A MUTE POINT
Anne-Marie Brady has taken on one of the world’s most powerful countries and she refuses to back down. By Greg Bruce.
‘So just come down here,” she said, leading me down the hallway of the small, neat, modest brick-and-tile, three-bedroom place she shares with her husband and their three teenage children in suburban Christchurch. “This is where they came in.”
Where who came in? That is a good question, the right question, the question police are still trying to answer 11 months later. Others who have been trying: Interpol and the Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS). That’s a lot of time, firepower and investigative resources for a burglary of a small suburban home that netted three laptops (one not functioning), an iPhone 4 (not functioning) and an old push-button Nokia phone.
Crammed in next to Brady’s bed was a small desk where the University of Canterbury professor had done much of the work on her paper titled, “Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping”, which, following its publication on the website of leading American think tank the Wilson Center in September 2017, made an impact that was both global and intensely personal — an impact which, on both fronts, seems to be growing rather than dissipating.
The laptop on which she had written “Magic Weapons” had stopped working a week before the burglary, in February last year. It was old and she hadn’t found time to fix it and everything was on a memory stick anyway, so it wasn’t a big issue. The computer was under her side of the bed. They took it.
Another laptop, belonging to one of her three teenage children, was also on her side of the bed. They took it. The old Nokia was on her bookshelf. They took that too. From her daughter’s room they took a laptop and the iPhone 4.
Some of the things they didn’t take: a laptop that was on her husband’s side of the bed; the valuables that were on the same bookshelf as the aged Nokia; the cash that was clearly visible in one of the bedrooms they went through; anything else of value. They did scatter some clothes and toss the bedding, making what Brady says the police called “conspicuous mess”.
I asked if she had initially thought it a burglary. “No,” she said. “I knew what it was.” She’d received a warning letter a few days before. The letter finished, “You are the next.”
After the break-in, she said, the police told her, “If that’s a burglar, he needs to go back to burglary school.”
There was one other thing she wanted to show me, a photograph. It was of the lawn immediately outside her bedroom window, taken just after the break-in. There, in the centre of the frame, was one of her business cards. Prior to the break-in, she said, all her cards had been in a drawer. Nothing else had been taken from there.
She said, “It hasn’t fallen out in a hurry, cause it’s not part of anything they’ve got. They’ve actually placed it there. And, as you can see, my name, face up.”
She said the police ignored it. “It was just sitting outside there for ages. Eventually I collected it and handed it to them and told them, ‘That’s important.’”
Police say they won’t discuss the specifics of the investigation.
THE ACADEMIC world is a place of carefully researched and referenced statements, peerreviewed, critiqued by experts, revised, refined, conservatively couched. It’s not a place in which bold and unambiguous accusations of global import against one of the world’s most powerful nation-states are lightly made.
In that context, the first line of the abstract for “Magic Weapons” is a bit of an attention grabber: “New Zealand is the target of a concerted foreign-influence campaign by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”
The paper itself is 57 pages and 267 footnotes aggregating and detailing China’s interference and influence activities in the
political, media and community life of New Zealand and New Zealanders — a quantity of evidence of State-sponsored meddling that becomes, quite quickly, overwhelming.
Also overwhelming: the number of mysterious, unpleasant things that have happened to Brady and her family since its publication.
ALTHOUGH SHE has lived in Christchurch for most of her working life, Brady was born in a state house in Greys Ave in Auckland in 1966, and raised mostly in West Auckland.
She started school in Otara but her family moved to Glen Eden, near the Titirangi border, when she was still 5. She would spend pleasant hours on her own, walking long distances into the bush. She remembers it as a golden age. In the mid-1970s, with interest rates ballooning, her parents could no longer afford the mortgage. They moved to New Lynn.
“I was homesick for that house in Glen Eden for years,” she says. “I used to dream about it. A couple of times I’ve gone around to look at it. I just had such a golden childhood there.”
Her next school was open plan, about 100 kids sharing a single large space. She says of it: “Nobody knows who you are and nobody cares.” She says it was, “awful”. She says it was the beginning of what she calls, “My personal cultural revolution” — 10 years of education during which she “just switched off.
“In high school I was in the top class. It was obvious that I was one of the better students but I wouldn’t put much effort in. I didn’t need to. I mean school was that boring. I could have really excelled if I wanted to. But it was so, so boring for me. It was awful.”
In sixth form, she moved schools, having spent her entire fifth form year struggling, emotionally, following her parents’ divorce. She was constantly down, frequently tearful.
“I wanted to stop being like that,” she says, “And so, being in a different school, people wouldn’t know me as the person who kept bursting into tears all the time.”
She now wonders why nobody at her previous school thought her behaviour unusual or asked if they could help: “Nobody would say anything. And it was a Catholic girls’ school. There were terrible things going on with some of my friends as well. Our New Zealand way of dealing with emotion really is stiff upper lip and avert your gaze.”
She moved to Lynfield College, which at the time was the biggest school in New Zealand. She didn’t particularly like it, but thinks the move helped her get over the struggles of the year before. “Sometimes it’s like that,” she says. “Just changing your environment can change your habits.”
Today, she is a world expert on China’s Party State system, globally respected and admired, and not just within academia.
Her research and opinions have featured prominently in the pages of, among others, The New York Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, The Economist and Foreign Policy, but until the events of the last year or so she was basically unknown at home.
She says: “You wouldn’t want it to go to your head because our upbringing tells us that that’s not right. So I see the value of being ordinary back home. I see it now. It took a while though.”
FIVE DAYS after the break-in, police sent Brady a letter saying they hadn’t been able to find who was responsible and that unless more information or evidence was found, they couldn’t proceed with the case. Later that day and again the following day, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed concern about the case and said she would be in touch with the agencies involved. Two days later, a police spokesperson said the case was still under investigation. It has remained so ever since.
The day after the break-in at her home, somebody broke into her office at the University of Canterbury. It was the second time her office had been broken into in three months.
In November last year, Brady’s mechanic called her after what was supposed to be a routine service and asked: “Has someone been tampering with your car?” The pressure in both front tyres had been reduced in such a way as to destabilise the steering and render the brakes unreliable. Both valve caps were missing.
The mechanic, who didn’t previously know anything about the ongoing police investigation into the Brady break-in, said he believed it to be sabotage. Authorities are now investigating this too.
Outside her office, a sign warns that CCTV recording is taking place inside. She’s been told not to worry about her privacy, that recording takes place only after hours. At home, she’s had her own camera installed. Both her home and office have been swept for listening devices by the NZSIS.
ON THE day I visited her house last month, her twins were in their last week of school for the year. The family ate breakfast together. She hugged the boys before they left for school, then her teenage daughter, who has just finished school, did her hair.
Her husband, the father of her children, an artist, was doing some work around the house. He is Chinese and speaks limited English but stopped to chat briefly and to point out his paintings of the Canterbury landscape on the walls.
He and Brady were introduced by mutual friends in April 1996, when she was a teacher at People’s University in Beijing and he was a member of the well-known Yuanmingyuan artists’ colony, also in Beijing. Brady didn’t want to talk too much about him. Her greatest fear about this article was that it might
In Buddhism there’s this way of enlightenment where the monk just comes along and hits you with a big stick, and it’s like, ‘Woah, I see the light.’ That was what Chinese philosophy was like for me.
endanger the lives of his family in China.
After breakfast, she took me outside to see the family’s chickens. They’ve had chickens for years but, the month before the break-in, the last one had died of old age. After the break-in, Brady’s daughter asked if they could get more. They provide comfort in troubled times.
“If the chickens are happy, that means everything’s fine in that moment. They’re very zen little beasts. And the same with the cat. You know, ‘There’s nothing to worry about, the chickens are happy — it’s all fine at this point in time.’ They’re a barometer, basically, a wellbeing barometer.”
The chickens’ names are Pippi, after Pippi Longstocking, the self-proclaimed strongest girl in the world, and Nancy, after Nancy Wake, aka “The White Mouse”, the New Zealand-born wartime resistance hero who boasted of killing a large number of Germans during the war, including one with her bare hands, and whose defining quote came in an interview at age 89: “Somebody once asked me: ‘Have you ever been afraid?’ Hah! I’ve never been afraid in my life.”
BRADY SAYS she’s a relentless optimist. She also says she’s a long-term thinker. She and her husband spent a long time thinking about where and how they wanted to live, looking at 150 properties before buying their place in 2002, in Upper Riccarton. It’s a location that has allowed them to limit their car dependence and therefore their exposure to increasing oil prices. It was relatively inexpensive - the median property price in the suburb is still only $472,000 — and they paid off the mortgage as soon as they could, thereby limiting their exposure to potential interest rate rises and financial shocks. They have a vegetable garden and egg-bearing chickens which limit their exposure to issues with food security. They’re considering getting water tanks.
Of family life, she says: “It’s amazing, it’s really wonderful and it’s a real gift. All the hard work and everything you do with the family and the housework and all that, and admin as they get bigger, it’s all a gift — this amazing gift we have. Especially the kind of work I do, it never ends, so it helps me to be a normal, balanced person.”
On the day her daughter was born, she wrote in her journal the lyrics from the 1983 song This is The Day, by The The. “It’s a lovely song,” she says, reciting the lyrics: “This is the day when things fall into place. This is the day when your life will surely change.”
She talked with her husband, way back, about what was important to them and how they could create the life they wanted. “And we live it,” she says. “We don’t have unnecessary things because we value freedom for ourselves and our family and that is also to do with the work that I do, that I’m self-sufficient if necessary, because I understand the risks, and have done for a long time.”
What she means is that the world is a precarious place and things don’t always go to plan.
THE FIRST time she went to China was as a university student on exchange in February 1990, months after the massacre at Tiananmen Square. She and the other New Zealand students were placed in a dorm for foreigners, into which Chinese students weren’t allowed. None of the Chinese students would talk to them anyway. In class, the teachers wouldn’t say anything of interest or stray from the textbook. The level of stress was so high, Brady says, all the girls in her dorm stopped menstruating.
“Clearly,” she says, “we were in a heightened state of not feeling safe.”
The following year, while she was in China researching her masters thesis on Rewi Alley, two things were stolen from her room: a photocopy from a sensitive book about Chinese Communist Party (CCP) activities and a sensitive letter about the relationship between Alley and the CCP. Nothing else was taken.
On a later visit to China, her laptop stopped working shortly after she had covertly taken photos of the outside of the CCP’s central propaganda department for the cover of her book, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China.
Back in New Zealand, she took the laptop to be repaired and says she was told it had been dropped, “from a great height”, and the hard drive had shattered.
“Well,” she told them, “that never happened.’”
They were eventually able to retrieve everything off the hard drive except the photos of the central propaganda department of the CCP. “Do you think ...” I began to ask. “Yeah, of course,” she said. “Somebody went in, took the photos, tried to destroy them and in the process damaged the computer. Of course.”
“So lots of stuff like that happened over the years and that just happens to people who do the kind of research I do.”
But what bothered her more than any of that was the pressure she came under at the start of her career from a New Zealand academic wanting to prevent her revealing in her research that New Zealand’s famed “friend of China”, Rewi Alley, was gay.
“I really grappled with it, because I could see that if I was going to continue — like, was I going to not talk about this issue and make my life easier? Or was I going to do what was valid from an academic point of view?
“That was my moment of choosing to step up and not be afraid.”
At that moment, she didn’t know the whole thing would one day arrive in her bedroom.
SHE ALWAYS knew she would go to university. “Mum said I was going, so I was.” But she didn’t have big ambitions. At high school, she told the careers counsellor she wanted to become a nanny in London. “I just wanted to get out of New Zealand,” she says.
On her first day at university, with no idea what subjects to take, she ended up choosing the same subjects she’d hated at school.
“I was just bored. And I couldn’t read the whole year. If I can’t read a book, that’s a really bad sign.”
At the end of the year, someone gave her Janet Frame’s memoirs, which reignited her love for reading. Around the same time, one of her flatmates was a 38-year-old China trader with multiple degrees. He suggested she learn Chinese. China was going to become more and more important to New Zealand, he told her, and New Zealand would need more people who could act as a bridge.
His descriptions of his trips to China in the 1980s were, she says, fascinating, and their flat in Fort St was full of interesting Chinese artefacts he’d brought home. The next year, she enrolled in a Chinese philosophy class and almost instantly became interested in and engaged with learning again, in a way she hadn’t since the age of 9.
She says: “In Buddhism there’s this way of enlightenment where the monk just comes along and hits you with a big stick, and it’s like,
‘Woah, I see the light.’ That was what Chinese philosophy was like for me.”
The next year, she started learning to speak and read Chinese and knew within a month it was what she wanted to do.
“For someone who was an intelligent person, it’s like being in prison if you’re in a situation where you’re bored for 10 years. That’s a horrible feeling for someone who actually naturally loves learning and reading and enquiry. So it was a huge release to be interested in something again, and something that I could see had real value and I could make a difference if I worked hard — I could be part of something that needed to be done.”
IN 2017, as she plunged deeper into the nature of China’s interference in New Zealand while working on “Magic Weapons”, she became increasingly concerned.
“I was getting more and more distressed and anxious and scared about what I was finding. This was way beyond anything I’ve ever done before,” she says. She felt the paper didn’t belong to her, that it needed to go to the government agencies who deal with the kind of things she was uncovering.
She says: “I contacted the SIS and they never called me back. Turns out they have a bad messaging service.”
She also turned to people she knew working in government departments: “I had people, senior people I could talk to, who know me, who know I don’t cry wolf. They never got back to me.
“This was very, very real and very, very concerning and once I got the paper to the level that someone could read it ... and I tried to reach out and didn’t get a response, that was very scary.”
She says she knew publication would put her and her family in danger, and that she needed to be 100 per cent sure what she was publishing was accurate.
Prior to being released publicly through the website of the Wilson Center, the American think tank at which she was a global fellow, the article was read by colleagues of hers in the politics department and law school at the University of Canterbury and by four or five China specialists from Australia. She estimates it was reviewed by more than 10 people. A typical peer-reviewed article published in an academic journal will be read by two or three people.
She says she decided to make the article freely available online so New Zealanders could see it for themselves. “Then they can choose,” she says. “They can have some choice in this China strategy.”
AS WE sat last month in the two-time crime scene that is her office at the University of Canterbury, Brady told me she didn’t go looking for the role she now occupies but neither will she back down from it. People have to stand up, she said, not remain silent, not be censored, not be muted.
“Our democracy is made by us every single day,” she said. “We’re constantly making it and shaping it. We shouldn’t give up on it.”
She said we’re lucky to live in this society — “this amazing community” — that’s been created by generations of New Zealanders.
“I found stuff that I couldn’t unknow. I’ve got the privilege to be paid to think and to write and to be the academic. And in our law, under the education act, my job — and it’s in my contract too — is the critic and conscience of society. So that’s why I accepted my role, because I have this privileged position, and what’s the use of being in a democracy if we don’t step up when the time comes?”
I said one answer might be that you want your family to be safe.
“See those pictures?” she said, and pointed to three small photos, pinned to the wall, just above several framed photographs of her children. “That’s my grandfather, Francis John Brady, chief superintendent of police, and that’s Ruby Brady, his wife, and above that’s Nancy Wake. I put those up after February to remind me of stroppy people and courageous people, people who did the right thing. So, yeah, you’ve