On the China connections and our democracy

On Saturday, New Zealand voters elected as a member of Parliament Jian Yang, a man who:

  • by his own acknowledgement
    • was formerly a member of the Chinese Communist Party (many experts claim that the way the party works, no one is ever regarded as having left unless they are expelled),
    • was formerly part of the Chinese intelligence services,
    • in seeking New Zealand citizenship did not disclose to New Zealand authorities his past with the intelligence services and their training schools, and apparently regards as an acceptable justification for that omission the wishes of the authorities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a country he had left a decade earlier.
  • has apparently never denounced the PRC (party or state) for the manifest evils for which it is responsible domestically, or for its increasingly expansionist and aggressive stance internationally.  He has never indicated any regret at having previously chosen to make himself part of that brutal and repressive system.
  • clear documentary evidence, including photographs, indicates that he clearly remains in the good graces of the PRC authorities, and participates in many PRC- sponsored functions in New Zealand.

Perhaps it was bad enough that Yang was first elected to Parliament in 2011, and again in 2014.   At the time, voters knew none of this.

Perhaps the National Party did?  If so –  and they didn’t care, or think it relevant to voters –  that seems even worse than if they never bothered to do the checking and (as this 2011 article suggests) were simply playing identity politics and wanting an ethnic-Chinese candidate who would, among other things tap the potential donor base.  On that latter note, last week a National Party member and conference delegate recounted to me a past conversation with Peter Goodfellow, National Party president

The President once told me the Chinese are more important than the farms – they don’t complain and they pay up.

But if Jian Yang’s election to Parliament was quite bad enough in 2011 and 2014 –  when voters didn’t know and the National Party either didn’t know either, or knew but didn’t care or think it any concern of ours – it is astonishing this time round.    Of course, he was already on the party list, in a fairly secure spot, when the Financial Times/Newsroom stories broke.   But if he couldn’t by then have been removed from the party list, the National Party leadership could have disowned him and, for example, made clear that they would not accept the vote in Parliament of someone with such a tainted past and apparently close associations with the government/party of an alien power.   If they cared.

As it is, there is no evidence that they do care.   The leader of the National Party seemed to say nothing beyond the simple descriptive statement that Yang was reviewing his citizenship application papers (some of which were released under the Official Information Act late last week).  Yang himself seems to have said little beyond things like “people don’t understand the Chinese system” –  when in fact the problem is that they do (no former public servant in New Zealand, a decade after leaving New Zealand, is going to misrepresent his or her past to the government of another country “because that is what the New Zealand government told us to do”).  And then, of course, we had the Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson –  holder of an office with responsibility for upholding some of the fundamental values of our democratic system –  who, when asked in the closing days of the campaign about the appropriateness of someone with Yang’s track record being a New Zealand member of Parliament, had only the despicable “its all racism, and targeting the entire Chinese community” attempt at distraction to offer in response.   Whatever the faults of the impeccably liberal Financial Times, “racism” isn’t among them.

If you were of a charitable inclination, you might leave open the possibility that there really is some disquiet in the upper reaches of the National Party but….well……it was a close election, and better perhaps just to deal with these things quietly afterwards.  It is pretty openly acknowledged that the government has a policy of never upsetting the PRC government in public.  Perhaps in time Yang will find that “family commitments” or somesuch will mean he regrettably has to leave Parliament, by when the National Party will have smoothed the waters with Beijing and their representatives in New Zealand.   One can but hope, and even if there was some truth to this – wishful – hypothesis, it would still be telling about the enfeebled and compromised state of New Zealand democracy.

(One also sees various comments from smart people along the lines of “why is this an issue. If he was a spy, wouldn’t it be rather too obvious, and in any case there is no evidence that during his time in the intelligence services he, say, committed crimes against humanity?”   To my mind, neither is a remotely relevant issue.  And I’ve not heard anyone suggest Yang is a spy.  But as we’d have regarded it as incredible –  simply not believable or acceptable – to have had an unrepentant former member of the KGB or the GRU, still liaising closely with the Soviet Embassy, as an MP 40 years ago whatever specific role the person had played in that evil empire, so we should regard former Chinese foreign intelligence officials now.  No matter how pleasant they might be individually, or how good an academic they might have been.  Parliament is different.

And if the National Party is particularly culpable here, the Labour Party (as principal opposition party) emerges barely better.  Over the last six years, Yang has sat opposite them in Parliament?.  Didn’t they seek to learn more about the background of MPs of the opposite party, looking to identify points of vulnerability in the governing party?  Isn’t that part of what we should expect from opposition parties.  And since the Financial Times/Newsroom stories broke, the Labour Party leadership have been almost silent –  a week out from an election.  Professor Brady’s paper suggests that the Labour Party has also been somewhat compromised by too close associations with PRC interests, but whatever the reason robust democracy depends on serious scrutiny and challenge from the opposition.  It is –  supposed to be –  an intrinsic part of the system, even if it is not an approach that commands much favour in Beijing.

And then there is the press. Financial Times/Newsroom broke the story.   The local media gave it coverage for one day’s news cycle –  TVNZ even broadcast a call from Beijing-based New Zealand economist, Rodney Jones, calling for Yang to resign.  And both Stuff and the Herald OIA’ed Yang’s citizenship application.  But that was about it.  I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a single editorial about the issue, and no sign of relentless questioning of political party leaders about the issues on the campaign trail.  And the Finlayson attack was neither reported nor followed up.

I’m not sure what to make of the silence?   Some talk about the possible commercial interests of the newspaper owners –  Fairfax signed a deal a year or two back to distribute an occasional China Watch supplement –  but that doesn’t seem terribly persuasive as an explanation.  Among other things, Fairfax papers in Australia have been writing recent stories about PRC attempts at influence in Australia, and their Asia-Pacific editor has highlighted a number of these issues, including the Brady paper and comment on it, on his Twitter feed.  And, of course, it wouldn’t explain the near-complete silence of non-commercial media like Radio New Zealand.   Perhaps there is something in the story that PRC-funded entities assist media outlets with travel to China, and one needs to be careful not to bite the hands that feed?   If so, so compromised, and worse.  So we must hope that isn’t the story either.

Our major media outlets don’t usually seem afraid of taking on the government.  Agree with them or not –  and I didn’t follow the issue closely –  Stuff recently devoted large amounts of resources to serious investigative work around New Zealand involvement’s in Afghanistan.  Health system problems, child poverty, housing, multi-national tax issues have alll seen extensive investigations, and in some cases what amount to “campaigns”.  But not, it seems, either the specific issue of the presence in our Parliament of an Chinese-government affiliated MP, and former member of the Chinese intelligence services.  Or the wider issue Professor Brady has highlighted –  and attracted plenty of positive coverage abroad for –  of the systematic PRC (state/party) efforts to exert influence, both directly and through the Chinese diaspora, in democratic societies.   It seems extraordinary that I can find correspondents from the New York Times, the Financial Times, or Fairfax Australia drawing attention to the Brady paper and the Yang issue, but not most New Zealand media.  Or international China scholars and writers, but few other local academics.   Frankly I’m a bit incredulous.

I also don’t really buy the line that the near-complete silence is explained by fear of being called “racist” –  the initial Stephen Franks interpretation – even if a senior Cabinet minister did go straight to that line of attempted defence.    No serious person thinks that this issue is about Chinese people per se, whether native-born citizens of New Zealand, more recent citizens or residents, or whatever.   China is a big and emerging power.  As the China Daily put it just yesterday, a “lion awakening”, sparking this reaction from one wit.

There have been other emergent big powers previously – the Soviet Union and Germany in just the last 100 years –  whose interests and values were antithetical to our own.  They pursued their interests, and their attempts to do so were threats to us and our interests and values.  China isn’t really any different –  it is just even bigger.

So I can only assume that the silence of the New Zealand media, and most of the political parties, and of the current and former business elites, must reflect something like them having bought into a New Zealand government narrative (established over a long period of time) that we simply mustn’t say anything critical of China, and certainly not openly.  That New Zealand’s best interests are somehow served by accommodating China’s interests and preferences wherever necessary.   In that world, perhaps, someone like Jian Yang is seen as a useful “friend at court”?      It would be a curious stance for the media at least –  after all, their self-image is often one of fearless challenge, speaking the truth to power, asking hard questions other won’t.  But what other explanation makes much sense?

You have to wonder quite what New Zealanders have to fear.   And here perhaps the double-edged sword of trade becomes relevant.  I went and dug out the numbers yesterday for New Zealand’s trade with the Soviet Union in the 1970s.  Our exports to the Soviet Union then made up around 2-3 per cent of our total exports.  By contrast, our exports to China are now around 20 per cent of total exports.

Trade is generally good and mutually beneficial. I’m a free trader, who would prefer to see all our remaining tariffs and trade restrictions removed (they harm us, not other people) and am somewhat sceptical of the various preferential trade agreements our governments have been signing.  But I suspect trade between New Zealand firms and firms in countries where governments have a pretty hands-off approach are rather different than when the trade involves firms (often effectively government/party controlled anyway –  as, say, Sanlu was ) in state with a fairly totalitarian approach to the use of trade as an instrument of heavy-handed foreign policy.

I’m sure New Zealanders benefit from trade with China, and Chinese do too.  That is, in general, the nature of trade.    But if trade access for particular firms –  and their directors and owners –  depends on making nice to a government of a state with values and practices antithetical to those of most New Zealanders then there is an unpriced externality involved.     With the Soviet Union, maintaining moral clarity around the nature of the regime was relatively easy: not that many people in New Zealand, or similar countries, had a strong economic interest in making nice to the Soviet Union.  With China it is different.  We have Fonterra and the milk powder companies.  We have university vice-chancellors and their counterparts in other educational establishments.  And we have tourism industry leaders all looking to their own economic interests –  which aren’t necessarily the same as the interests in New Zealand –  in encouraging people to look the other away, to ignore Chinese abuses, and to aim to ensure that the public never gets too bothered about the actions of the PRC in New Zealand, including among our own fellow citizens who are ethnic Chinese.

There is a view abroad – propounded for example by people at the Contemporary China Research Centre, based at Victoria University – that somehow China is critical to whether or not New Zealand succeeds economically. I found this quote in a recent major report (the bulk of which I want to come back to)

New Zealand’s future is increasingly bound with China’s continued growth and prosperity. Perhaps not inextricably, but certainly the way that China tracks over the next decade and beyond will have a profound impact on whether New Zealand prospers as a nation. Most public and political commentary in New Zealand focusses on the state of the economic relationship. It is hard to overstate its importance
for New Zealand’s prosperity.

That is simply wrong. Nations largely make their own prosperity – or their own failures. Individual firms (and tertiary institutions – several of which take direct funding from the PRC) might be deeply affected by things China’s government could do, but over the medium to longer-term, New Zealand’s fortunes won’t be. As I’ve noted previously, the exports of New Zealand firms to China are (directly) around 5 per cent of our GDP. By contrast, say, Canada’s exports to the US are more than 20 per cent of Canada’s GDP.

There are plenty of countries with much larger direct exposure to China (this chart I found yesterday uses data a few years old, but the general point holds).


South Korea is an interesting example, with a much larger direct trade exposure to China than we do. But that trade exposure is now smaller than it was, because in recent months China has been expressing its extreme displeasure with South Korea, imposing what are in effect economic sanctions in response to South Korea allowing the installation of the THAAD missile defence system. You can read some of the details here.

As it happens, there was a New Zealand column about just this issue on interest.co.nz yesterday, from Victoria University’s professor of business in Asia (a chair sponsored by BNZ, but also by a clutch of government agencies. After discussing the Korea situation he concludes

The THAAD case shows that it is critical to keep an eye on the political alignment between a business’ home country and the host country where it seeks to do business.

Which sort of makes my point. The interests of businesses wanting to trade in a particular country won’t always align well with the interests and values of the home country. That isn’t likely to be much of a problem in trade with the UK or Australia, or Singapore for that matter. It is, as the Koreans have found, with China. The very fact that China operates in the way it is doing with Korea suggests it isn’t the sort of regime our governments and media should be deferring to.

Some people might look at it the other way and say “if they can do it to Korea they can do it to us”. First, South Korea will survive economically, and is proceeding with the THAAD deployment. But, second, South Korea – and the entire situation on the peninsula – is likely to matter a great deal more to China than New Zealand does. It is difficult to imagine severe trade sanctions because New Zealand was willing to have an open and honest debate about whether it is appropriate for someone like Jian Yang to serve in our Parliament, let alone about the way in which the PRC seeks to exert influence and neutralise potential criticism in countries like our own. There is more of that sort of debate already in Australia and Canada. But if, just suppose, they did – to “make an example” perhaps – wouldn’t that be a moment of moral clarity, that brought into sharp relief how a state we constantly defer to operates. There was highflown talk – John Key and Xi Jinping – of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China. We’d never have considered one with the Soviet Union. The PRC is today’s Soviet Union, with many more routes into our system directly than the Soviet Union ever had.

What have we come to?

I was exchanging notes the other day with a very senior journalist in Asia who observed of this state of affairs that “I have found that the more expert in China a person is the more troubling they find all of this”.

On which note, I had an email out of the blue the other day from someone with an unfamiliar name, and when I opened the link he sent me I found it was for something called “The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology”. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, being instinctively sceptical of (yes, prejudiced about) the Wairarapa. But it turns out that an eminent Australian expert on China, Geremie Barme, formerly Director, Australian Centre on China in the World and Chair Professor of Chinese History at Australian National University has retired to the Wairarapa, where he contines to research and write on related issues, and is establishing the (mostly virtual) academy. He has a good new piece out on these issues, which appears to have been quite widely disseminated among China observers abroad. He might be someone New Zealand media could consider talking to. Can any good thing come out of Featherston? Apparently so.

UPDATE (Thurs)
There is a new short commentary by Professor Brady on the PRC-influence issues, and a Newsroom story suggesting that Winston Peters may continue to regard the Jian Yang issues as worth pursuing.