A China-born member of New Zealand’s parliament is now having to fend off accusations that he was trained as a spy in his home country after a media investigation unearthed some concerning details about his allegedly hidden past.
Jian Yang now serves as an MP for New Zealand’s ruling, right-wing National Party; however, years before, he spent more than a decade at a pair of elite institutions in China with links to Chinese intelligence services.
Yang’s government resume fails to list the time that he spent studying and teaching English at the People’s Liberation Army Air Force Engineering Academy and at the Luoyang Foreign Language Institute, a school that is run by the Third Department of the Joint Staff Headquarters of the PLA, China’s national security agency, and specializes in training both “openly acknowledged military intelligence officers and ‘secret line’ deep cover agents.”
According to a joint investigation by New Zealand’s Newsroom and the Financial Times which unearthed these details from Yang’s past, the MP’s background indicates that he would almost certainly have been a Chinese military intelligence officer and a Communist Party member. The Newsroom notes that it’s “considered unusual for someone with intelligence connections to be allowed to leave China for Australia to study, or to have done so without the backing of the party or PLA.”
In an interview with the Financial Times before these revelations were published, Yang confirmed that he attended both military institutions, but urged the researcher not to emphasize his academic background. “You don’t need to write too much about myself,” he said. “As for me myself, actually I don’t feel it’s necessary to include so many detailed things.”
After the reports were published, causing a political sensation in New Zealand, Yang issued a statement, refuting “any allegations that question my loyalty to New Zealand,” claiming that he had been “nothing but upfront and transparent” about his background and challenging those making accusations against him to step up and prove them.
“This is a smear campaign by nameless people who are out to damage me and the National Party 10 days from an election, just because I am Chinese,” he said.
However, at a press conference on Wednesday, Yang was forced to admit that while serving as a “civilian officer” paid by the Chinese military he had perhaps taught English to Chinese spies.
“If you define those cadets or students as spies, yes, then I was teaching spies,” he told reporters. “I don’t think so. I just think they are collecting information through communication in China.”
Later, Yang admitted that he had taught students how to intercept and decipher communications, but insisted that he had not taught them how to engage in “the physical act of spying.”
Finally, a reporter pushed him on his definition of “spying.” “You knew you were teaching them English so that they could spy on other countries and that they were using their English to monitor the communications of other countries,” the reporter said. “So spying?”
“Okay. If you say spying, then spying. Yeah,” Yang nodded before one of his fellow party members decided that it was “time to get going” and hurried him out of the room.
According to the Newsroom, New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service has scurtinized Yang at times over the past three years because of his background. The Financial Times notes that “no other western country is known to have a sitting member of parliament with such extensive training in China’s military intelligence apparatus.”
“In the last five to 10 years, Chinese intelligence agencies have moved heaven and earth to recruit anyone in public life anywhere in the world who they think might work for them,” one expert in China’s global intelligence efforts who is familar with Yang told the Financial Times. “With his education background [Mr Yang] would be a prime target if he was not already an active agent.”
Yang left China in 1994 to study at the Australian National University in Canberra before emigrating to New Zealand in 1999 to begin teaching international relations at the University of Auckland. In 2011, he was hand-picked by National Party president Peter Goodfellow to become an MP. Since then, he has sat on a number of important select committees of the New Zealand parliament, including those dealing with trade and defense. He has also worked to fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars from Auckland’s Chinese community for the party.
As an MP for New Zealand’s ruling party, Yang has been a vocal supporter of China’s Communist Party and is said to be a central figure in shaping the government’s China strategy, pushing for closer ties with Beijing. He has also represented New Zealand on a number of official trips to China and been present at many high-level meetings between the two countries’ leaders.
How much other party members knew about Yang’s past is still an open question. Goodfellow told the Financial Times that Yang’s academic background was widely known in New Zealand and that he had provided a “full resume” that included both of the Chinese military institutions. “You’re making a number of assumptions based on his background and I’d be careful unless you have proof of what you’re saying,” Goodfellow warned the reporter.
However, others have accused the National Party of completely failing to properly vet Yang. Winston Peters, founder of the rival First party, issued a statement yesterday, saying that Yang’s links to Chinese intelligence agencies were troubling. “The National Party either spectacularly failed to check out this candidate, or were totally naive about what his background meant,” he said.
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