Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Simon O'Connor: What was suspected, is now exposed

While the hacking of Parliament's computer systems by China does not surprise me, it is something we must take very seriously. Is this perhaps the wake-up call New Zealand needs?

Some may find it extraordinary to think that New Zealand’s largest trading partner thought it perfectly acceptable to hack into the heart of our democratic system - the computer servers of Parliament. That China has done so is as deeply worrying as it is symbolic. While this is the first time our intelligence services have acknowledged an attempt on our parliamentary computer systems by the Chinese Community Party (CCP), it is certainly not the first time Chinese state-sponsored cyber-attacks have occurred here in New Zealand. These attacks are frequent and wide in their application.

What China is doing should be sobering for many and a warning for all.

It should be sobering for those in New Zealand who say we should only focus on trade with China, including some of our former political leaders and business leaders. These people are now confronted with the clearest indication yet of the mischievous at best, and malicious at worst, actions of our largest trading partner. This behaviour can no longer be seen as only happening to others but happening clearly and specifically here in New Zealand. Trade is meant to be done in good faith and ‘free trade’ doesn’t mean your trading partner is free to hack you. This data breach of parliamentary systems is also a hint of the wider variety of activities that China undertakes in pursuit of its agenda at home and across the globe. Put another way, hacking is just one part of a continuum that also includes persecution, coercion, and manipulation.

It is also a warning to all of us. As some of us have been saying for years, China under a communist regime is a bad faith actor on the geopolitical scene. China is not simply interested in trading with New Zealand but also seeing New Zealand fall in line with its ambitions and view of the world. Seeking access to Parliament’s servers and the information within is done to achieve various ends. We have seen overseas that such attempts are often targeted at MPs, journalists, or human rights activists who criticise China. Today has confirmed that members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) across the world were a specific target, a group I was proud to co-chair while in parliament. The intention is as simple as it is dangerous – to silence any voice that criticises the CCP.

Other reasons for cyber-attacks are to identify those in the Chinse diaspora who are not speaking in full support of the CCP. Importantly, this hacking is just another means to gather human intelligence – something China is very good at and actively pursues. We should not allow this particular breach to blind us to other, and ongoing, activities sponsored by China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS). The MSS runs a variety of student and community associations, media outlets, and other entities here in New Zealand via its United Front Working Group. These are the ones who report on New Zealand Chinese (and others) who do not speak well of the CCP; lobby councils and other agencies to de-platform events the CCP deem problematic; or leave intimidating messages on phones or car windows of those whose opinions do not align with the CCP’s view of the world.

As I have always said, we do need to trade with China and events this week do not change this, but we should trade with eyes wide open. We should ensure the security of our computer systems but also our wider national security settings. It should be striking that those who only want to talk trade or will be seeking to downplay this data breach, are also the ones keen that New Zealand not join the likes of AUKUS Pillar Two.

If we should take anything away from the exposure of this CCP cyber-attack, it is that New Zealand needs to strengthen its defences.

We should also keep speaking up against such bad behaviour along with our partners, and so it has been encouraging to see New Zealand doing so in this regard. We also need to get a Magnitsky sanction law onto our books. That governments continue to prevaricate on this matter, even in the face of such malicious behaviour, is deeply worrying. Such Magnitsky laws are country agnostic – they can apply to all, some, or none. Whether this particular instance of hacking would have warranted any sanctions response by New Zealand, as other countries such as the United Kingdom have enacted, is another matter. Personally, I think sanctioning China would have been too aggressive, but that the option is not even possible is something our parliament should be addressing.

A final observation. The Chinese Communist Party is always quick to tell people like me to keep our opinions out of its internal affairs. The irony of this same CCP maliciously interfering in the internal systems of other countries, cannot be lost on them or anyone.

Simon O'Connor a former National MP graduated from the University of Auckland with a Bachelor of Arts in Geography and Political Studies . Simon blogs at On Point - where this article was sourced.

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