A former New Zealand prime minister has been quoted lavishing praise on China as the country’s current leader continues to deny reports of a rift between Wellington and Beijing.
In a piece published by Chinese state-run People’s Daily on Monday, Jenny Shipley, a former leader of the conservative National Party and prime minister from 1997 to 1999, commended China’s “huge contributions to the world’s economic growth” and its “great efforts” to promote reform.
“China has actively signed free trade agreements with neighbors and other countries in and out of the region, aiming to find out ways to work together,” Shipley said in the article, headlined “We need to learn to listen to China.”
She also praised Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Belt and Road initiative that aims to reshape global trade through huge infrastructure projects across multiple continents. Shipley called the plan “one of the greatest ideas we’ve ever heard globally” with the potential “to create the next wave of economic growth.”
While the People’s Daily identified Shipley as the author of the piece, in an email to CNN, Shipley said it was based on an interview she gave to another Chinese state-run newspaper last year, and not written by her.
Shipley said she made the comments during a visit to China in December for the 40th anniversary of reform and opening. “As part of this visit a number of leaders including myself were interviewed by the China Daily and this subsequent feature article was written and published without further reference to me,” the former prime minister said.
Asked whether the comments attributed to her were correct, Shipley confirmed they were.
Shipley’s comments come as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she wants to “correct some of the inaccuracies” around New Zealand’s relationship with China, which is the South Pacific country’s second-largest trading partner.
“China is a very important and highly valued partner for New Zealand,” Ardern said at a weekly news conference on Monday. “New Zealand and China have differences of views on some issues, as we do with any country, however this is a robust and mature relationship.”
She denied reports that New Zealand exports were facing delays entering China, or that Kiwi ministers were struggling to get visas to visit the country.
Reports of a rift emerged after Wellington blocked one of New Zealand’s top mobile operators from using equipment from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in its planned 5G network last year because of security concerns.
Huawei, the world’s biggest maker of telecommunications equipment, has been on the defensive in recent months as the US government has pushed for its allies to prevent the company’s technology being used in 5G networks, alleging that it could be used by China for spying.
The company has repeatedly denied that its equipment poses any security risk and has criticized moves to shut it out of networks as “irresponsible decisions” made for political reasons.
Industry executives and analysts say that the US pressure on Huawei risks delaying the rollout of 5G networks in key markets because the company is way ahead of its rivals in developing the technology.
Washington is increasingly facing pushback of its own, however, with a report this week that British intelligence has concluded there are ways to limit the risks of using Huawei to build 5G networks, reducing the likelihood London will seek to block the company entirely.
Ardern has sought to add nuance Wellington’s stance on Huawei, telling local media on Tuesday that the company was “never” out of the running to supply equipment for mobile operator Spark’s planned 5G contract, but that concerns had been raised by the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).
“The GCSB have raised concerns, that is in the public domain, they have gone back to Spark with those concerns, now the ball is in Spark’s court, that is literally where the process sits,” Ardern said.
Ardern has been facing criticism in Parliament and the news media from the opposition National Party, which has itself come under fire from some quarters for allegedly being too close to Beijing.
Writing on Twitter on Tuesday, New Zealand academic and China expert Anne-Marie Brady – who has suggested a burglary of her home and office last year was related to her work on Chinese influence overseas – said of Shipley’s comments that “friends of China are frequently asked to write positive articles for Chinese media.”
“The practice is called ‘using foreign strength to propagandise for China,’” Brady wrote.
This piece has been updated to reflect Shipley’s account of how and when the comments published in the People’s Daily were made.