Ex-New Zealand PM Denies Authoring Pro-China Opinion Piece in People’s Daily
On Feb. 18, 2019, the English section of the online website for the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China (CPC), published an opinion piece with former Prime Minister of New Zealand Jenny Shipley’s name in the byline. The article, titled “We Need to Learn to Listen to China,” is written in the first person — although the byline states that the article was “an interview with Dame Jenny Shipley” — and appears to praise CPC policies, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, the former prime minister denied writing the article, stating that although she gave an interview to a separate publication in December, she was unaware of the piece in the People’s Daily.
This is not the first time that Chinese state-run and party-run media have published supposed opinions attributed to prominent foreign figures. Prior opinion pieces published by Chinese media allegedly penned by foreign commentators have similarly praised China’s achievements.
Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University and an expert on Chinese affairs, told The New York Times that he does not give interviews to Chinese news media anymore after an opinion piece that he did not pen was published in the Chinese state-run Global Times in 2012. Commenting on why Chinese media outlets publish these articles, Medcalf suggested, “it’s about co-opting foreign voices to give credibility to everything that the leadership in China is doing,” with Shipley’s name carrying more weight with the domestic Chinese audience owing to her former role as Prime Minister of New Zealand.
Given the increasingly strained relationship between China and New Zealand, the publishing of the opinion under Shipley’s name may cause a lot more impact than other op-eds in the past.
In late November 2018, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), one of New Zealand’s three core intelligence agencies, barred the country’s major telecommunications company Spark from using equipment procured from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in expanding its 5G network. Spark cited statements by the GCSB’s Director-General asserting that use of Huawei equipment would “raise significant national security risks.”
A month later, the GCSB went public with claims that a group linked to the Chinese government was carrying out commercial espionage in several countries, including New Zealand. While the GCSB Director-General declined to name the affected companies and service providers, he warned that “this long-running campaign targeted… intellectual property and commercial data” and denied any specific link between this revelation of commercial espionage and the GCSB’s decision to block Huawei from Spark’s 5G network a month prior.
New Zealand is a member of the Anglophone intelligence alliance Five Eyes, whose members are US, Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. All five countries have warned that 5G equipment supplied by Huawei poses a serious security and intelligence risk, with the US leading the wave of accusations against Chinese firms with claims that allowing companies such as Huawei and ZTE in telecommunications networks would provide “the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information” and “to conduct undetected espionage.” However, certain experts have pointed out that it is unclear whether or not the Five Eyes are solely concerned with the security risk, with the fear of digital competition another possible factor driving governments to act.
Shipley’s alleged op-ed in the People’s Daily comes at a time when New Zealand is precariously balancing its commitment to an “independent foreign policy” alongside its relationships with traditional allies in the face of growing uncertainty about national security.
New Zealand is one of the countries that are forced to choose sides in the so-called “New Cold War” between China and the US. China is the major importer of New Zealand’s products, in addition to being a major customer of tourism. It is estimated that Wellington relies on Beijing for 15.3 billion New Zealand dollars (10.5 billion USD) in exports.
Foreign Minister Winston Peters, from the populist New Zealand First party, launched an attack on Shipley — who fired him as Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister in 1998 during her tenure as Prime Minister — a day after the op-ed appeared in the People’s Daily. Responding to Peters’ comment that the timing of the piece was “very unwise” and his call for her to “explain those words” in the op-ed, Shipley told the New Zealand Herald that she would “never think of getting into a public situation like this at such an important time for New Zealand’s relationship.”
While current New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern denies any deterioration of relations with China, a series of events in the new year may indicate otherwise. Earlier in February 2019, an Air New Zealand flight bound for Shanghai was denied clearance to land by Chinese authorities and forced to head back for unclear reasons, with certain media outlets suggesting Air New Zealand paperwork referring to Taiwan as an independent country triggered the Chinese action. A planned opening of New Zealand-China tourism initiative was canceled this month as well on account of “changes of schedule on the Chinese side” despite months of planning and coordination. Additionally, Prime Minister Ardern’s planned visit to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping has also been postponed multiple times.
Given the current state of relation between the two countries, the op-ed with Shipley’s byline may be forecasting China’s victory in the near future over the latest tensions with New Zealand.
Despite the GCSB’s ban of Huawei’s equipment in New Zealand’s new 5G network, Huawei started a new advertising campaign on Wednesday, Feb. 21. The full-page advertisement reads, “5G without Huawei is like rugby without New Zealand. Don’t miss out on the most advanced 5G technology available.”