As bad as having a former KGB officer in Parliament?

When Newsroom picked up and ran my post on National MP Jian Yang, they highlighted the analogy I drew

Imagine a former KGB officer serving in the New Zealand Parliament in the 1970s, advocating the interests and views of the Soviet Union

(to which I had added “and hob-nobbing with representatives of the Soviet Embassy”.

I noticed that, in response, one prominent commentator on the right suggested that the comparison (with Yang and China) was overblown, and that today’s China was nothing like the Soviet Union of the 1970s.  I’ve reflected on that and frankly I’m at a bit of a loss to see the differences that put modern China in a better light than the 1970s Soviet Union.  Unless perhaps it is the current Chinese dictators wear better suits?

Of course, there are some significant economic differences between the two regimes.  Chinese firms trade with and invest in the wider world, while the Soviet Union traded mostly (but not solely) with other communist countries.   China allows the market considerable play in matters economic, and the Soviet Union didn’t.    So long, that is, as a notionally private company concerned doesn’t step out of line (see Richard McGregor’s excellent The Party).  And some of the key dimensions of a market economy are the rule of law, a market-led allocation of credit, and the ability to fail. On none of those does China score well.

And it isn’t as if China is some startling economic success story either.    Here is a chart from a post I ran last year on China’s continuing economic failure (relative to both the US –  as representative of a leading advanced economy –  and to other east Asian countries).

asia gdp pc cf US

China today is richer (per capita GDP) than the Soviet Union was in the 1970s, but almost every country has got a lot richer since then.  As a proportion of US (or New Zealand) GDP per capita, China’s current GDP per capita is estimated to be a bit lower today than the Soviet Union’s was in the 1970s.

Quite probably, China will close the gap to some extent over the next decade or two, even if they persist with the current credit-driven, absence of supply-side reforms, economic model.    But embedded within the system are huge misallocations of credit, and thus of real resources.   They can avoid a financial crisis, but they can’t avoid that waste.

But this isn’t primarily a post about matters economic.  A strong economy can support foreign policy ambitions, and a weak one can eventually undermine those ambitions.  So even if China were to achieve greater economic success, it shouldn’t be particularly reassuring to the rest of the world.  On checking I noticed, for example, that in 1938 German manufacturing exports were 20 per cent of the world total –  a large proportion of which will presumably have been to countries that only a year or two later were the subject of Hitler’s aggressive intentions.    There will have been plenty of people in each of those countries with a strong economic interest in making a case for Germany.

To me, there are two aspects of China –  and thus about Jian Yang’s past active service in that regime (and Party’s) cause –  that should be of concern.   There are the values the Chinese authorities apply internally, and the approach they adopt and encourage externally.   Neither should be encouraging to anyone who values the free and liberal democracy –  with all its faults –  that countries like our own built and maintained over the last few hundred years.     It is a regime that murders protestors –  what Jian Yang refers to just as “student demonstrations” –  that imprisons dissenters, that denies freedom of worship, the bans internet access to sites critical of the regime (or indeed, to services that won’t act as agents of the regime in suppressing dissent).  For decades, they forced abortions on couples who wanted more than one child.  And today they are at the forefront of using surveillance technology – much more advanced than anything the Soviet Union could use 40 years –  to keep the citizenry in check.    The obscene inequalities of wealth, flowing in the direction of the political elite and those close to them, are just another aspect of the evil.   Prada handbags and smartphones tell us nothing about the character of the regime.   (And I don’t see anything in the character of the sort of regime in this paragraph that marks it out from the Soviet Union.)

I’m not one who favours interfering in the internal governance of other countries, large or small, and no matter how unsavoury they are.     But if someone who was an active part of such a vile regime –  voluntarily a Party member –  comes to New Zealand and wants to be part of governing our country, one might reasonably expect he would (a) acknowledge his part in, and (b) denounce the evils of, the system.    As a member of the Chinese language media put it to me, the language Yang used in his maiden speech about Tianamen Square was the sort of language one would only use if one supported the brutual suppression of those demonstrations by the government and Communist Party of China –  in whose cause Jang had then been working.

But it is the foreign policy of China that should be even more disconcerting.  In the 1970s, the West and the Soviet Union and its allies were fighting the odd proxy war (eg Angola –  with Cuba on one side and South Africa on the other), and there was the invasion of Afghanistan.  I’m not about to trivialise the Soviet Union, but it was the also the era of great power detente.  Both sides were suspicious of the other –  and the risks of misinterpretations leading to nuclear conflict –  but by the 1970s few people saw the Soviet Union’s intentions as primarily expansionist or aggressive.    And the UN apart, the Soviet Union wasn’t part of most international agencies (eg IMF, World Bank, WTO/GATT).

And these days?  China remains the leading protector of North Korea.  China propounds values, and standards of international governance, through international organisations, that are inimical to those of the West.  China is an actively expansionist power –  most visibly in the South China Sea, where it has been in flagrant breach of international law.  China is a key player in cyber-espionage.  China is widely-recognised as attempting to suborn regional political leaders –  apparently successful for now in the Philippines.  And China’s strategy of attempting to exert influence in a wide range of countries through the deployment of its (current or former) citizens in other countries is pretty well-documented.   China still lays claim over a democratic state (Taiwan) and has never renounced the possibility of using force to take Taiwan.  In short, China represents a considerable threat to the sort of regional and world order that New Zealand has been a part of, and which (historically at least) its leaders were willing to champion.

(I’m not really interested in “what-aboutism”.  “Our side” does questionable things in the international sphere at times too, and as I noted the other day I’d be concerned –  albeit less so – if a former member (especially an unacknowledged one) of US intelligence services were in our Parliament.  But our values are not those of the current Chinese regime, and that regime is not content to apply its standards only in its territory.)

And then, frankly, there are two other differences: numbers and location.  The Soviet Union in the 1970s had a population similar to that of the United States, and much smaller than that of all the NATO (and associated) countries.    China –  still relatively poor in per capita income terms, as the Soviet Union was, now has (or shortly will) have the largest economy in the world.   Such a large economy buys a lot of weapons systems, and potentially a lot of clout.  And location?   The Soviet Union’s prime focus wasn’t south and east Asia. China’s is.  New Zealand is a long way from either country, but the threat to our values, and our systems, is real nonetheless –  and, compared with the 1970s, New Zealand stands more alone than it did then.

I don’t suppose China has any intention of invading New Zealand, any more than the Soviet Union did.  Something akin to vassal status will do just fine –  countries that are reluctant to stick up for what they once believed, that are reluctant to stick up for countries with similar values in east Asia, that are reluctant to call out China’s territorial expansionism or its internal abuses.  Yes, I’d say the China is at least as serious a threat to us today as the Soviet Union once way –  perhaps more so, because the threat is less well-recognised, and more insidious.  Better suits, and good hospitality.   And our own ministers –  probably of either main party –  all too eager to please.

And what of our media?  Credit goes to Newsroom (and the Financial Times) for breaking the Yian Jang story.  But what of our mainstream media?  They seem to have given the story some initial coverage, but then been keen for it to die.  I hope that is an incorrect interpretation, but a week out from an election it was striking that there was nothing at all about the story in the Dominion-Post yesterday or today, or –  as far as I could see –  in the Herald yesterday or today.  And yet this is a story about a government MP, actively recruited by senior National Party figures to in some sense “represent” the Chinese community (identity politics rule, as Stephen Franks notes), who appears to have hidden –  from the public at very least –  his active membership in the Chinese Communist Party and his service in the Chinese intelligence services, and who appears to remain close to the Chinese Embassy.   At very least, there are allegations of SIS investigations –  paralleling similar investigations around Chinese-born politicians in Canada and Australia.  And there also seem to be suggestions of incomplete, or misleading, disclosures when Yang sought New Zealand residency and/or citizenship.  It seems as though it should be a major ongoing story –  with tough questions for the Prime Minister, the National Party, John Key, the Minister of Internal Affairs, and (for that matter) the leaders of other political parties?  Does ACT regard this as acceptable in a governing party they support?  Do Labour, or the Greens?

After all, Yang appears to have more or less acknowledged his own deceptions.  There was a story on the Herald website yesterday in which he is said to be reviewing his citizenship application form.  The article ends this way

Jian Yang told the Herald on Tuesday he didn’t name the Air Force Engineering University or Luoyang People’s Liberation Army University of Foreign Languages when making the applications that led to New Zealand citizenship, which he was granted in 2004.

He instead gave the names of two Chinese universities for civilians that had “partnership” status with the military institutions where he taught intelligence agency cadets as an English lecturer.

Asked if he made a false declaration on his citizenship application, Yang said giving the name of “partnership” universities instead of the institutes he actually worked and studied at was not a false declaration and was required if he was to leave China.

But in 2004, when he was applying for New Zealand citizenship, he was living in New Zealand.  There was no obstacle to telling the truth.  Unless he counted perceived obligations to the Communist Party of China, and the military and intelligence system of China, as more important than legal obligations to complete truthfully his citizenship application form.

In truth, his citizenship doesn’t worry me overly much.  From reports I’ve seen, he seems to have been a capable academic at Auckland University.  But membership of our Parliament and, perhaps in time our executive, is a different matter.  And with two minutes research, I found the Herald profile of him from 2011 when he was first running for Parliament.    If I’d read it at the time –  and I probably did, being a junkie –  I’d have been quite impressed by the tale of triumphing over adversity and poverty, and perhaps even a little inspired (he even expresses support for some social conservative causes I put a priority on).    But that’s because of all the stuff he didn’t tell the Herald  – or voters.    Perhaps there was a clue in this line

He said the effective dictatorship in China had provided a stable platform for long-term economic policy, while a surge in international trade had improved human rights and the flow of information.


But not a word of his membership of the Communist Party (remember only about 5 per cent of Chinese belong; it isn’t some automatic part of living in China), or of his education in a military intelligence university, or subsequent service in that intelligence system.  Not a word about it, then or since.  And not a word of criticism of this system which is inimical to the values that built and sustain this country.

As I noted the other day, perhaps he hid it from the National Party too, which would speak very poorly of their candidate vetting. Or he told them, and they didn’t care, (and perhaps even told him to keep his past quiet) which speaks even more poorly of them, their values, and their priorities.    Either way, it should be unacceptable.

So, yes, it would have been regarded as quite inconceivable in the 1970s to have had a former serving KGB officer (whatever his specific role in that establishment) as a member of the New Zealand Parliament.  If that person had grossly misrepresented their past, and continued to associate closely with the Soviet Embassy, the scandal would have been all the greater.  It should be just an unacceptable today for a former serving member of the Chinese Communist Party, and the Chinese intelligence services, having consciously misrepresented his past and never denounced the system, to be in –  and put forward again as a candidate for –  our Parliament today.