Over the last decade concerns have been raised about Chinese “influence operations” in NZ and elsewhere. Run by CCP-controlled “United Front” organisations, influence operations are designed to promote PRC interests and pro-PRC views within the economic and political elites of the targeted country as well as Chinese diaspora communities. The means of doing so is transactional and convertible by cash. United Front organisations put money and operatives into the local political system exploiting loopholes or laxities in political finance laws and candidate selection processes, and buy majority ownership of or board membership in strategically placed local firms. This greases the skids for more “Chinese-friendly” perspectives in economic and political decision-making circles.
In parallel, local Chinese language media (both Mandarin and Cantonese) are purchased and their editorial orientation turned towards the CCP party line. This ensures that dissenting opinions are eliminated from outlets that cater to newer Chinese language immigrants, something that, for example, is evident in the coverage of Hong Kong over the last few years. Along with outright intimidation campaigns directed at critics, dissidents and so-called malcontents, this ensures that what is presented to local native and expat populations about China is what the CCP wants it to be. With large scale (now temporarily suspended due to Covid restrictions) immigration of CCP-approved or affiliated mainlanders on student and business visas and the emergence of ethnic Chinese lobbying groups, this ensures that pro-PRC narratives come to dominate how it is spoken about in targeted countries.
The practical goal is to present homogenous and uniform pro-CCP views among expat communities and to re-orient local elite perspectives and material interests towards a more China-friendly position, both in terms of international affairs as well as Chinese domestic politics. The broader strategy is to use the “Achilles Heel” of liberal democracy–freedoms of expression, association and movement–to subvert democratic societies from within. The approach is top-down and largely elite-focused, but has trickle down effects throughout the targeted society. Most importantly, it works. One only has to look at the wedding of NZ political and economic elite interests to those of Chinese agents and entities to understand why. Think Don Brash, John Key and Jenny Shipley as poster children for that type of unholy union, but Labour has, shall we say, some baggage of its own in this regard.
However, there is another malign foreign influence operating in NZ as well as places like Brazil and Italy. It arrives as a type of cultural or ideological diffusion and it is propagated by US-based non-state political actors like Steve Bannon and his Counterspin media channel as well as the Qanon conspiracy network, Alex Jones and Infowars plus assorted other alt-Right and neo-fascist outlets channeling anti-government and anti- “Deep State” views of the likes of the Proud Boys, Oathkeepers and Three Percenters. Rather than the top-down and elite-centric approach adopted by Chinese influence operators, US cultural-ideological diffusers use “alternative media,” direct marketing (such as by distributing leaflets and cold calling with false information) and social media (including using political blogs, fake websites, plus trolls and bots on large platforms) to exploit pre-existing social fault lines and amplify newer divisions in a targeted society. In doing so they copy and adapt Russian (and now Chinese) psychological operations models of disinformation, misinformation and false-flagging. They prey on gullibility, ignorance and/or hate and their currency is rage: rage born of frustration with life opportunities or personal grievance; rage against institutions and processes (i.e. the “system”), rage against past injustices and/or modern offences or slights; rage against assorted ‘others” challenging status and privilege; outrage at offences big and small–the sources of rage are both individual and collective and with enough coaching and channeling can be marshalled into a powerful force for good or evil. Cultural-Ideological diffusers such as Bannon travel on the dark side.
The approach is bottom-up and grassroots in orientation, and works along what Gramsci called the trenches of civil society to push a counter-hegemonic notion of “good sense” against the hegemonic conception of “common sense” purveyed by the mainstream (elite-controlled) media. These trenches include social movements as well as social institutions in which historical and contemporary grievances can be combined into a civil resistance front.
In the contemporary NZ context, that means uniting anti-vaccination/mask/lockdown sentiment with anti-tax, anti-environmental, anti-1080, Christian conservative, libertarian, gun-rights and assorted other rightwing views as well as outliers like Maori sovereignty proponents. To cultivate grassroots resistance it uses local activists as well as “Astroturf” entities such as the purportedly farmer-led group known as the “Groundswell Movement,” which in fact is a creation of the urban rightwing (and National Party-aligned) Taxpayers Union. The rhetoric of cultural-ideological diffusion protests is imported to a large extent and at times seemingly at odds with local issues: witness the proliferation of Trump and MAGA-supportive references amongst current anti-government demonstrators. More worryingly, unlike most of the NZ protest movements of the past, the rhetoric and actions of local protestors influenced by cultural-ideological US agitators is tinged with overt hints of violent punishment, retribution and revenge against the government, “liberals,” and even the mainstream media (which if anything has shown itself to be largely uncritical and mild Fourth Estate that is mainly interested in generating clicks or viewership based on controversies-of-the-day and scandal). References to NZ authorities as Nazis deserving of Nuremburg-style trials lend an ominous tone to the recent exercises in civil rights, to which can be added the open displays of racist, misogynist and neo-fascist sentiment among those involved. That may be a more “natural” form of discourse for a deeply polarised country like the US with a long record of political violence, but it has no organic roots in NZ’s otherwise vigorous culture of civil disobedience and public protest.
Less the smorgasbord approach to forming anti-government movements seem hopeless as a political strategy or praxis (and hence dismissible), the key to its success is to use cultural-ideological diffusion tactics to create a temporary coalition of convenience, not a long-term alliance. It’s immediate purpose is to sabotage the government from without, not undermine it from within. It uses contemporary political conflicts such as the debate about pandemic mitigation to sow social and political division while exploring the same Achilles Heel as do the Chinese influence operators (the freedoms of speech and protest in particular). Ultimately, its long-term end is similar: to undermine public faith in the liberal democratic system as given in order to impose a more authoritarian order of some sort. But for the time being, the focus is on the short-term: sow unrest, promote sedition and usurp authority using social media to import US-sourced cultural-ideological framing of “wedge” issues in order to do so.
Gramsci of course wrote thinking about Left political praxis in Mussolini’s Italy, so there is a certain irony in the adoption of his thought by the likes of Steve Bannon. But that is part of why Bannon is an evil genius: he knows what works and does not care from where good strategic ideas come from.
Not surprisingly local security “experts” have jumped up to state the obvious that things might get violent if the anti-government rhetoric continues to escalate along the lines mentioned above. Raising public consciousness of this possibility is a good thing. More helpfully, the NZ intelligence community has warned that a terrorist attack is possible within a year or so and that it will likely come in the form of a “lone wolf” emerging out of the anti-vaxx/mask/lockdown movement (although the process of radicalisation and likely profile of such an individual has not been specified). The media is covering itself as a target of extremists because some of its members have been threatened by anti-government bullies, and politicians, with good reason, are increasingly concerned about their security given the vitriol directed at (some of) them. While it is laudable to focus attention on the security threat angle implicit in recent protests, a deeper understanding of the methodology and mechanics of cross-border non-State cultural-ideological diffusion is in order, especially when it is subversive in intent. Unless one understands what the likes of Bannon want to do when directing their malevolent gaze on Aotearoa and who are the most susceptible to the entreaties of their perverse siren song, then all that can be done is to react to rather than pre-empt whatever harm is headed our way.
Our security authorities need to be cognisant of this fact, but as a stable and largely peaceful society, so do we.
I recognise this, nicely amplified. Is there not a difference in kind though between state-based cultural interventions and private cultural interventions? The outcomes may be equally malign, but we do typically differentiate.
When I think of State-based cultural-ideological diffusion I think of the US Fulbright program (I am a former Fulbrighter) or some of the NZ scholarship schemes for Pacifika youth. When I think of private cultural-ideological diffusion I think of missionaries and sports exchange programs. Neither PRC influence campaigns or US alt-Right cultural-ideological diffusion operations fit this typology, nor do I think that the objectives are the same: the PRC wants to control local government policy via influence operations, whereas the alt-Right campaigners want to destroy or overthrow the system of governance as given. What they have in common is their disdain for liberal democracy and willingness to subvert it.
A time worn fascist and neo fascist tactic is co-option. Even the German Nazis had “Socialist” in their party title as many have noted–mostly erroneously as they try and ascribe Herr Hitler to contemporary proponents of socialism or even social democracy.
It is stomach turning indeed to witness Māori sovereignty flags along side swastikas and Trump banners.
There was a weekly Chinese language newspaper ‘The Capital Chinese News” back in 2004, which published in traditional Chinese characters and was owned by an-expat ethnic Mongolian who hated the communist govt. The paper ran a Tiananmen Square memorial page on June 4th. The PRC was already using the tactics you describe: the Chinese Embassy immediately cut off all advertising (and news) from Embassy and PRC govt events, and pressured Chinese companies to stop their advertising too. Even non-PRC based and local companies (such as a Malaysian restaurant) came under pressure. One potent threat against local Chinese was to refuse to issue visa for them to visit family in China – the editor himself was banned from ever returning to China. The current Chinese language newspapers in NZ now are total laji (rubbish). Nobody from Taiwan, Malaysia Singapore, HK bothers to read them these days.
An excellent explainer – thanks Pablo. I have to say it is feeling a little scary out there in antivax/Freedumb land and they are much better organised than they were. From what I’ve observed on social media it began to get up a real head of steam several months ago. I have occasionally found myself awake and worrying about the safety of our PM, MPs and the advisors that have been prominent in the media since the pandemic and measures needed to get it under control began.
The strategy is two-fold: a) using social media and day money, infuse the antivax/mask/mandate/lockdown and other local movements (e.g. Maori sovereignty) with other alt-Right/nationalist-populist ideological threads imported from the US (MAGA); and b) increase the rhetorical anger directed at authority (govt/Deep State etc.). The goal is to delegitimise the elected government of the day but also liberal democracy as a political construct with the idea of replacing it with something more conservative, parochial and less cosmopolitan. If Bannon’s puppets in NZ can amalgamate and channel disparate grievances into a coalition of mal-and discontents, perhaps using the ACT Party as the repository for them, then a MAGA-style movement in NZ is quite feasible. The problem is that there are those within this coalition are quite capable of violence and the turn to US-style MAGA rhetoric is a ways of goading them into action. Consequently, the security services need to be on their toes.
I agree Pablo. I’ve just been reading about vaccinators being targeted and physically assaulted in at least one case in the past few days. I’m hopeful that security is being beefed up for both the PM and her advisors and also for these people working on the front line. But with the police being stretched thinly with other terrible events recently (the shootings and the other incident that led to injured police) it is very concerning – and those are ramping up too with gang related incidents. I’ve read on antivax/anti lockdown sites over the past week or so that there are members of the police who follow the likes of Brian Tamaki or Sue Grey, and their cohorts and who will not be vaxxed. I wonder whose instructions these people will follow – their police commander’s or that of their cult leaders? They are no doubt a small portion and if they won’t be vaxxed in time will be stood down, but how effective will they be until that happens?