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Concerns over Chinese data collection for influential NZers

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This story was originally published in RNZ.co.nz and republished with permission.

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

The names of 793 New Zealanders have been found in data revealed by 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), which means “it is part of the military-industrial complex in China,” Brady said.

Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady is concerned that information a Chinese company holds about prominent Kiwis may be linked to efforts to influence New Zealand politics and business.

RNZ

Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady is concerned that information a Chinese company holds about prominent Kiwis may be linked to efforts to influence New Zealand politics and business.

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

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

“Only 10 percent of the data has been recovered, so there’s a lot of stuff 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 are our high court judges, there are former ambassadors and current ambassadors to China, there are people at the table in China … What is really heartbreaking is to see the family members of our oldest politicians there.”

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

“This is happening on a large scale – there are about 2.4 million names.”

Canterbury University Professor Anne-Marie Brady.

Jane Patterson / RNZ

Canterbury University Professor Anne-Marie Brady.

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

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

“There are names out there, you will have to have extremely intimate knowledge of New Zealand politics and who is who and their family members and this is not easily found.”

The data could be used to blackmail or develop strategic relationships, Brady said.

“[Family members] can be targeted, business opportunities offered. “This is a lot of overseas model, or other options, or they get into trouble – blackmail, you call it.”

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

She said the government should review its China strategy, which was set in 2012, and provide better guidance to the public on relations with China.

“We have to inform the public, we have to inoculate them, so that they do the right thing when they are engaging with China – especially I am thinking about our universities and our local government officials and there has been an investigation into New Zealand Parliament for some concerns there.

“It’s an issue that our government is really concerned about and they are talking a lot about it within it.

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

Labor MP Phil Twyford said he was “horrified” one of his family members was involved in data leaked by the Chinese company.

“Am I worried that someone is gathering information from the internet about family members of politicians, let alone a foreign government? Am I worried about that? Yes, I’m terrified,” Twyford said.

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

Among the names featured are Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s parents and sister; son of former Prime Minister John Key, Max; Labor Minister Grant Robertson; athlete Barbara Kendall; Chief Sensor David Shanks; and former Cabinet Minister Ruth Richardson.

MORNING REPORT / RNZ

Opposition leader Judith Collins wants Prime Minister Jacindar Ardern to provide her with access to prominent New Zealand data access.

National Party leader Judith Collins said she had not been briefed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the gathering of Chinese intelligence in New Zealand political circles, as she would have expected it 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 it – have been seen or certainly watched.

“This is something that worries me a lot and I would like to hear from the Prime Minister exactly what she could have told me,” Collins said.

However, Labor Minister Grant Robertson said the opposition was regularly informed by New Zealand security agencies.

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

“Importers’s important that everyone understands that it’s not just China we need to talk about, but every country we have a relationship with,” Collins said.

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

Jacinda Ardern said the data leak, which includes the names of her mother, father and sister, stressed the need for cyber security vigilance.

However, she was reluctant to comment on security issues.

This story was originally published in RNZ.co.nz and republished with permission.

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