Fingers in all pots: The threat of foreign interference in democratic systems

New Zealand provides a vivid case study of China’s willingness to use economic ties to interfere with the political life of a partner country. An aggressive strategy has sought to influence political decision-making, pursue unfair advantages in trade and business, suppress criticism of China, facilitate espionage opportunities, and influence overseas Chinese communities. Smaller states are particularly vulnerable to Chinese influence strategies.

Along with other nations, New Zealand is being targeted by a concerted foreign interference campaign waged by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The campaign aims to gain support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government’s political and economic agendas by co-opting political and economic elites. It also seeks to access strategic information and resources. China’s efforts undermine the integrity of the New Zealand political system, threaten New Zealand sovereignty, and directly affect the rights of Chinese New Zealanders to freedom of speech, association and religion.

The PRC aspires to be a global great power and is seeking change in the global order. Under the leadership of the CCP’s General Secretary, Xi Jinping, the PRC is now claiming a leadership role in global affairs and pursuing an assertive foreign policy. During the 1960s, Mao Zedong’s China was promoted as the centre of world revolution. But under Xi, the PRC aims to lead Globalisation 2.0, by creating a China-centred economic order, a new economic and strategic bloc known as the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Xi Jinping’s assertive foreign policy includes the expansion of CCP political influence activities (known in China as united front work). United front work has now taken on a level of importance not seen in China since the years before 1949, when the CCP was in opposition. The CCP’s united front activities incorporate co-opting elites, information management, persuasion, as well as accessing strategic information and resources. It has also frequently been a means of facilitating espionage. One of the most important goals of united front work is to influence the decision-making of foreign governments and societies in China’s favour.

Political-influence activities in the Xi era draw heavily on the approaches set in the Mao years and the policies of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, but they take them to a new level of ambition. This reflects both the growing confidence of the Xi government in China’s international influence, as well as the high-stakes strategy he is pursuing to maintain his regime through boosting economic growth and tightening control of information.

Like Mao, Xi stresses the importance of information control. In the modernised information environment, this now means not only China’s own public sphere, but also how the international media and international academia comments on China and China-related issues. Hence the China Central Television (CCTV) international arm, CGTN (China Global Television Network), providing the CCP line to the outside world (emphasising business, not politics) via 24-hour satellite broadcasts and social media. At the same time, China Radio International (CRI) and the Xinhua News Service have cornered niche foreign radio, television and online platforms through mergers and partnership agreements. China Daily, the CCP’s English-language newspaper, has arrangements to publish supplements in major newspapers around the world. China has also announced media cooperation partnerships with countries it calls strategic partners, such as Russia, Turkey and the 16-plus-1 states (Central and East European countries, plus China). Chinese universities and university presses have set up partnerships with their foreign counterparts and we are steadily seeing the creep of Chinese censorship into these domains as a result. 

In September 2014, Xi gave a speech on the importance of united front work, using Mao’s term to describe it as one of the CCP’s “magic weaponsFootnote 55  ”. The other two magic weapons are Party-building and military activities, both of which feature prominently in China under Xi. In May 2015, Xi presided over a national united front work conference, the first in nine years, and in July 2015 he set up a Leading Small Group on United Front WorkFootnote 56  . 

Xi-era influence activities can be summarised into four categories: 

  • A strengthening of efforts to manage and guide overseas Chinese communities and utilise them as agents of Chinese foreign policy;
  • Renewed emphasis on people-to-people, party-to-party, and PRC enterprise-to-foreign enterprise relations with the aim of coopting foreigners to support and promote the CCP’s foreign policy goals;
  • The roll-out of a global, multi-platform, strategic communication strategy; and
  • The formation of a China-centred economic and strategic bloc.

The CCP leadership regards New Zealand as an exemplar of how it would like relations to be with other states in the futureFootnote 57  . The PRC’s political influence activities in New Zealand have now reached a critical level.

Why China is interested in New Zealand

New Zealand is of interest to China’s Party-State-Military-Market nexus for a number of significant reasons:

  • The New Zealand government is responsible for the defence and foreign affairs not only of New Zealand, but also of three territories in the South Pacific: the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau, which means four potential votes for China at international forums;
  • Since 2011 when legislation was passed to encourage offshore-managed funds to invest in New Zealand, the nation has developed some reputation as a hotspot for global money laundering. The Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau are also well-known money laundering nations;
  • New Zealand is a claimant state in Antarctica and one of the closest access points to it. China has a long-term strategic agenda in Antarctica that will require the cooperation of established Antarctic states such as New ZealandFootnote 58  ;
  • New Zealand has cheap arable land and a sparse population, and China seeks access to foreign arable land to improve its food safety;
  • New Zealand supplies 24 per cent of China's foreign milk, and China is the biggest foreign investor in New Zealand’s dairy sectorFootnote 59  ;
  • New Zealand is useful for near-space research, an important new area of weapons research for the PLA;
  • New Zealand has unexplored oil and gas resources and China is expanding its offshore oil and gas exploration; and
  • New Zealand has expertise in multilateral trade negotiations, Pacific affairs, Antarctic science, and horticultural science, which is useful to China.

Furthermore, New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence agreement that also includes the UK, the US, Canada and Australia, the Five Power Defence Arrangement, and their unofficial grouping of militaries, in addition to being a NATO partner state. Extricating New Zealand from these military groupings and away from its traditional partners would be a major coup for the Xi government’s strategic goal of turning China into a global great power. New Zealand’s economic, political and military relationship with the PRC is seen by Beijing as a model for relations with Australia, the small island nations in the South Pacific, and more broadly other Western states. New Zealand is valuable to China, as well as to other states such as Russia, as a soft underbelly through which to access Five Eyes intelligence. New Zealand is also a potential strategic site for the PLA-Navy’s Southern Hemisphere naval facilities and a future Beidou-2 ground station; there are already several of these in AntarcticaFootnote 60  . All of these reasons make New Zealand of considerable interest to the PRC.

China’s influence activities in New Zealand take the following specific forms:

  • Targeted efforts to co-opt the New Zealand business, political and intellectual elite in order to get them to advocate for the PRC’s interests in New Zealand and internationally. The means used are business opportunities and investments, honours, political hospitality, scholarships, party-to-party links and vanity projects;
  • Targeted political donations through ethnic Chinese business figures with strong links to the CCP;
  • Massive efforts to bring the New Zealand ethnic Chinese-language media, Chinese community groups, and New Zealand’s ethnic Chinese politicians under CCP control, and efforts to influence their voting preferences; and
  • The use of mergers, acquisitions and partnerships with New-Zealand companies, universities and research centres so as to acquire local identities that enhance influence activities and to provide access to military technology, commercial secrets and other strategic informationFootnote 61  .

Some of these activities endanger New Zealand’s national security directly, while others have a more long-term corrosive effect. The impact of China’s political influence activities on New Zealand democracy has been profound: a curtailing of freedom of speech, religion and association for the ethnic Chinese community, a silencing of debates on the PRC in the wider public sphere, and a corrupting influence on the political system through the blurring of personal, political and economic interests. Small states such as New Zealand are very vulnerable to foreign interference: the media has limited resources and lacks competition; the tertiary education sector is small and, despite the laws on academic freedom, easily intimidated or co-opted. But foreign interference (by any state) can only thrive if public opinion in the state being influenced tolerates or condones it.

The PRC has not had to pressure New Zealand to accept Beijing's soft power activities and political influence: successive New Zealand governments have actively courted it. Ever since New Zealand-PRC diplomatic relations were established in 1972, New Zealand governments have followed policies of attracting Beijing's attention and favour through high-profile support for China's new economic agendasFootnote 62  . New Zealand governments have also encouraged China to be active in New Zealand's region, from the South Pacific to Antarctica: initially as a balance to Soviet influence, as an aid donor and scientific partner, and since 2014 as part of the ‘diversification’ of New Zealand's military links away from Five Eyes partnershipsFootnote 63  . In May 2017, New Zealand agreed to promote the Belt and Road policies in Oceania, including at home. New Zealand was the first Western country to sign a cooperation agreement with the PRC on the BRI.

The New Zealand National Party government (2008-2017) followed two main principles on China. First was the ‘no surprises’ policyFootnote 64  , that meant the New Zealand government or its officials or anyone affiliated with government activities had to avoid saying or doing anything that might offend the PRC government, which inevitably had a chilling effect on normal policy discussions. Second was an emphasis on ‘getting the political relationship right’, which under the National Party came to mean developing extensive and intimate political links with CCP local and national leaders and their representatives and affiliated actors in New Zealand. Both these approaches fed and encouraged the success of China’s political influence activities in New Zealand.

Yet in New Zealand, unlike Australia, the topic of China’s expanded influence activities had never been raised publicly. In that context, the public release of Anne-Marie Brady’s research paper “Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities under Xi Jinping”, one week before New Zealand’s 23 September 2017 national election, fed into the zeitgeist and unleashed a national and international media storm. The author took the unusual step of publicly releasing what had originally been a conference paper, not meant for public release, as the information uncovered was of public interest. The issues raised affected both the major political parties in New Zealand. The paper had a massive impact in New Zealand and internationally.

International and domestic media attention on China’s influence activities in New Zealand has put the new Labour-Greens-New Zealand First government in an awkward position. In order to deal with the issue, it cannot just attack the policies of the previous government; it also has to clean its own house and deal with the involvement of some of its own senior politicians in united front activitiesFootnote 65  . New Zealand must indicate to its allies that it is going to address the issue, but it has to do so in a way that will not offend the PRC, which is watching the new government’s actions like a hawk. It will take strenuous efforts to adjust course on the direction the previous National government set New Zealand, which aimed to develop an ever ‘deeper and stronger’ relationship with the PRC.

China is New Zealand's second largest overall trading partnerFootnote 66  . New Zealand signed a Comprehensive Cooperative Relationship Agreement in 2003 and a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2014 with China. New Zealand is now expanding relations with China well beyond trade: to finance, telecommunications, forestry, food safety and security, education, science and technology, tourism, climate change and Antarctic cooperation, and even military cooperation. In contrast, the Trump presidency has not ratified the TPP, which New Zealand helped to set up.

New Zealand, like many other small states in this changing global order, must partner up with like-minded governments and give up the notion that it needs to seek shelter with one or other of the great powers. China’s political-influence activities are part of a global foreign policy. New Zealand’s friends and allies can help New Zealand, and other vulnerable small states, by looking to ways to partner economically. In so doing they will help to lessen the pull of having to make political concessions to the PRC for economic benefit, which was the Faustian choice made by the last New Zealand government.


Each state resists political interference in its affairs by other nations. The PRC frequently berates the US and other states for perceived interference in China’s domestic politics, and promotes non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states as an important principle of its foreign policy—although the united front strategy has always gone against that ideal. For a small state like New Zealand, which is a former colony of one great power and has been under the shelter of another for more than sixty years, it can often be a challenge as to how to defend the country against foreign political interference. It takes the political will of the government of the day and popular support to do so. If New Zealand can find a way to better manage its economic and political relationship with the PRC, it could become a model to other Western states.

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