In a tumultuous year in politics, it's been easy to overlook important and controversial arguments about Chinese Government influence in this country. A number of stories and reports have been published that require much greater attention, debate and scrutiny.

At one level, media coverage of Chinese Government influence in New Zealand has increased significantly over the last four months. There have been reports about National MP Jian Yang, the Government's increased efforts in diplomacy and trade with China, and the academic research of the University of Canterbury's Prof Anne-Marie Brady. But there are also many who are less comfortable or willing for debate about this issue to occur.

China's reported use of "soft power" in New Zealand

It's Anne-Marie Brady's research on how the Chinese Government seeks influence in New Zealand that really provides the most important overview for understanding the topic. She is a world-leading researcher on how the Chinese state seeks to use "soft power" in its international relations.

"Soft power" is a concept used in international relations studies to explain how states and other political actors attempt to assert their power via persuasion, culture and emotion, rather than through coercion or military might ("hard power"). It has connotations of propaganda and more subtle and sophisticated use of relationship building. You can read a good analysis and discussion on Wikipedia of soft power. And it's worth remembering that all countries use this technique to further their interests, including New Zealand.

Brady has carried out extensive study of how soft power techniques are being used by the Chinese state in countries like New Zealand. And in September she published an important and widely cited paper on her findings – see: Magic Weapons: China's political influence activities under Xi Jinping.

Brady explains how the Chinese State – which is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party – uses the "United Front" technique to spread its influence. This means that other organisations that are ostensibly separate from the Chinese state are used as proxies. So, in New Zealand, Brady contends that various Chinese ex-pat community groups, or newspapers have effectively been taken over by the Chinese Government.

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These organisations are supposedly directed by the Chinese state agency, the United Front Work Department, which President Xi Jinping apparently called a "magic weapon" in China's growing global influence. Brady has since published a shorter version of her research – see: Looking for points in common while facing up to differences: A new model for New Zealand-China relations.

The publication of Brady's main piece of research occurred just days before the New Zealand general election, which meant it never received much consideration. At the time, the media did report on it – and the best coverage was David Fisher and Matt Nippert's must-read article, Revealed: China's network of influence in New Zealand. This piece draws out many of the important findings, from the most bemusing – such as "Chinese-owned New Zealand dairy farms said to possibly being used to test advanced missile technology" – through to the extensive documented links between former National and Labour politicians and Chinese companies.

Also at this time, Newsroom's Mark Jennings delved into the report, and focused particularly on looking at the various "united front" groups operating in New Zealand, and the financial links between individual "red capitalists" and the National Party – see: Expert calls for inquiry into Chinese 'threat'.

Since the election, the Brady's research continues to be reported. Last week, for example, she gave a lecture at Victoria University of Wellington, in which she elaborated on the soft power techniques of China in New Zealand – see the Herald's PM Jacinda Ardern discounts Chinese influence. This led to the Prime Minister playing down such concerns, and Labour MP Raymond Huo responded with the reasonable point that "There is a fine line between what she has alleged and the genuine promotion of the NZ-China relationship."

Brady has also been in the media talking about the issue. For example, a month ago she was interviewed on TVNZ's Q+A – see: China's foreign policy. Also, from the same episode, see the interview with Rodney Jones, Principal of Wigram Capital Advisors in Beijing: China's power play.

For one of the best overviews of her research, including a profile of Brady herself, see Philip Matthews' feature article, Academic Anne-Marie Brady confronts the power of China.

More debate needed on China in NZ

The issues Brady has raised deserve scrutiny and evaluation. Yet, so far much of the debate has actually remained relatively muted. Today I've written a column on the Newsroom website, calling for greater attention on these issues. I argue that there are some obvious motivations behind suppressing such a debate: "The topic is complicated and fraught, but that doesn't mean we should avoid it. There are certainly plenty of voices wishing to dampen down any discussion about Chinese Government influence here. Often these voices are coming from business and export sectors, which benefit from a prosperous and harmonious trade relationship with China. They don't want the status quo endangered, and instead wish to foster even closer ties between our countries" – see: Time to discuss China's soft power in NZ.

I also argue that "Debate about Chinese Government influence here also seems to have been muted due to fears of promoting illiberalism. Many are understandably uncomfortable with the potential nationalistic, xenophobic, and even racist elements to concerns about Chinese Government interference in New Zealand."

Both of these sentiments can be seen from very different parts of the political spectrum. Representing more economic establishment voices, former deputy prime minister Don McKinnon – now the chair of the New Zealand China Council – wrote in the Herald about Brady's arguments, saying such "allegations are extremely serious, particularly where public figures are involved. As such, they require a very high standard of evidence" – see: Expanding relationship with China in New Zealand's interests.

McKinnon suggests that if any problems do exist, then the New Zealand state is very capable of sorting these out. He also correctly makes the point that "soft power" exercises are something that all states, including New Zealand, carry out. And this is a point I make in my Newsroom column today: "We also need to keep in mind the fact that the New Zealand Government, too, plays all sorts of nefarious roles in international relations. Some of this is even against China. In 2015, we learned from the Snowden files of GCSB material, that our government spies on many other international governments, including China, whose diplomats and communications in New Zealand have been monitored."

Coming from a very different point of view, the Labour Party's Mike Smith argues at The Standard that Brady's arguments contain nothing particularly revealing, and he suggests that they risk inciting prejudice – see: The Yellow Peril?

Another Labour Party figure takes a very different view, again. Bryan Gould has written in the Herald that we need to know more about the various links between the New Zealand elite and the Chinese state: "we need to know about their extent and their possible significance. At the very least, we might regard their number and extent as flashing a warning light. Why is it that so many influential Kiwis, with entrees to the heart of the political, economic and trading establishment, find themselves in such demand from Chinese interests?" – see: China's political and business culture is not like ours.

Illiberalism and debate on China

It would be unfortunate if worries about fostering various forms of illiberalism manage to suppress any debate about China and New Zealand. What's more, such a stance is likely to be counterproductive – producing a less sophisticated and liberal debate.

The fear of being labelled "racist" has certainly inhibited the debate, according to former politician Stephen Franks, who praises Winston Peters for his role in highlighting such issues in the public sphere: "Winston Peters has never been afraid of the reflex slur of "racist'. He expresses ordinary citizen concerns about immigration. Being Maori gives him a partial free pass. But he has not relied on it. He gives as good as he gets. So he can't be silenced by the cowards who run a mile from any debate that could seriously test that gagging slur" – see: China can count on NZ elite's fear of 'racist' slur.

Similarly, ex-Reserve Bank economist Michael Reddell, who attended the recent "magic weapons" lecture in Wellington, notes that Brady is obviously keen to refute any notion that she is coming from an illiberal position in her research: "In her lecture the other day she felt the need to include a photo of her Chinese husband and her three half-Chinese children – no doubt a push back against the sort of despicable pre-election attempt to discredit her and her research" – see: Shameless and shameful.

Reddell, points out that no one has yet been able to disprove any of Brady's arguments, and her opponents simply hope she is ignored: "It seems as if there is just a desperate desire that she, and the issue, would go away. Absent that, the political and business elites simply want to pretend it doesn't exist."

Finally, Reddell has also published his version of how such debate gets suppressed, and how politicians can be quick to use character assassination against those who raise difficult questions about the status quo. He reports from an election meeting in which the then Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson sought to clumsily and aggressively bat away concerns about Chinese state influence in New Zealand politics – see: The political cone of silence, with slurs.