Expert describes many ways China could spy on Kiwis

News 07/05/2019

A leading expert on China's international relations says New Zealanders are vulnerable to Chinese spying through various methods and the intense focus on Huawei is "odd".

On Monday, at the China Business Summit in Auckland, Huawei New Zealand deputy managing director Andrew Bowater said the company was blindsided by the GCSB's warning to Spark not to use Huawei 5G equipment.

Last year, the GCSB, New Zealand's foreign-focused spy agency, said it had identified major network security risks with technology made by Huawei, which is closely linked to China's ruling Communist party.

Bowater said claims the technology is being used to spy on Kiwis aren't true, and testing by the United Kingdom's spy agency, the GCHQ, had proved that.

But even if Huawei isn't spying for China, the Chinese may be using other methods.

"That is a bit of an odd story isn't it" said James Laurenceson, the acting director of the Australia-China Relations Institute when discussing China's capabilities in spying. 

If a Chinese hacker or a Chinese spy agency wants to find out your data, they don't need to go through Huawei to do it

"Over the last year, there have been nine reports of Cisco systems, this is the American company that is often at the core of telecommunications networks, and they have had backdoors revealed in their systems.

"What are we going to do? Just ban all Chinese tech companies? The reality is more of the world's best technology is increasingly coming out of China, so I don't think that's a particularly sustainable approach."

The GCSB's announcement sparked a period of cooling ties between New Zealand and China, with a visit from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to Beijing postponed and a scathing article in the China People's Daily - considered a mouthpiece of the Chinese state.

While Ardern's trip eventually went forward, the period raised concerns about the volatility of the relationship.

But Laurenceson said New Zealanders shouldn't fear China and much of the rhetoric about a spat between the two nations wasn't based on much.

"This is where you need to have a debate based on facts and evidence" he said

Just to be clear, some Chinese interference, I think, is unacceptable, some of the behaviour is unacceptable.

Look at the South China Sea, for example, building islands and militarising... that's not okay.

"A lot of the other stuff doesn't stand up to facts and scrutiny. We have had some allegations thrown around about the loyalty of Chinese Australians and you dig into that and, trust me, they are loyal to Australia before they are to Beijing, and I assume it is the same in New Zealand."

He said tensions in New Zealand paled in comparison to issues in Australia, which did not have any Government ministers get a visa to visit China for 18 months.

In diplomacy, words are bullets.

"We had some new foreign interference legislation introduced recently, there is nothing wrong with that, any country can introduce legislation to protect its interests.

"But in introducing it, our Prime Minister decided to single China out as one of the motivations."

China is New Zealand's largest export partner, and without it, Laurenceson said New Zealand would struggle economically.

"The demand is not going to come from anywhere else. I mean we do get a bit excited about India and other countries that might take over."

The reality is its China that wants the products and services that countries like New Zealand and Australia produce.

But he said it could be better if New Zealand succeeds in renegotiating its trade agreement with China and was able to get products into the country at a lower tariff rate.

Ardern said the relationship between the two countries was strong, and praised China's "commitment to protect the rules-based international order", as well as its efforts to support global free trade, multilateral cooperation and fight climate change.

"China is a valued partner for New Zealand, but it was clear from my discussions... that China also values its relationship with New Zealand."

The AM Show / Newshub reporter Jamie Ensor