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New Zealand investigates politician who previously taught Chinese spies – China’s latest top news


New Zealand politician investigated for links to Chinese military intelligence

A little over two decades ago, Yang Jian was on a career path leading straight to military intelligence in China. He:

  • Studied at the People’s Liberation Army Air Force Engineering Academy;
  • Taught at that academy;
  • Became a Communist Party member; and
  • Taught English at the Luoyang Foreign Language Institute, which is known for training military intelligence officers.

Then he shifted course. He:

  • Received a scholarship to study at the Australian National University in 1994;
  • Moved to New Zealand to teach international relations at the University of Auckland;
  • Became a naturalized New Zealand citizen; and
  • Joined the National Party and gained a seat in New Zealand’s parliament, becoming one of the most important representatives of the country’s large Chinese community and often advocating positions of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Financial Times reports (paywall) that Yang, a man whose background meant that he would not have been able to leave China without the permission of authorities, and who would not have been able to pass a security clearance for non-legislative work in the New Zealand government, has been investigated by the country’s Security Intelligence Service (SIS). Former senior CIA analyst Christopher Johnson told the FT that “China has been very active in recent years placing and cultivating people at the grassroots political levels of Western democracies and helping them to reach positions of influence,” and that “it may also be using [New Zealand] as a testing ground for future operations in other countries.” This is likely what has SIS worried — particularly as New Zealand shares national security information with the four other major anglophone countries (the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and Canada), and as Yang had sat on the parliament’s select committee for foreign affairs, defense, and trade from 2014 to 2016.

While there is no word on the outcome of this investigation — Newsroom reports that SIS has “scrutinized him at times over three years, including interviewing one person about him last year” — the case unleashed a stream of polarized reactions.

Yang, and the National Party that he is part of, went on the defense:

  • Yang held a press conference at which he decried the investigation as a “smear campaign by nameless people who are out to damage me and the National Party 10 days from an election, just because I am Chinese.”
  • Peter Goodfellow, the president of the National Party, told Newsroom that he had “no idea” about the investigation but had been aware of Yang’s background, and warned, “You’re making a number of assumptions based on his background and I’d be careful unless you have proof of what you’re saying.”
  • Prime Minister Bill English also weighed in, saying that he had been aware of Yang’s background — including previous Communist Party membership — and it had not concerned him.

Others pointed out his case as a cautionary tale, if not a scandal:

  • News outlets and opposition politicians in New Zealand pounced on Yang’s admission that he “was teaching spies” how to parse English communications at the Luoyang Foreign Language Institute, with many arguing that the fact this was not widely known until now is a major scandal.
  • The reporter at FT who wrote the initial story on Yang, Jamil Anderlini, also followed up, arguing (paywall) that the “just because I am Chinese” defense is highly problematic. “If he was from, say, Italy, had trained and taught for a decade in Italian military intelligence academies and then became an MP in New Zealand who regularly spoke out on behalf of Italian interests, it would be equally problematic,” Anderlini wrote. “Liberal open democracies are more fragile than most people believe, and without the courage to face up to the potential threat posed by illiberal countries and their subversion efforts, we are all contributing to the erosion of what makes these systems so great.”
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Lucas Niewenhuis

Lucas Niewenhuis is an associate editor at SupChina who helps curate daily news and produce the company's newsletter, app, and website content. Previously, Lucas researched China-Africa relations at the Social Science Research Council and interned at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He has studied Chinese language and culture in Shanghai and Beijing, and is a graduate of the University of Michigan.