Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 8 May 2019


This article just in from the London Financial review

New Zealand should ban foreign donations and vet parliamentary candidates for political risk to counter the growing risk of interference from China, a leading academic will tell a parliamentary committee investigating Beijing’s influence in the country on Thursday. Anne-Marie Brady, a China expert at the University of Canterbury, will also recommend New Zealand authorities engage with technology company Tencent, the owner of social media platform WeChat, to prevent the spread of disinformation on the platform during elections. “New Zealand is at a pivotal moment as it responds to a complex new security environment,” says Ms Brady’s submission, which is set to be presented at a hearing of the parliament’s justice committee.

The submission adds that political parties must do more due diligence on all funding, with contributions from non-permanent residents or citizens of New Zealand prohibited and a maximum cap put on all donations. “New Zealand should follow international best practice and limit voting in elections to citizens,” she writes.

The parliamentary hearings reflect growing unease among western governments about Beijing’s efforts to influence politics through donations, funding of pro-Chinese think-tanks and supporting candidates of Chinese descent who may have links to the Chinese Communist party.Last year, New Zealand was engulfed in controversy over donations made by Zhang Yikun, a Chinese businessman with links to the Communist party, to the opposition National party. Simon Bridges, the party’s leader, denied allegations he had attempted to conceal a NZ$100,000 ($66,000) donation from Mr Zhang when a secretly recorded telephone conversation about the gift and the possibility of recruiting more Chinese election candidates was leaked to the media.

New Zealand, a member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network with the US, UK, Canada and Australia, has been criticised by security analysts and China experts for not acknowledging that people and organisations with links to the Communist party have sought to influence domestic politics. Peter Mattis, a former CIA analyst, has told a US Congressional commission that New Zealand’s participation in the Five Eyes should be reconsidered due to its close links with Beijing. Winston Peters, the country’s deputy prime minister, told the Financial Times this year that Wellington was considering laws to curb foreign influence ahead of next year’s general election.

Another academic scheduled to give evidence to the justice committee this month, Tom Sear, an industry fellow at the University New South Wales Canberra Cyber centre, will tell the committee Beijing may have exploited the Christchurch terrorist attacks for its own propaganda purposes. Mr Sear will say that Chinese censors did not make strong efforts to block or remove livestream videos of the mass shootings from WeChat or Sina Weibo, another Chinese social media site, because it was seen as an opportunity to remind its citizens of how safe their own country was in comparison to New Zealand. New Zealand’s probe comes after Australia last year passed a number of foreign interference laws, which included the banning of foreign donations, following a scandal involving a rich Chinese businessman.

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