- Date published:
10:00 am, July 2nd, 2021 - 47 comments
Categories: China, chris hipkins, discrimination, Media, Politics, racism, Social issues, spin - Tags: anne-marie brady, guyon espiner, paul buchanan, RNZ, universities
On Monday, RNZ reported that “Chinese Communist Party spies are infiltrating New Zealand universities,” citing the suspicions of three lecturers in Chinese history and politics.
Auckland University lecturer Dr. Stephen Noakes said that on one occasion, “There was someone I did not recognise in the room and that person was pointing a phone around and taking pictures of the slides.” Two other academics said similar things had happened to them.
Taking photos wasn’t the only evidence behind the lecturers’ suspicions. According to them, many Chinese students repeat nationalist talking points about China’s recent and ancient history, or challenge the lecturers on various points. Some don’t even appear to be students at all.
The allegations came as part of a new podcast that seeks to investigate China’s influence in New Zealand, hosted on the RNZ website.
The problem is that it doesn’t appear that RNZ, or the new podcast, have investigated other explanations for people taking photos in lecture rooms or challenging lecturers, nor assessed whether relatively loose allegations against chinese-looking people sitting at the back of lecture halls might have a negative impact upon international students.
As Security consultant Paul Buchanan put it in the Herald, there are a number of reasons why chinese citizens might be taking photos or starting arguments in university lectures.
“There is a big difference between spies… and nationalistic mainlanders who feel compelled to sit in and ‘correct’ – in their words – the mistaken opinions of foreigners when it comes to Chinese history,” he said. If any interlopers were there in an official capacity, it’s also strongly possible they were there to “monitor what is said about China. And that gives them an idea of what China looks like to the educated classes abroad.”
At this point it is worth remembering that the only indication the “spies” were anything other than nationalist citizens was one lecturer’s anecdote about how one got off at a bus stop somewhere near the embassy.
But these possibilities weren’t given any thought in the RNZ article or podcast. There is no room for any doubt that any and all suspicious activity by chinese-looking people must be the work of “spies.” This probably has something to do with the ideological outlook of the Red Line podcast, which first featured the allegations.
Red Line retains some pretence of journalistic impartiality while featuring all manner of “China Watcher” foreign policy ghouls relatively uncritically. People featured on the podcast include US General and Trump advisor HR McMaster (sure, it’s Chinese officials interfering in our public discourse), and Anne Marie Brady, probably New Zealand’s foremost Cold Warrior, and one of the academics alleging lecture hall “spying.”
It’s also deeply strange that according to education minister Chris Hipkins, the academics didn’t report the issue, nor did the RNZ journalist. This would seem a logical course of action for anyone taking the issue seriously, rather than just seeking to cause a stir and plug a podcast.
All that said, it is certainly believable that non-student Chinese citizens, maybe even people acting under embassy direction, are interrupting lectures. I know from my own experience that many governments encourage their foreign citizens, and sometimes students, to challenge critics in public venues. Both Indonesia and Morocco have sent people to interrupt speaking events for West Papua and Western Sahara that I’ve attended, although of course a closed lecture theatre is quite a bit worse. Still, embassies engaging in observation and influencing actions is a pretty normal occurrence, one that only seems to take a sinister form when it comes from one embassy in particular.
My questions are: what is the difference between a “spy,” an “agent,” or a foreign citizen (however misguided) who takes it upon themselves to interrupt a lecture? Are their arguments best countered by accusing them of being a spy, when it is very possible they are either students, or a random nationalist member of the public? Finally, where is the outrage when repressive governments like Indonesia, Morocco, or indeed the United States send their embassy staff to influence New Zealand public opinion? Or is this only an issue when there are anecdotal ties to the Chinese embassy.
On these questions it is worth looking at the broader context of anti-Asian paranoia across the world.
Anti-Asian, and especially anti-Chinese violence is on the rise, something many see as a result of former US president Donald Trump’s efforts to scapegoat China for the poor virus response within the US. Under the new presidency of Joe Biden, things haven’t improved much, with a new wave of previously discredited “lab-leak” theories given newfound legitimacy, despite the warnings of the scientists who originally proposed the possibility.
Community leaders blamed this rhetoric for the killings of six women in Atlanta, which sparked nationwide “Stop Asian Hate” protests across the US. But this was not an exclusively American phenomenon. In Aoteaora, similar protests followed the lead of US organisers, highlighting anti-Asian hate crimes here, such as a beating in a Rotorua spa last year. Organisers said that Chinese people are used as scapegoats for everything from Coronavirus to the housing market. A Human Rights Commission report found that about one in five Asian people in Aotearoa have experienced increased discrimination since the start of 2020. While criticism of the CPC is certainly different from sinophobia, critics of the Chinese state need to be careful not to whip up a paranoiac frenzy that can spill out onto whole immigrant communities once vague allegations of spying enter the public consciousness. We’ve seen red scares before, and Red Line seems like it’s doing its best to start a new one.
When it comes to foreign interference, a lot of attention is lavished on Chinese perpetrators while other, much less covert influencing operations go on without anyone noticing. If New Zealanders are to avoid becoming the pawns of either side in a new Cold War, this would mean being more consistent when it comes to opposing foreign influences over public opinion. This might involve investigating the impacts of the recent US decision to spend some $300 million on influencing global news media to be more critical of China. While we’re at it, we might consider uprooting the actual spybases on our soil that send their data to the US, or dismantling what is effectively a US military facility on the Mahia peninsula. Foreign influence only seems to sound scary when it isn’t coming from the world’s foremost military hegemon.
For all the talk of nebulous Chinese propaganda efforts across the west, much less time is spent talking about the degree to which anti-Chinese paranoia might be a reflection of an entirely different propaganda campaign. While stories about Chinese spies make for appealing headlines, such accusations are dangerous in universities where international students are already subject to suspicion. This wouldn’t be the first time that unfounded accusations of Chinese spying have lead to widespread racial profiling within an academic community, and we should expect our only publicly-funded news provider to be more conscious of the effects loose and anecdotal allegations of spying can have on immigrant communities.
lprent: The author requested anonymity because of a a known tendency to attack authors of similar pieces. This is explicitly allowed for in our policy. I checked the author out as far as I needed to, to make sure that they were a real person and they had and were expressing their own opinion – as is required on this site. Unusually, I helped with this second draft by savagely rejecting the first on on the basis that they made assumptions and presumptions that were unwarranted.
I’d strongly suggest that attacking the opinions of the author on the basis of anonymity would be unwise. Anonymity for guest posts is explicitly allowed by site rules. Being anonymous behind a handle (including a purported ‘real name’) and attacking someone else for doing the same thing gets treated as the actions of blatant hypocrite.