ALLEN (FENG) ZHU AGAINST RNZ
Case Number: 3105
Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2021
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: Radio NZ
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
1. RNZ ran a story on its website headlined - Chinese Communist Party spies in NZ universities, lecturers suspect - on June 28, 2021.
The story quotes three academics who report strange occurrences in their lectures, including the presence of people attending who did not belong in the class.
2. The story surmises that the appearance of random people in lectures, including one who took photos of the class and a slide presentation and another who tried to correct the lecturer about the “official” version of Chinese history, could signal the presence of CCP spies in NZ universities.
3. Allen (Feng) Zhu claims the story breached three Media Council principles, namely Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Principle 4: Comment and Fact and Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity.
4. Mr Zhu believes all three principles were breached because “the editor” used three lecturers’ “subjective and obviously biased opinions” to conclude that “Chinese Communist Party spies are infiltrating NZ universities”.
5. Such a “groundless article” could engender suspicion of all Chinese people in New Zealand “and aggravate anti-Chinese racism in New Zealand”.
6. Mr Zhu believes that one of the lecturers quoted in the article, Dr Stephen Noakes of Auckland University, should have reported an unenrolled person who was taking photos in his lecture to police, or ask them to stop taking photos.
7. He did not believe that allegations of spying could be levelled at the interloper based on their actions while at the lecture.
8. It was wrong to conclude that another person was a CCP spy just because they upbraided a lecturer about her lecture content while the class was in progress. “To be honest if you were a trained spy would you do such a high profile thing?”
9. Under Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity, Mr Zhu said it was “ridiculous” to label Chinese students who had different views “about an event with the lecturer” as “nationalists or even spies”. Mr Zhu said “the same event” could be interpreted differently “just because people have a different prejudgment or purpose”.
11. The complainant said he had experienced racism in New Zealand and reports such as the one he has complained about would exacerbate racism in New Zealand.
12. RNZ did not interview “people with opposite views”.
13. Complaints Coordinator George Bignell rejected the complaints and stood by the story. For a statement to be found in breach of the discrimination and diversity standard an element of malice or invective “inciting the audience to take action or hold racist views” would need to be present.
14. RNZ accurately reported Dr Stephen Noakes and Catherine Churchman’s comments and observations. There was nothing inaccurate in the story.
15. Academic Catherine Churchman did not say the person “was a student” as Mr Zhu claimed in his complaint. She was quoted discussing “a man she thought was a student” who said he was a “visiting scholar”. The man came into Ms Churchman’s class without permission and tried to “correct “Ms Churchman with the “official position” on Chinese history. Mr Bignell said it was “entirely reasonable” for Ms Churchman to comment that she found the man’s actions “rather suspicious” on the basis of the facts outlined.
16. Regarding the Comment and Fact principle, Mr Bignell said there was no breach.
“The complainant stated that ‘these examples used are completely subjective and obviously biased’ which is a matter of the complainant’s judgment.”
17. That did not mean to say that RNZ should not publish such comments because “the public had a right to know the relevant views held by people in positions of responsibility such as the university academics” quoted in the article.
18. RNZ rejected the notion that the story might incite suspicion of Chinese people in New Zealand or aggravate the “anti-Chinese racism”.
19. Mr Bignell said while Mr Zhu might make that inference there was no “implication in the article that could lead to that sort of conclusion”.
20. “What was stated were a number of facts of what occurred in different lecture theatres and the conclusions which the different lecturers drew from those events.”
21. The article in question is a straight forward news story based on the observations from three university lecturers, two of whom have taught classes in China.
22. The Media Council does not agree with Mr Zhu that this is a “groundless” article.
23. Lecturers are regarded as bonafide experts in their field. They are also likely to be keen observers of their students in class and therefore their comments about unusual activity in lectures have both credibility and validity.
24. The Council notes that there is no dispute about facts in this complaint.
25. The complaint is about how the actions of unnamed and unenrolled people who attended university lectures have been interpreted by the academic staff giving those lectures. The story relies on the academics’ opinions about the odd behaviour.
26. All three agree that the behaviour of the unenrolled students was suspicious and pointed towards intelligence gathering or spying, therefore this is a story of considerable public interest and is underpinned by three independent academics from across New Zealand.
27. Mr Zhu has criticised only two examples of unusual behaviour in an article that highlights several more. Nevertheless the Media Council does not agree with the complainant that the examples do not support a hypothesis of intelligence gathering.
28. It is beyond the scope of the Media Council to adjudicate on such a matter. The media, however, is entitled to explore issues such as these as part of its contribution to the functioning of a healthy democracy.
29. It is the Media Council’s view that an unenrolled student entering a lecture and schooling a lecturer in Chinese history about the “official position” on said history is highly unusual and worthy of inspection.
30. Further, when Mr Zhu’s examples are viewed against the other examples of odd behaviour described in the story, the actions of the people appear highly unusual.
31. Mr Zhu has not provided any argument to counter this view, other than it is subjective and biased. To the first point, Mr Bignell has suggested that Mr Zhu’s own view is also subjective.
32. The Media Council also rejects Mr Zhu’s assertion that the story is biased, as there is no evidence to support that claim.
33. Mr Zhu claims the story did not canvass “people with opposite views”. That is incorrect as the story carried a strongly worded statement in opposition from the Chinese Embassy.
34. There is no breach of Principles 1 and 4.
Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity states: Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.
35. The Council is sympathetic towards Mr Zhu’s concerns about racism directed at Chinese people but this is not a story that places gratuitous emphasis on Chinese people. As Mr Bignell points out there is no malice or invective directed at Chinese people in the story.
36. It is not discriminatory for a lecturer in Chinese history to comment about students’ adherence or otherwise to an official line on an historical event, such as the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989.Nor is it discriminatory to observe a groundswell of nationalism among young Chinese students brought up under the reign of Xi Jinping. These geo-political trends have been widely reported by media across the world.
37. The subject of the article - the suspicion of CCP spies infiltrating NZ universities - meets the test of a legitimate subject of public interest and is not gratuitous either in tone or nature therefore there is no breach of Principle 7.
The complaint is not upheld.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Sandy Gill, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten and Marie Shroff.
Tim Watkin took no part in the consideration of this complaint.