I’m old-fashioned. Key bureaucrats should mostly be seen and not heard. Officials advise, ministers decide. And ministers are the ones we get to hold to account, weakly or otherwise, through the political and electoral process.
The chief executive of New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade doesn’t appear to give many speeches, at least not on-the-record. That is, mostly, as it should be. But the Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, gave a very interesting address in Adelaide the other day on Australia and China. It was sufficiently clear and forthright that one can only assume she had the full endorsement of the Australian government.
The speech was given in a slightly odd context. It was the annual lecture of the Confucius Institute at the University of Adelaide. There are hundreds of these Confucius Institutes in universities around the world (several in New Zealand), funded by the government of the People’s Republic of China to promote the interests of China. A couple of years back
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) called for agreements between Confucius Institutes and nearly 100 universities to be either cancelled or renegotiated so that they properly reflected Western values of free speech.
“Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom,” the AAUP said in a statement, urging US universities to “cease their involvement” with the institutes unless major reforms are instituted.
China’s network of 300 Confucius Institutes – including 11 branches in on British university campuses – can be a lucrative source of funds for universities but are exempt from many of the basic rules governing academic discourse.
They are designed to project a favourable image of China’s ruling Communist Party around the world through language and cultural programmes, but are allowed to restrict discussions of topics unpalatable to China’s ruling Communist Party such as the occupation of Tibet.
The University of Chicago has shut their Confucius Institute over related concerns.
But if Frances Adamson didn’t tackle that specific issue head-on (and had some polite remarks to her hosts), what she did say was pretty blunt, even if none of it should have been controversial in a free, open and democratic society reflecting on its relationship with an expansionist repressive authoritarian state that is moving further away from, not nearer to, the sort of values that have shaped the West.
While we are complementary economies, there is no getting around the fact that Australia and China are very different places, with different political and legal systems, values and world views.
A pretty simple statement, but I’m not sure I’ve seen its like from our own leading ministers and officials.
Partly this is because the closer we get, and the more we interact, the more we need to account for and manage the differences between us – differences that cannot be wished away but that should not prevent the further development of relations between us.
This emphasises the need for a healthy dose of tolerance, for mutual respect and for openness to the patterns of give and take that underpin any successful relationship.
We understand the hesitation in China to ‘air the laundry’ so to speak.
Australians are happy – perhaps too happy sometimes – to tell each other exactly what we think.
This of course reflects different cultural attitudes:
In China, the thinking is that proper friends will not say things that offend;
Whereas in Australia, a willingness to be frank is proof of a genuine friendship.
These characteristics apply as well to our government-level interactions, something that both sides have come to recognise (though not necessarily always accept!).
Each of our approaches has utility, and we will need large measures of both respect and candour as we conduct the far-sighted diplomacy necessary to bridge our differences and progress our common interests.
Both approaches, the saving of face and the preference for frankness, also have shortcomings.
For our part, Australians should, and I am sure will, be authentic and true to our own selves, while respecting the practice of others.
Australia is a pluralistic society: a place where open debate, individual rights and freedoms are the foundation upon which we have built our political and economic systems. We are a society that thrives on the competition of ideas.
The health and vibrancy of Australia’s democracy is fundamental to our national success – it helps explain why migrants come to our shores and why they can succeed based on their talents and hard work.
And to students, in the context of various recent reports in Australia of a minority of PRC students, and PRC-dominated Chinese students associations, trying to suppress discussion
And here I want to address my remarks to those of you who are international students:
We want you to experience our contest of ideas and participate fully in it, as it is part of what constitutes an authentic Australian education.
You have paid your money; you are surely entitled to the full experience.
No doubt there will be times when you encounter things which to you are unusual, unsettling, or perhaps seem plain wrong. And can I tell you, as someone who has studied overseas in three different continents, if you aren’t encountering strange and challenging things you aren’t getting out enough! So when you do, let me encourage you not to silently withdraw, or blindly condemn, but to respectfully engage.
The silencing of anyone in our society – from students to lecturers to politicians – is an affront to our values.
Enforced silence runs counter to academic freedom. It is only by discussion, and of course discussion which is courteous, that falsehoods can be corrected.
Respectful and patient discourse with those with whom you disagree is a fundamental skill for our ever-more-connected contemporary world.
and to a wider audience
There has been much attention in recent months to the quality and reliability of news and information available to us.
We have seen accusations of ‘fake news’ and we have seen attempts at untoward influence and interference.
This is worrying and is being taken seriously in a number of countries. In our case, the Prime Minister has said: “The sovereignty of Australia, the sovereignty of our democratic processes, free from foreign interference is a matter of the highest concern.”
The Australian Government takes seriously its responsibility to ensure a robust legal framework within which free and open debate is protected and can flourish. That work is proceeding.
As well, Governments themselves must expect, and invite, scrutiny of their actions and their policy positions.
As China becomes more important to Australia’s future and to that of the world, it follows that there will be more scrutiny of China, including the ways in which it seeks to exercise influence internationally.
All of us here, as participants in a free society, have responsibilities as well.
It is our responsibility to challenge and question ‘fake news’. We can readily reduce the risk of being manipulated by seeking out collateral and confirmatory information, by testing through a second opinion.
And when confronted with awkward choices, it is up to us to choose our response, whether to make an uncomfortable compromise or decide instead to remain true to our values, “immune from intolerance or external influence” as Adelaide University’s founders envisaged.
The prospect of public scrutiny is an excellent discipline, and a vital corrective for our political culture and our institutions, including our universities.
We want to ensure these institutions remain secure and resilient.
Our success depends in part on the legal framework, but also on the attitudes and responses of all of us when exposed to unexpected pressure.
And in contrast, what do we have in New Zealand? Almost none of our political party leaders has been willing to comment in any substantive way on the concerns raised in the recent paper by Professor Anne-Marie Brady. The leaders of the National Party, the Labour Party, and the Green Party seem totally unbothered about – and unwilling to substantively discuss – having as a member of Parliament a (now) acknowledged member of the Chinese Communist Party and former member of the Chinese intelligence services, who is now widely credited as one of the National Party’s chief fundraisers. Speeches on China topics by our own Ministers of Foreign Affairs seem mostly to take on a fawning and deferential tone, as if they are afraid of asserting, or embarrassed by, our own values. And the Attorney-General was just reduced to making stuff up (lies) and personal attacks on institutions raising concerns.
The speech by the Australian Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been widely reported in the Australian media – and she’s just a (very senior) bureaucrat. And what of New Zealand?
It remains striking, puzzling, and more than a little disturbing, just how little media attention either the general or the specific issues have received in the New Zealand media. There is a column in this morning’s Herald by Bryan Gould, former Vice-Chancellor of Waikato University and former UK Labour MP prompted by the Brady paper (I’m told the column is on line but I couldn’t find it UPDATE: here). In it Gould opens thus:
The Herald’s readiness to report the important conclusions of University of Canterbury research into links between China and past and present New Zealand politicians and their family members is to be commended.
Surely in a serious country with media doing the job of providing searching scrutiny, it wouldn’t be cause for self-congratulation, but something just taken for granted? A leading academic raises serious concerns about the extent of a powerful country’s influence in New Zealand and he seriously suggests that it might not be reported by the country’s largest newspaper?
It would be interesting to know whether the issues have been reported in the Chinese Herald (I gather not), but even if we stick to the English language media, just how much reporting has there in fact been? I found a total of two stories in the Herald, one (on a quite specific element) on Stuff, nothing on Radio New Zealand (a non-commercial broadcaster with an extensive news and current affairs operation), a single story of Newsroom, nothing on TVNZ and nothing on Newshub. Perhaps I missed the odd story, but what is striking is not the New Zealand coverage of the issues and concerns, but the lack of coverage and lack (apparently, thus far) of any sustained follow-up. (And has the New Zealand media ever looked searchingly at those Confucius Institutes?)
The contrast with Australia is striking, worrying, and sad. I don’t really buy the stories of extreme economic vulnerability to China, but if anything Australia’s direct economic exposure is a bit larger than ours. And yet officials, ministers, and media in Australia are willing to speak up, and have an open and vigorous debate on the issues. Reasonable people might differ on appropriate policy responses, but who is seriously going to defend the deafening silence as the way in which a free and open society should handle such issues?