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.