The Prime Minister today weighed in on the mysterious case of the professor and the break-ins, instructing the nation's intelligence agencies to look into claims made by a Christchurch-based China expert.

Last week the Herald broke news University of Canterbury academic Anne-Marie Brady told an Australian parliamentary committee she linked her work to a spate of recent burglaries and her sources on the Chinese mainland had been interrogated by state security officials.

Brady gained international profile in September after publishing research detailing the extent of China's influence campaigns in New Zealand focusing on a nexus of political donations, appointment of directorships and information management.

Brady told the Australian parliament her office on campus was broken into in December, and last week her home was burgled - with computers, phones and USB storage devices stolen with other obvious valuables ignored by thieves.


The latter event was preceded by an anonymous letter detailing push-back against those not toeing the official line out of Beijing and warning: "You are next."

The matter is being investigated by the police.

At her post-Cabinet press conference today the Prime Minister said she first became aware of the affair through media reports and expressed alarm over Brady's claims.

"I think anyone would be concerned [about] any criminal act if it were in response to the work she's doing," Ardern said.

She said as Minister responsible for national security and intelligence she was following up the matter and would "certainly be asking some questions".

Approached for comment today, a spokesperson for the Security Intelligence Service - the agency responsible for preserving national security domestically - reiterated they did not comment on individual cases.

University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady. Photo / Supplied
University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady. Photo / Supplied

The Prime Minister said she expected to be made aware of any developments in the case.

"I would certainly want to be informed if there was evidence this was a targeted action against someone who was raising issues around foreign interference ... If there's evidence of that we should be taking stock of that and taking action," she said.


The possibility academic freedom was being threatened in such a heavy-handed manner also drew alarm from the university sector, with Sharn Riggs, the national secretary of the Tertiary Education Union, saying the claims were without precedent in New Zealand.

"This is quite extreme, and obviously very concerning to have a members' personal safety put in danger, but also from a policy perspective around academics right to investigate and publish in these areas," she said.

Riggs said academics occasionally faced pressure from political or business lobbies over their work - citing water quality expert Mike Joy at Massey University - and this needed to be carefully guarded against.

She called on university vice-chancellors to take a stand on the issue. "They need to ensure that staff who are researching in controversial areas have not just protection, but present in vocal way that this is what academics are and this is what they do."

University of Canterbury vice-chancellor Rod Carr was not made available for interview and would only say in a written statement the university "takes the security, health and wellbeing of its staff and students seriously".

Education minister Chris Hipkins declined to weigh in on the specific episode, but said in a written statement: "As the police are investigating, I am not able to comment, except with a general one: that academic freedom is a long and cherished part of our democracy and it shall remain so."

A spokesperson for the New Zealand Police declined to comment further as the burglaries were "under active investigation by Christchurch CIB".