This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
New Zealand’s secret service has published a report calling Chinese spying and influence operations a “complex intelligence concern,” prompting calls for new laws to protect the country’s democracy against foreign interference.
In a report titled “New Zealand’s Security Threat Environment 2023,” the country’s Secret Intelligence Service said it is “aware of ongoing activity in and against New Zealand and our home region that is linked to [China]’s intelligence services. This is a complex intelligence concern for New Zealand.”
“There are a small number of states who conduct foreign interference in New Zealand but their ability to cause harm is significant,” the report said, citing China, Russia and Iran as the main perpetrators.
“Most notable is the continued targeting of New Zealand’s diverse ethnic Chinese communities,” it said. “We see these activities carried out by groups and individuals linked to the intelligence arm of the People’s Republic of China.”
It said ethnic minority communities “can receive unwanted and unjustified attention from foreign states who conduct malicious activities designed to threaten and disrupt their peaceful life in New Zealand.”
Meanwhile, foreign spies are also targeting companies, research institutions and government contractors, seeking to steal an “increasingly broad” range of information ranging from military capabilities to sensitive intellectual property and personal data, the report said.
The report is the latest of several government policy documents to identify the Chinese Communist Party as a potential threat to New Zealand’s national security and interests, according to Anne-Marie Brady, professor of political science and international relations at the University of Canterbury.
“The release of the SIS security threat environment report, which publicly states China is engaging in foreign interference and espionage in Aotearoa NZ, is a sign of a mature foreign policy, a confident [New Zealand] that is willing to speak up when it has to,” she wrote via her X, or formerly Twitter, account.
She said the government has reached “a turning point in NZ-China relations.”
“The differences are becoming starker, and common points like trade or cooperating on climate change are fraught with risk,” tweeted Brady, who in 2017 authored an in-depth study detailing the New Zealand operations of the Chinese Communist Party’s outreach and influence arm.
The report was among the first to show in detail how Chinese leader Xi Jinping launched an accelerated expansion of political influence activities worldwide, much of which rely on overseas community and business groups, under the aegis of the United Front Work Department.
Brady tweeted at the weekend: “It should be noted that NZ did not change, it is China under Xi since 2012, which has changed.
“NZ, like other countries in the world, is facing up to China as it is under Xi,” she wrote.
In recent months, governments around the world have launched investigations into Chinese police “service stations” run on foreign soil, while activists and dissidents have spoken out about threats and retaliation by the state security police or pro-China business people overseas.
“Out of the Five Eyes countries, it seems to me that New Zealand has the biggest concentration of [pro-Beijing] pinks,” New Zealand-based dissident Xing Jian told Radio Free Asia on Monday.
“There are nationalists who take part in activities run by the Chinese consulate who also monitor expatriate [Chinese],” he said. “If you say anything, you will be reported.”
He said it wasn’t just dissidents who were being targeted, but the overseas-based grown children of China’s political and financial elite.
“These people are under surveillance too, the Chinese Communist Party dignitaries, the rich second generation,” he said. “Some Chinese now have a lot of information about freedom and democracy, but they will worry that their family members back home in China will be targeted.”
The secret service report defined transnational repression as “any effort of a foreign state intended to prevent acts of political dissent in migrant or expatriate populations.”
“Transnational repression can include … community surveillance, including the monitoring and infiltration of community groups …harassment, threats and assault intended to intimidate individuals … [and] proxy punishment, including the harassment, confinement, or harm to relatives in the country of origin,” the report said.
It also cited “involuntary repatriation, in which individuals are coerced or compelled to return to their country of origin,” a practice that was also outlined by the Spain-based rights group Safeguard Defenders in its report on China’ network of secret overseas police stations.
Chen Weijian, New Zealand-based editor-in-chief of the pro-democracy magazine “Beijing Spring,” said some members of the Chinese expatriate community had reported harassment of their families back home after taking part in pro-democracy events.
“There was a staff member who defected from the Consulate General in Auckland and took part in some activities we organized,” Chen said. “His wife [back in China] was approached by the state security police, the regular police and the United Front Work Department … to try to get him to go back there.”
He said the two countries still enjoy close ties, however.
The Chinese Embassy said it “strongly deplored and firmly rejected” the report, saying China doesn’t interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.
“Trust is the foundation of any relationship, and it is easier lost than earned,” the embassy spokesperson said in an Aug. 11 statement.
According to The Post newspaper: “The Government has been quietly considering creating new foreign interference crimes to better prosecute foreign agents, and a foreign agent register to increase transparency of state-backed activity.”
The Ministry of Justice has for a past year been looking at “gaps” in the law that “could curtail our ability to respond to harmful interference,” Stuff.co.nz quoted Prime Minister Chris Hipkins as saying.