foreign spies did not spy on New Zealand citizens.
“You are precisely right; you would be terribly naïve to think that New Zealand citizens are not being spied on by foreign powers,” he said.
“That would be a statement of absolute naivety.
Sainsbury asked if that worried him.
“It always has,” said Peters.
“It’s been going on for decades; the issue, in this case, is from whence it is happening, but it won’t be happening on the part of just one country.”
Sainsbury suggested that apart from the Chinese the Americans and Israelis could also be “keeping an eye on what is going on here.”
At this point, the interview veered off track.
“Well Mark, you are just too nice,” replied Peters.
“The reason why a lot of people are not enamoured with the Chinese is that they are racists.”
But Peters said Maori and Polynesians were not because their DNA 5000 years ago came from China.
The interview then deviated off into a discussion about whether or not National MP Jiang Jang was still a member of the Chinese intelligence services.
But Peters came back to the question of Chinese surveillance of New Zealand citizens and why Chinese New Zealanders did not protest.
“The reason they don’t protest is because they fear the reach from their homeland should they do that.
“This is all around the western world you will see this.
“The only exceptions to that rule are Falung Gong and others.
“Otherwise it’s a view well left alone; they just don’t want to be out there protesting.
“And it is not unique to the present regime in China; that’s the way it was 200, 300 years ago.
“Even those early people who were in San Francisco you saw with the pigtails, the dynasty that forced the pigtails on them had been gone two centuries ago.
“But they still feared its reach.
“We need to understand what we are dealing with here.”
Reaction was initially bemusement.
“Good luck working out what the NZ govt thinks about China relationship or CCP interference, spying etc., based on this interview,” tweeted the Director of Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies, David Capie.
The social commentator and journalist, Tze Ming Mok tweeted: “This is doing my head in.”
But Peters comments will have surprised, if not startled, many in the foreign affairs community for their frankness.
They are in stark contrast to the Prime Minister’s much more careful comments about Anne-Maree Brady at her Monday press conference.
“If I received a report that raised concerns around the source of anything that Ms Brady had experienced, then, of course, I would then take advice on how to deal with that, but my point is that I have not received such a report,” she said.
Asked if “dealing with it” included direct conversations with Chinese officials, she said she wouldn’t get into a hypothetical.
“I’d take advice if I received that report.
“But, as I say, I haven’t.
“Obviously, the most important thing here is that the police conduct that investigation. “
Brady’s claims are part of what appears to be of a wider pool of public discourse critical of China and by inference New Zealand’s close relationship with it.
The reason for that closeness was highlighted yesterday with trade figures issued by Stats NZ which showed that in October exports to China rose $242 million to $1.2 billion when compared with the same month a year ago.
“October 2018 marks the 10-year anniversary of the New Zealand–China free trade agreement,” international statistics manager Tehseen Islam said.
Since the agreement was signed, annual goods exports to China increased $11.2 billion to reach $13.5 billion in the year ended October 2018.
Milk powder, butter, and cheese led this rise (up $3.7 billion), with milk powder alone up $2.1 billion.
Negotiations are continuing on the Free Trade Agreement Upgrade, but there seems to be a growing view that they are not making much progress with neither side willing to make concessions on the other’s key demand.
New Zealand wants more access for services and dairy products, and China wants more access to investment in New Zealand.
But New Zealand is coming under increasing “soft power” pressure to take a harder line on China.
The US Embassy is currently paying for eight journalists who are in Hawaii for briefings on, among other things, the threat posed by China in the Pacific region.
However, overall, the diplomatic pressure on New Zealand over China appears to be subtle with one well-connected source suggesting there have been no formal submission to the New Zealand Government suggesting it not allow Huawei to p[articipate in Spark’s 5G roll out — a project Spark’s CEO has warned the Government not to interfere in.
The Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013 empowers the Minister in Charge of the GCSB (Andrew Little) to bar a telecoms company from undertaking any activity that might be considered a security threat.
That is the power that Spark is worried the Government might use over Huawei.
Peters’ outspoken views will not have re-assured Spark – or Beijing – that the relationship with China is immune to disruption.