Concerns over Chinese data collection on influential NZers

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Data leaked by a Chinese company on prominent New Zealanders could be linked to attempts to influence New Zealand politics and business, says Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady.

Anne-Marie Brady

Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

The names of 793 New Zealanders have been found in data leaked from Zhenhua Data to an American academic. The company is believed to be owned by China Zhenhua Electronics Group, which is owned by a state-owned enterprise, China Electronic Information Industry Group (CETC), meaning “it’s part of the military industrial complex in China”, Brady said.

A specialist in political interference from China, Brady said the Chinese Communist Party was trying to cultivate relationships with economic and political leaders worldwide.

The leaked data included lists of New Zealanders identified by the Chinese company as “politically exposed” and of “special interest”.

“Only 10 percent of the data has been recovered, so there’s quite a few things we’re scratching our heads about,” Brady said.

“But we can see the pattern here very clearly: many of the individuals on the list… are very clearly some of the most influential people in New Zealand.

“There’s our senior court judges, there’s our former ambassadors and present ambassador to China, there’s China desk people… What’s really heartbreaking is to see our most senior politicians family members there.”

The Chinese intelligence gathering on New Zealanders and people from other countries was followed by plans of action, which was “very concerning”, Brady said.

“It’s happening on a grand scale – there are about 2.4 million names.”

“This is evidence, if any was needed, of the global reach of China’s efforts to use political interference as a tool of foreign policy.”

The leaked data showed in-depth knowledge of New Zealand politics, she said.

“There are names in there, you would have to have extremely intimate knowledge of New Zealand politics and who’s who and their family members and that’s not easily found.”

The data could be used for blackmail or developing strategic relationships, Brady said.

“[Family members] can be targeted, offered business opportunities. This is very much the pattern overseas, or other opportunities, or they get into trouble – blackmail, you name it.”

Brady noted that some former National Party leaders, such as Jenny Shipley and Don Brash, had become directors of Chinese banks soon after leaving politics.

She said the government needed to overhaul its China strategy, which was set in 2012, and provide better guidance for the public on dealing with China.

“We need to inform the public, we need to inoculate them, so they can do the right thing when they’re engaging with China – particularly I’m thinking about our universities and our local government officials and there has been an inquiry into the New Zealand Parliament about some concerns there.

“It’s an issue our government is really concerned about and they’re talking about it internally a lot.

“Now, they need to find a way to upskill the New Zealand public on it,” Brady said.

Labour MP Phil Twyford said he was “horrified” one of his family members was included in the leaked data from the Chinese company.

“Am I concerned that anyone is harvesting information from the internet about the family members of politicians, let alone a foreign government? Am I disturbed by that? Yes I’m horrified,” Twyford said.

The names of New Zealand politicians, their family members, defence officials, diplomats, academics, business people, and sports stars are also on the leaked database.

Among the names featured are Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s parents and sister; former Prime Minister John Key’s son, Max; Labour minister Grant Robertson; sportswoman Barbara Kendall; Chief Censor David Shanks; and former cabinet minister Ruth Richardson.

National Party leader Judith Collins said she had not been briefed by Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern on Chinese intelligence gathering in New Zealand political circles, as she would expect to have been.

“There are other MPs in other parties obviously, including the National Party, where apparently some of our family members – not mine as I understand – have been accessed or certainly been watched.

“That’s something that gives me great concern and I would like to hear from the prime minister on exactly what she can tell me,” Collins said.

However, Labour minister Grant Robertson said the opposition was briefed regularly by New Zealand security agencies.

Collins said New Zealand had a strong trade relationship with China and people should not focus undue attention on the risks posed by Chinese intelligence gathering.

“It’s important everybody understands it’s not only China we should talk about, but every country we have links to,” Collins said.

“It’s important to understand our companies that are trading, that they often are subject to all sorts of activities, people trying to find out information about them.”

Jacinda Ardern said the data leak, which includes the names of her mother, father and sister, highlighted the need for vigilance on cybersecurity.

However, she was reluctant to comment on security matters.

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