US democracy watchdog Freedom House accuses MP Todd McClay of 'echoing' China to 'justify mass detentions' in Xinjiang

National MP Todd McClay has been accused of "echoing" the Chinese government to "justify mass detentions" in Xinjiang, in a damning new report about China's growing global influence. 

McClay is criticised in the report for how he has characterised facilities in China's Xinjiang region - often described as "detention camps" - where it's understood millions of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are detained.  

"New Zealand lawmaker Todd McClay recently referred to the forced indoctrination camps for Muslim minorities in Xinjiang as 'vocational training centers,' echoing the terminology used by the Chinese government and state media to justify the mass detentions."

China says its 'vocational training centres' provide counter-terrorism training and psychological counselling for those affected by "extremist thoughts", but former detainees have spoken of torture and brainwashing.

The new report, by US government-funded Freedom House, also mentions McClay's attendance in December 2017 at a dialogue in Beijing organised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s International Liaison Department. 

A spokesperson for McClay told Newshub it was "disappointing this report has taken two things and placed them out of context". 

Referring to McClay's comments about the facilities in Xinjiang, the spokesperson pointed out that his full answer in an interview with Stuff about suspected human rights abuses had not been included in the report. 

"Mr McClay stated that abuses of human rights are a concern wherever they occur and that if credible evidence of human rights abuses came to light, National would expect the Government to make representations to China through formal channels."

As for the report's mention of McClay's attendance at the CCP-organised event in 2017, the spokesperson said both the National Party and Labour Party were invited to participate. 

"There were representatives from 120 countries. Mr McClay was asked to speak at the conference about trade and tourism opportunities between New Zealand and China."

National MP Todd McClay.
National MP Todd McClay. Photo credit: Getty

Questions about McClay's ties to China have been raised before. 

In August last year, it was revealed the National Party had received a $150,000 donation in 2016 from a New Zealand-registered, but Chinese-owned company - and that McClay had a role to play in it. 

The then-Trade Minister met the multi-millionaire Chinese donor Lin Lang in 2016, and claimed there was "never any question about support for a political party raised" at the time. 

McClay later slipped off his ministerial hat and invited Lin Lang to his Rotorua electorate, and admitted that Lin Lang did then "raise that he would like to support the National Party".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the donation as "outside the spirit of the law". 

McClay is the only New Zealand politician mentioned in Freedom House's report, but he's not the only New Zealander: Canterbury University Professor Anne-Marie Brady is also referred to. 

The report focuses on the "expansion of the Chinese Communist Party" and its influence on the media since 2017 - a topic Brady has published research on.  

The expert in Chinese politics wrote a paper in 2017 called Magic Weapons in which she attempted to highlight the policies of China's "expanded foreign influence activities" in the era of President Xi Jinping.

Brady also appeared before MPs at a select committee last year, where she urged the political parties of New Zealand to come together to address the issue of the CCP's interference in the political system.  

Professor Anne-Marie Brady appearing before MPs at select committee in 2019.
Professor Anne-Marie Brady appearing before MPs at select committee in 2019. Photo credit: Newshub

The Freedom House report highlights Brady's research, including her claim that President Xi is using his political power to raise China's foreign propaganda efforts to "a new level of assertiveness, confidence, and ambition."

The report says: "Indeed, Chinese state media, government officials, and affiliated companies are achieving increased influence over key nodes in the global information flow."  

The report, written by senior research analyst Sarah Cook, provides examples around the world - including New Zealand - of how the Chinese government appears to be trying to establish dominance over Chinese-language media. 

"In New Zealand, a long-term effort by the CCP to influence Chinese-language media coverage and local communities has had a profound impact on local politics," it says. 

"According to one Chinese scholar commenting on the country's 2017 elections, 'the Chinese community can only realistically aspire to political representation by its own members through individuals approved by Beijing.'"

The report concludes that the Chinese government is "engaged in a massive campaign to influence media outlets and news consumers around the world". 

It provides six recommendations for policymakers in democratic nations:

  • Increase transparency
  • Impose penalties for transgressions by Chinese officials
  • Scrutinise international censorship and surveillance by Chinese-owned companies
  • Tighten and enforce broadcasting regulations
  • Support independent Chinese-language media
  • Discuss responses with democratic counterparts

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in New Zealand told Newshub the "false words" in the report are "not even worth refuting". 

"It seems that some media seem to be plagued by 'China phobia and paranoia', which is manifested as backlash against China on all fronts. They slander and smear China in every possible way.

"When China's sovereignty and security are threatened or infringed upon, we need to safeguard our legitimate rights and interests. When others throw dirt on us with malicious intent, we need to show the truth and get the equality and dignity we deserve."