Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 11 December 2020



New Zealand university dismisses complaints against China expert

A New Zealand university has dismissed complaints against one of its China experts after ordering a controversial internal review that sparked international concerns over academic freedom and Chinese influence.

Four complaints were made to the University of Canterbury by staff and students at rival institutions about a report co-authored by Anne-Marie Brady, which highlighted the links between New Zealand universities and Chinese military institutions.

The complainants challenged certain “assertions and inferences” in the report titled “Holding a Pen in One Hand, Gripping a Gun in the Other”, which was part of a parliamentary submission highlighting concerns about Chinese Communist party influence in New Zealand.

The University of Canterbury’s decision to review Prof Brady’s work, rather than ask the complainants to publish their concerns in an academic paper of their own, sparked a global outcry. More than 120 China scholars published an open letter in October calling for the university to apologise to Prof Brady and criticised its decision to establish a review.

The University of Canterbury said on Friday that the review concluded that Prof Brady and her co-authors met the responsibilities of the college’s policy and procedures, as well as New Zealand’s Education Act.

“The committee noted that Professor Brady’s work was based on a lengthy period of research and cites extensively from other sources,” said the university.

“The University of Canterbury affirms its support for ‘the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas, and to state controversial or unpopular opinions’.”

However, the University of Canterbury said given that the report was intended for parliamentary submission and succinct, they recommended that some phrases could be amended to provide clarity.

Prof Brady welcomed the end of the review process, noting neither her lawyers nor herself could see anything to justify the complaints or the gag order.

“Staff and students at the complaining institutions, Victoria and Auckland universities, have as much at stake as me in knowing that their Vice Chancellors will also stand up for academic freedom,” she said. “They asked UC to suppress my academic freedom against a Parliamentary submission.”

One of the complaints was submitted by Jennifer Dixon, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland, who claimed several “assertions and inferences” made about one of the academics named in the report — Wei Gao, a professor of materials science and engineering — were inaccurate.

Ms Dixon has oversight of the Confucius Institute in Auckland and is chair of the New Zealand Centre at Peking University’s advisory board.

Richard McGregor, analyst with the Lowy Institute, said the decision by the University of Canterbury was good news, as Prof Brady had a lot to contribute to the China debate in New Zealand and elsewhere.

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 and society.

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.

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