Seven former Defence Force staff hired to train Chinese People's Liberation Army - NZSIS

Yet another threat from China has been revealed through intelligence agencies.
Yet another threat from China has been revealed through intelligence agencies. Photo credit: Getty Images (file)

Story by RNZ

Intelligence agencies have revealed a further threat from China, telling MPs seven former Defence Force personnel were hired to help train the People's Liberation Army.

NZSIS director-general Andrew Hampton told Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee that over the last 18 months, the agency had identified seven New Zealanders who had been hired by the Test Flying Academy of South Africa.

He said they were supporting military and aviation training and it was was part of a wider strategy from China to boost the capability and lethality of its army.

"The training and expertise they were passing on was gained through previous employment with partner militaries and with the New Zealand Defence Force. Such activity clearly poses a major national security risk and it is not in New Zealand's interest to have former military personnel training in other military who does not share the same values as our own."

Hampton said the seven people were no longer in those roles, but warned others could be lured to replace them.

The revelation came on the same day Judith Collins, the minister in charge of the GCSB and SIS, revealed that New Zealand's Parliamentary Service and Parliamentary Counsel Office had been targeted in a China-linked 2021 cyberattack.

"Fortunately, in this instance, the [National Cyber Security Centre] worked with the impacted organisations to contain the activity and remove the actor shortly after they were able to access the network."

GCSB director-general Andrew Clark said New Zealanders could be reassured the hack was detected quickly, and action was taken before sensitive data was taken.

He said there had been 316 "cyber events" involving nationally significant organisations in the past year, and about a quarter of these - 23 percent - could be linked to state-sponsored actors.

China's cyber spying now also targeting individuals, civil society - security expert

Professor Lesley Seebeck from Australia's National Security College said China had been engaged in a pattern of increasingly aggressive cyber activity over the last 10-15 years.

"In the past they have tended to target IT for economic purposes as well as national security purposes, they've also moved to target people as well, individuals."

She said China had been collecting data on people as was evident from what happened in the US indictment, but also in the fact that it targeted electoral rolls in the UK.

Asked why they would target New Zealand Seebeck said they did not discriminate and it was just part of a pattern.

"They're also quite interested in trying to split off and split apart alliances, alliances is one of the things they're most concerned about. And of course New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes as well so it's going to be a target of that."

The Australian Defence Strategic Review which was released last year identified a growing strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific and Pacific regions from China, she said.

"They would be collecting intelligence or collecting data that would enable potential future intelligence and influence operations."

Electronic information has been used to gather intelligence for a long time, she said.

"In this case what we're seeing, particularly Chinese and also Russian attacks are becoming much more sophisticated, they are pushing the boundaries.

"So they're deliberately and quite directly targeting individuals - not just as we would have expected perhaps in the past, national security apparatus, military installations and capability, government institutions - they are now targeting civil society and of course they're also targeting industry as well for a range of reasons, not least for what industry does for defence systems but also to gain footholds in trade."

The pattern of their responses indicates that they do not really care, every time they are called out on this with evidence they declare it to be a "completely nonsensical fabrication", she said.

"It is important for our own reasons that we call it out, these kind of activities can have a chilling effect on our society and that goes to the heart of what it means to be a democracy."