Commentary / World

New Zealand grapples with China's influence and intimidation

by Shaun O'dwyer

Contributing Writer

In April 2010, there was a scandal over the Confucius Institute at Osaka Sangyo University in Osaka. During meetings discussing a proposed relocation of the institute between campuses, the director of the University Affairs Board denounced it as a “cultural spy agency” for China and “a ‘soft landing’ for China’s expansionism.” Chinese overseas students at the university reacted angrily to his accusations; two months later he was asked to resign, and the university published a letter officially apologizing for his “inappropriate and insensitive remarks.”

This incident was recently covered in a series of articles by the Sankei News, which critically examined the organizational impact of Confucius institutes based in Japanese, American and Australian universities. Such incidents highlight some difficult decisions for educational institutions in Japan and elsewhere engaging with Chinese soft- power initiatives.

For their supporters, Confucius Institutes are educational “non-profit public institutions which aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries” and to encourage international understanding and exchange. However, for their critics, they are — alongside research funding tie-ups and investment from China — Trojan horses for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence in universities.

Who to believe? Often it is conservative think tanks and media like the Sankei News that produce criticisms of Confucius Institutes. According to one polarized political framing, such criticisms must therefore be right wing, and so also biased and Sinophobic; and anyone who voices them is thereby tainted by association. This framing is question-begging and unfair, but is nonetheless effective in discouraging open debate, or in causing it to play out along ideological fault-lines.

The argument over Confucius Institutes in Japan is one of many high-stakes debates concerning China’s growing economic and political influence across the world. Under President Xi Jinping, China is certainly strongly committed to the global-trade and nation-state order, cultivating lucrative trade and investment relationships with other nations, and pursuing educational, cultural, political and commercial connections in their civil societies.

The catch is that the CCP is opposed to a liberal vision of the global order, and this is becoming more apparent under Xi’s authoritarian leadership. While the CCP steps up domestic persecutions of dissidents, minorities and labor activists, builds its military capabilities and strong-arms other Asian countries in maritime disputes, small Pacific nations face geopolitical dilemmas far more complicated than those faced by more wealthy, powerful nations like Japan. In view of recent events, such dilemmas merit closer consideration.

For those same lucrative trading relationships have increased many smaller nations’ economic dependence on China, making business, media and political elites wary of offending China’s leadership. Those same educational, cultural and commercial investments in their civil societies have exerted a more subtle effect on hearts and minds — a legitimate soft power objective, we might think. Yet, as critics of the Confucius Institutes would point out, it takes a clear head to realize how such investments can also be channels for state-directed activities that interfere with national sovereignty, challenge civil freedoms and co-opt political, academic, media and business institutions.

This clearheadedness is needed more than ever in a region where American standing and power is faltering, just as China is projecting growing soft power influence in the Pacific.

Which brings us to the case of New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady. Professor Brady is a noted specialist on Chinese politics, and has also published a well-received book on the evolution of CCP domestic and foreign propaganda work into the 21st century. In September 2017, she released a paper detailing Chinese government “united front” activities in New Zealand, including influence-peddling in both major political parties, “strings-attached funding through Confucius Institutes” in New Zealand universities, and manipulative “guidance” of Chinese student, business and media organizations with mainland China roots.

In Australia in 2017, revelations of similar United Front activities provoked a government inquiry, and new legislation to protect against foreign espionage and political interference was passed last June. In New Zealand, a smaller, more economically vulnerable nation which has actively sought trade, cultural, technological and defense relations with China, there were muted or dismissive responses to Brady’s findings by political parties and business leaders.

These domestic responses almost seemed to bear out Brady’s and some diaspora Chinese concerns about the progress of United Front efforts. Then, early in 2018, Brady’s University of Canterbury office was broken into; in February, after receiving a warning letter that she “would be attacked,” her house was burgled, and laptops, cellphones and an encrypted memory stick containing data from Chinese field research were stolen. An ongoing police investigation has brought in New Zealand intelligence and Interpol authorities. Finally, during a routine check-up early in November, a mechanic discovered that her car’s tires had been tampered with, in a manner that could have caused an accident.

Brady, who should be credited for knowing something about how Chinese United Front operations work, believes she has a good idea of who was behind these activities. If her suspicions are confirmed, they provide evidence of such operations extending beyond intimidation of Chinese emigre dissidents and Uighur refugees to target foreign researchers.

There have been mixed reactions to these latest developments. Academics and human rights advocates in New Zealand and abroad have signed open letters calling on the New Zealand government to robustly affirm academic freedoms and protect Professor Brady. The New Zealand media has — with some exceptions — responded less forthrightly. Negative commentary has ranged from mealy-mouthed “whataboutism” to breath-taking “doormatism.” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the National Party Opposition leader addressed Brady’s plight with insipid platitudes.

The findings and experiences of this New Zealand sinologist have implications for other Asia-Pacific nations. They reveal an increasingly aggressive Chinese leadership willing to flout the laws and values of nations that it is eager to bring into its geopolitical orbit.

There are signs that wiser heads in New Zealand are taking note. Social researcher Tze Ming Mok told me that at present “there is zero political capital in drumming up racism against Chinese people” and that this could allow space for more open debate about Chinese government influence without stoking racist populism. In the meantime, Asia-Pacific states with similar concerns over China’s regional intentions — including Japan — will have to work out an economic and security safety net with one another, in case those intentions precipitate a crisis.

Let there be no illusions about China’s ambitions. Some scholars claim that it is channeling its Confucian heritage into an evolving “meritocratic” political system; others speak of a “harmonious” foreign policy that could provide an alternative to the “Western liberal” world order. These are philosophers’ fairy tales.

China is a rising great power, consolidating under a personalized authoritarianism not seen since the days of Chairman Mao. It will do what any aspiring great power thinks it can do, preferably by soft power persuasion, but perhaps also by rough wooing. There could be more cases like Brady’s, more harassed or kidnapped emigre Chinese dissidents and more co-opted elites.

Acknowledging these possibilities, Asia-Pacific nations will have to decide how to negotiate trade, investment and educational relationships without paying the price through attrition of sovereignty, national security and civil freedoms.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University. His book “Confucianism’s Prospects” is forthcoming with State University of New York Press.

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