China expert Anne-Marie Brady warns that New Zealand is like a canary in the coalmine for other small countries, which want to engage with the superpower without being overwhelmed.

In March 2017, during the visit of Premier Li Keqiang to New Zealand, a senior Chinese diplomat favourably compared New Zealand-China relations to the closeness China had with Albania in the early 1960s.

It was a startling and telling analogy, one which disconcerted New Zealand diplomats. In the Cold War years, Albania was the proxy for a global power struggle between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC).

As the Sino-Soviet split deepened in the early 1960s, Albania became estranged from the Soviet Union. Despite ideological differences with the policies of Mao Zedong, the government of Enver Hoxha was economically and politically dependent on the PRC.


In the late 1970s the relationship ruptured over China's failure to deliver economic development assistance. By the end of the Cold War era, Albania had become one of the poorest, most politically divided, and most corrupt of the former Eastern Bloc states.

That is why, when senior Chinese diplomats mention New Zealand and Albania in the same sentence, we need to pay attention. New Zealand — along with Albania in the current era and a host of other countries — is being targeted by a concerted political interference campaign by the PRC. China's foreign influence activities are part of a global strategy.

China's political influence activities in New Zealand hit the headlines in September 2017 when an investigative report by Newsroom and the Financial Times broke the news New Zealand government MP Jian Yang had worked in Chinese military intelligence for 15 years.

National Party list MP Dr Jian Yang trained Chinese spies before coming to this country. Photo / Dean Purcell
National Party list MP Dr Jian Yang trained Chinese spies before coming to this country. Photo / Dean Purcell

Soon after, my research paper, "Magic Weapons: China's Political Influence Activities under Xi Jinping" was made public, arousing intense international interest on how New Zealand would handle this challenge. In New Zealand, unlike Australia, the topic of China's expanded influence activities has not been raised publicly — although intelligence officials did discuss concerns at a Five Eyes meeting in June 2017.

New Zealand is the canary in the coalmine for many other small states seeking to respond to China's increased political influence activities. Small states can have a disproportionate effect on global politics and they are more readily affected by global shifts in power. New Zealand and Albania are two of many small states that have sought shelter in military alliances with the United States while turning to China for economic opportunities.

But the balancing act is getting more difficult. While the US is consumed by the daily drama of the Trump presidency, Xi Jinping has been emboldened to pursue an increasingly assertive foreign policy and insisting that its strategic partners such as New Zealand fall into line with its interests and policies.

Accompanying this more assertive foreign policy has been a massive increase in the CCP's foreign influence activities. China did not have to pressure New Zealand to accept China's soft power activities and political influence: Successive New Zealand governments actively courted it. Ever since PRC diplomatic relations were established in 1972, New Zealand governments have sought to attract Beijing's attention and favour. New Zealand governments have also encouraged China to be active in our region.

Unlike the Turnbull government, the Ardern government has avoided specifically acknowledging China's political influence activities. The recent prominence in New Zealand of the issue has put the new Labour-Greens-New Zealand First government in an awkward position.

In order to deal with the issue it can't just attack the policies of the previous government, it also has to clean its own house. Significantly, unlike the previous National government, Ardern's government has not endorsed Xi Jinping's flagship policy the Belt Road Initiative, bringing New Zealand back in line with its allies and nearest neighbours.

It will take strenuous efforts to adjust course on the direction the previous National government set New Zealand. New Zealand has to address the issue, but the Ardern government must find a way to do so that does not invite pressure it cannot bear from the CCP, which is watching closely.

But there is a historical template that New Zealand can work with. In 1987, the Fourth Labour government made a principled stand on a matter that affected our sovereignty and our values with the nuclear issue; then it passed legislation to back up these principles. Now is the time for the sixth Labour government to take another principled stand to defend our sovereignty and values and make legislative changes such as to the Electoral Finance Act.

New Zealand can also work more to partner with like-minded democracies and give up the notion that it needs to seek shelter with one or other of the great powers. Our friends and allies can do more to help New Zealand, and other vulnerable small states, by looking at ways to partner economically to lessen the pressure of having to make political concessions to the PRC for economic benefit.

China's political influence activities in New Zealand are of global significance and set a historical precedent for other states. If a proudly independent democratic country like New Zealand cannot find a way to protect its sovereign interests while maintaining a productive and respectful relationship with a great power like China, then we have entered a new and dangerous era in global politics.

• Anne-Marie Brady is a professor of political science at the University of Canterbury.