China has placed on the record - ever so diplomatically - its displeasure at the latest Edward Snowden revelations that suggest New Zealand "collects data on communications" from China on behalf of the Five Eyes alliance.

It's notable that the official Chinese response runs counter to attempts by Prime Minister John Key - who has strenuously sought to discredit the Snowden allegations - to downplay the Herald revelations. Despite the Prime Minister's flannelling, Beijing has made an official comment on what it euphemistically terms a "cyber security" issue.

"China is concerned about relevant report" was how the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs prefaced its comment that same day the Herald story broke.

But instead of publicly bawling New Zealand out over alleged "spying" on a prime trading partner, China has cleverly shifted its concern to cyber security. This plays usefully into a China-led initiative to establish an International Code of Conduct for Information Security for the "peace and stability of the cyber space" which China resuscitated as it moved to take up the chairmanship of the United Nations Security Council last month. Behind the scenes China's officials have had a quiet diplomatic dance with their New Zealand counterparts in Wellington on this matter. But ironically, it's not an issue that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or its minister have noted on government websites, unlike the ministry's counterpart in China.


The Chinese official response came after revelations by Nicky Hager and Ryan Gallagher - who worked off a bunch of documents stolen by Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor - in the Herald on March 11, where they alleged that New Zealand was "spying" on China, and other countries, to fill gaps in the NSA's foreign intelligence networks. At the time the Herald story broke, Chinese authorities - like those in New Zealand - were still handling the backwash from the announcement that there had been an anonymous criminal threat to contaminate infant formula with 1080.

New Zealand and Chinese officials had been patiently working on that issue for several weeks to ensure that when the disclosure was finally made (China like others within the dairy industry in New Zealand was working to a March 17 date) it was handled smoothly with little disruption to consumer confidence and trade.

The 1080 announcement on March 10 clearly overshadowed the following day's Herald story.

But the timing of the official comment by China's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei is instructive. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs releases a daily transcript of key points from the spokesman's press conference. It's notable that the question dealing with New Zealand was not raised at the press conference on March 11 - but afterwards.

China's foreign ministry does take questions after the official press conference. But the ministry at times ensures it gets a point made even when a journalist has not directly raised an issue.

The March 11 transcript reported that "China's comment" was sought on the latest Snowden documents that show our GCSB collects data on communications from about 20 nations, including China, Japan, North Korea and the South Pacific island countries, and passes it to the US, UK, Canada, Australia and others.

Said Hong: "China is concerned about relevant report.

"We attach great importance to the cyber security issue. We will firmly safeguard our security interests and continue to guarantee our cyber and information security with concrete measures.


"At present, the cyber space is riddled with chaos and uncertainty. China proposes to settle disputes through dialogue and formulate codes to regulate cyber space behaviours that are acceptable to all sides."

Chinese diplomats - like their counterparts here - would not have been seriously surprised by the Snowden revelations, which have been drip-fed by Hager and Gallagher.

China has been repeatedly accused of cyber-spying itself for intelligence and commercial ends. It's also been abundantly obvious since former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lifted the lid in 2009 on the news that the United States had ramped and "fully restored" intelligence sharing co-operation with New Zealand that the two countries' collaboration had moved up a gear and that China was under scrutiny.

China has now said it wants fair governance of the internet and "the building of confidence measures in the cyber space based on the principles of respecting the sovereignty of other countries ... and peacefully resolving the disputes".

If Key runs true to form he will continue to flannel when pressed by journalists for comment on this issue.

But China has put the word out.