The New Zealand China Council was established by the government a few years ago. It exists primarily as an advocacy body, using (mostly) taxpayer money
in support of deeper, stronger and more resilient links between New Zealand and China.
It has been very close to the government. The Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the chief executive of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise are both ex officio members of the Executive Board. The Council is chaired by one former Deputy Prime Minister (Don McKinnon), and another member – with considerable ties to People’s Republic of China institutions – is former Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley. The Advisory Board, another 20 people, includes as members several of those about whom questions have been raised in recent months (Jian Yang, Raymond Huo, and Naisi Chen) – as well as, somewhat surprisingly, a senior journalist.
The public face of the Council seems to involve relentless optimism about things that don’t obviously seem to require taxpayer-funded advocacy (eg the several tweets about the first New Zealand avocadoes into China) and rather gushy, one-eyed, takes on the PRC/New Zealand relationship, always extremely careful never to utter a critical or sceptical word about the PRC. More recently, in response mostly to the issues raised by Anne-Marie Brady (and the Jian Yang story) they seem to have been pushed somewhat onto the defensive.
The Council employs a part-time Executive Director, Stephen Jacobi. He spent considerable time at MFAT, but from his own account his focus was Europe and North America (including as our deputy high commissioner in Canada) and in trade negotiations. Since leaving MFAT in 2005 he has run his own consulting firm, and been employed as the public face of various trade-related bodies, including serving as Executive Director of the NZ US Council from 2005 to 2014. He is articulate and readily available to the media, but has no specialist expertise in China or (indeed) on the workings of New Zealand democracy. That isn’t a criticism – after all, neither do I – just to note that his arguments, and evidence, need to be reflected on and carefully examined, perhaps having regard to the interests that are paying him, not as coming from an expert authority in the area.
I’ve written previously about one of Jacobi’s speeches, given late last year at a regime party to mark the PRC national day. Those were pretty brief (and obsequious) remarks, albeit to a PRC audience. And so it was interesting to see that last week he had delivered a much more substantial address, Dancing with the Dragon – Opportunity and Risk in the New Zealand China Relationship, to the Nelson branch of the New Zealand Institute for International Affairs. There is also a much shorter op-ed by Jacobi in the Herald today, headlined on the China Council’s own website as “Anti-China narrative not the Kiwi way”. I’m not going to comment specifically on that piece – it covers mostly similar ground to the speech – except perhaps to suggest that deferring to vested interests (business and political) who want us to hurry along and simply accept that there is nothing to see here shouldn’t be “the Kiwi way” either.
What of the speech?
The first couple of pages (of eight) is reasonably unexceptionable. There are lots of statistics about the growth in trade between New Zealand firms and Chinese ones – curiously, only about exports, and barely a mention of (the benefits of) the imports. There is some nonsense about New Zealand alleged heavy reliance on China in the ‘global financial crisis”, but on the other hand a welcome acknowledgement that the New Zealand – China trade agreement isn’t the only factor explaining the growth in two-way trade and investment. Of course, there is no acknowledgement that the interest of the entities exporting to China – many represented around his board table – might not always be the same as those of New Zealanders as a whole.
But then he turns towards addressing the (quite limited) New Zealand public debate on issues around the activities of the People’s Republic of China and the Communist Party which controls it. Part of Jacobi’s rhetorical strategy appears to be to imply that anyone raising concerns about the Chinese regime and the Party that controls it, is somehow anti-China/Chinese more generally. It is never quite put that like – just insinuations – but the impression is pretty clear. Mention the poll tax, for example, to play up the guilt, but never mention that we and China (pre-Communist) fought on the same side in World War Two. And never, ever (that would be job-ending for Mr Jacobi no doubt), note that across the Taiwan Straits is a highly succesful, prosperous, free, and non-threatening ethnic Chinese democratic state. Never, ever, mention the unease apparently felt among numerous New Zealand citizens of ethnic Chinese origins – some of whom migrated here to escape the party-state and its evil – about the effective control regime-associated groups have over most of the Chinese language media in New Zealand, and many community groups.
Around the world there has been growing unease – including in such impeccably liberal circles as academics – about the growing number of Confucius Institutes established as part of many Western universities. With PRC funding comes PRC restrictions, on hiring and on the sort of issues lecturers are allowed to address. There are several of these institutes in New Zealand universities – Canterbury, Victoria and Auckland In various places overseas there has been a pushback and some major universities – notably Chicago – have closed their Confucius Institutes. I’m sure no one has a problem with the PRC government subsidising Chinese language learning in New Zealand – any more than with Alliance Francaise or the Goethe Institute – but not as part of New Zealand universities, subject to a foreign governments controls and constraints.
Why do I raise this? Because Jacobi included this line
There has been pleasing progress in the number of primary schools teaching Mandarin, especially with the help of the 150 Chinese language assistants in New Zealand, but this has not followed through at secondary and tertiary level.
I presume this is a reference to things like the Confucius Classrooms programme (or here) . By this means PRC-funded and chosen people are operating directly in our school classrooms. One can only imagine the awkwardness if a student asks about Taiwan or Tibet, the rule of law, or freedom of speech.
Can anyone imagine us allowing Soviet funded teaching in our schools in the 1970s, or German-funded teaching in the 1930s? But Mr Jacobi, and his government-funded council, simply avoid ever confronting the nature of the regime. (I’m sure they are quite aware of it, but if the public ever got concerned it might threaten the Council’s easy life, and the business and personal opportunities of some of its members.)
And then Jacobi turns directly to the recent debate, such as it has been.
Public debate about the relationship is to be welcomed in a robust democracy like ours, although care needs to be taken to ensure that public debate remains civil and properly focused on the issues.
And who is going to disagree? But then perhaps Mr Jacobi could point us to examples of where the debate has been less than civil and not “properly focused on the issues”? I can think of the former Attorney-General at an election meeting attacking Anne-Marie Brady as somehow “anti-foreigner”, but then I’m pretty sure he and Mr Jacobi are on the same side. I’ve heard various claims that people raising issues are being “racist” or anti all things Chinese, but I’m pretty sure that not once have those sorts of slurs – the stuff Jacobi purports to dislike – been backed up with arguments and evidence. In this speech, Jacobi certainly makes no attempt to. For a taxpayer-funded body it is a pretty poor show really. But then, unfortunately, it is par for the course. Neither politicians, nor outfits like China Council, have made any attempt to address seriously and directly the issues raised in Professor Brady’s Magic Weapons paper, or the issues around the background and ongoing associations of National MP Jian Yang.
Jacobi notes that occasionally the New Zealand government and the PRC disagree
While we do have occasional public disagreements, these have not detracted from the momentum in the relationship.
If so, presumably because when such “occasional public disagreements” matter, politicians and diplomats scurry round and assure Beijing it will never happen again. It is hardly news that the New Zealand government has operated a policy of avoiding do anything that might upset Beijing. Nor that the PRC is not some typical country which recognises that the possibility of robust differences of view characterises real mutual – as distinct from subservient – relationships in this world.
Politically, even while we receive occasional Chinese naval ship visits, we continue to maintain close defence and intelligence relationships with our Western allies.
I’m pretty sure we never welcomed naval vessels from the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. But even setting that to one side, Mr Jacobi simply never addresses the unease our traditional Western allies – including through Five Eyes – have reportedly come to feel about the New Zealand government’s relationship with the PRC. And he does not even seek to address the PRC’s own strategic interests, which might include a fostering a more semi-detached relationship between New Zealand and the countries which share rather more of our “fundamental values” [Jacobi’s own term].
And then there is the attempt to play distraction, with the suggestion that all that is going on is “soft power”, and “everyone does that”.
New Zealand itself uses soft power with great effect when it seeks to portray a positive view of our country overseas, including by funding visits by journalists and other “influencers” to New Zealand.
Although Americans, Europeans and Japanese all use soft power, it is the Chinese use of soft power that is being questioned today.
If the PRC wants to subsidise artistic or cultural displays in New Zealand, to foster a positive view of the regime, probably not too many are going to object very loudly.
But that isn’t the sort of influence that Professor Brady was writing about, and Mr Jacobi is well aware of that. We don’t have (for example) formerly-French members of the New Zealand Parliament, constantly liaising with the French Embassy, and in front of whom former diplomats are careful of what they say. And even if we did, there is a much greater commonality of “fundamental values” between, say, France and New Zealand than there is between the PRC and New Zealand. The British government doesn’t attempt to control the English language media in New Zealand. The US government (and government-controlled entities) doesn’t dangle post-politics opportunities in front of former senior politicians. No other government I’m aware of attempts to exert tight control over the students’ associations of its overseas students, in the way that the PRC does with the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA).
Jacobi goes on
Some prominent members of the Chinese community have faced intense criticism about their past and present connections with the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party.
Chinese community networks have been described as being a conduit for Chinese representatives to promote a positive view of China and to subvert local decision-making.
The funding of New Zealand political parties has also been highlighted.
Some of this criticism appears to be linked to a similar debate in Australia, although I would argue that the situation in Australia is quite distinct – although we share many things, we have a different political culture, we are not a military ally of the United States and we see our role in the world differently.
In all that, there is just nothing specific at all. Jacobi doesn’t, for example:
- address why it is appropriate to have as member of Parliament in New Zealand a former Chinese intelligence official, former (at least on paper) member of the Communist Party, someone who now openly acknowledges misrepresenting his past on forms to gain entry to New Zealand (apparently because that is what the PRC regime told people to do),
- address the PRC control of the local Chinese language media, and associated (and apparently heightened) restriction on content,
- address how it can be appropriate for the Mayor of Auckland to receive anonymous donations (from China) of $150000 for his mayoral campaign.
He asserts that the situation in Australia is ‘quite distinct’, but makes no effort to back his claim. If anything his three points reduce to little more than “we’ve decided to just ignore these things, and that’s the way we do things in New Zealand”. There is an increasing volume of material on Chinese influence activities in a range of countries, and if the situation here is not that of, say, the Maldives, or Cambodia or even perhaps the Philippines, there is little to suggest that things are materially different here than in Australia, or Canada, or a variety of European countries.
Jacobi response is
Recent allegations here in New Zealand have sought to identify ‘smoking guns’ but mostly without the proof or evidence to demonstrate culpable wrong doing.
Everyone in New Zealand is innocent until proven guilty.
If there has indeed been misbehavior or unwarranted interference, a higher standard of evidence needs to be provided so that this can be investigated by the proper authorities.
Innocent until proven guilty is, rightly, the criminal standard. If crimes have occurred, they will need to be proved to that standard to secure a conviction. But as Mr Jacobi knows very well (a) someone in authority needs to take an interest for anything to be proved to that standard, and our leadership appears to have an active lack of interest in doing so, and (b) plenty can be inappropriate or threatening that need not be illegal. I’m not aware, for example, that anyone has suggested that Jian Yang’s membership of the New Zealand Parliament is, or should be, illegal (unless concerns about his citizenship application come to something). The argument is that it is highly inappropriate in the specific conjunction of circumstances (PLA and Party background, deliberate misrepresentation of his past, continued close association with regime representatives in New Zealand, failure ever to say anything critical about the PRC regime, and so on). Perhaps Mr Jacobi has a compelling and specific alternative perspective? If so, it would be very interesting to hear it, but that would require engagement, rather than lofty disregard (“someone else’s problem”). Perhaps next time he talks to Jian Yang he might suggest that in an open and democratic society, making yourself available to the local media for a searching interview is the way things should be done. As it is, Yang has not made himself available for a single English language interview since the story first broke in September. And this is an elected MP, paid with public money.
Jacobi has a brief discussion of trade ties.
I was struck by a comment on Twitter this week which suggested that China could if it wanted to “paralyse New Zealand’s economy at will”.
I’m not sure why China would ever see it in its interest to attempt to do such a thing
As I’ve noted in various posts, China can’t paralyse our economy. We make our own prosperity. But they could make a great deal of difficulty for specific industries.
And they have form in this regard. Specifics around experiences of Norway and Mongolia are here, and the PRC was active in using sanctions on specific sectors on firms in South Korea last year over the deployment of the THAAD missile defence system. So for Mr Jacobi to say “I’m not sure why China would ever see it in its interests” to do such a thing in respect of New Zealand is either simply deliberately avoiding actual recent experiences with this particular regime, or saying “so long as we never upset Beijing” we have nothing to worry about. (Of course, in Norway’s case, it wasn’t even the government that upset Beijing, but a (prominent) private entity, the Nobel Prize committee). Surely we deserve better than this from taxpayer-funded mouthpieces?
There is plenty more questionable material in the speech
Chinese economic policy is changing too – a move away from investment-led growth to consumer-led growth and the realisation that a significant and growing share of the economy is now in the hands of the private sector rather than state owned enterprises.
A new generation of Chinese leadership is in office – President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power at the recent Party Congress.
The leadership knows the old style of economic management cannot continue, but it looks at the ravages the global financial crisis caused the Western economies and is determined not to see the same thing happen in China.
Globally we see China’s economic weight continue to grow and the mantle of leadership pass from an increasingly inward-looking United States to a more confident China.
China has some way to go to “walk the talk” of openness and inclusion, particularly in terms of the way it regulates its economy, but the language from Beijing these days is more appealing to many than what we hear from Washington.
China too is grappling with the demands of a growing middle class becoming more impatient with the restrictions on human rights and personal freedoms.
All of which is clearly designed to suggest that things are improving in the PRC, when demonstrably they aren’t.
For example, the economy might largely (and formally) be in private hands, but Mr Jacobi – and his MFAT funders – know very well that the Party has been increasingly extending its tentacles directly into private sector entities, domestic and foreign, and that no business in China can be considered much apart from the regime.
And China “has some way to go to ‘walk the talk’ of openness and inclusion”? Is there any evidence – even a shred – of an intention to adopt a culture of”openness and inclusion”? The environment for people less than enamoured of the regime just seems to be getting tougher as Xi Jinping’s power is further consolidated. (Nonetheless, it doesn’t stop the presidents of the National and Labour parties gushing about Xi and the regime.)
And the “middle class becoming more impatient with restrictions on human rights and personal freedoms”. Perhaps they are, perhaps they aren’t. But really what matters is the regime, and its resolve. At present, that doesn’t seem to involve more freedom. The chilling new “social credit” control scheme is just another example. But you hear nothing of any of this from Mr Jacobi, and his supporters, who just want to keep the deals flowing.
Some modest political/societal convergence might have been a plausible narrative 15 years ago. It isn’t now. And really I’m sure Jacobi knows it, as he’ll know the expansionism in the South China Sea, the military stand-off over the Senkaku Islands, the suborning of various regional governments, and so on.
Perhaps the most chilling sentence in the entire speech was this one.
A second consequence is that as China’s confidence grows they will become less willing to accept challenges to their political system and their own decision making processes. This will require careful handling on the part of New Zealand
Quite possibly, Jacobi is descriptively accurate, but it doesn’t lead him to suggest that we might be increasingly wary of the PRC regime, or uneasy about the power projection (including into New Zealand) that accompanies this greater confidence. It doesn’t lead him to point that true friends – and genuinely self-confident people – live happily, and embrace – challenge, debate and scrutiny. Nothing about self-respect. Nothing about the shared interests of like-minded countries. No, apparently for Jacobi we should simply double-down and “engage even more with China, not less”.
There was the, surely laughably deluded – but perhaps just an attempt at distraction – invocation of his former MFAT colleague’s argument.
Former New Zealand Ambassador to China Michael Powles has written recently about the need for New Zealand to “develop the already strong relationship with China to increase the prospects for New Zealand to have influence with China as it wields increasing regional and global power”.
Michael writes that New Zealand has a lot of experience in being a “small friend to a great power” ie with Britain and the United States – co-operating actively but also discussing differences frankly.
In what plausible world does any of this make sense? Set aside the fact that to the extent that we were ever a “small friend” to great powers the US and UK, it was based on shared values, shared heritage, largely common interests etc. Friends, even brothers, don’t always agree, but they share crucial commitments or interests. There is simply no sign that the sort of values the PRC regime lives by – increasingly so at present – are ones most New Zealanders any part of. And nor is there any reason to suppose that China would be likely to heed New Zealand’s counsel around the exercise of its rising “regional and global power”. New Zealand’s policy, after all, seems to be premised on not upsetting Beijing, and the PRC are better placed than we are to know what will upset them.
At the very end of his speech, Jacobi returns to one of his early themes
With this engagement invariably comes public debate – it is a debate worth having, but we are a better nation if we respect the people about whom we speak.
Frankly, I don’t respect Xi Jinping, or the PRC regime, or the Chinese Communist Party. The Party has been a great force for evil in its own country – depriving tens of millions of liberty, and even life, and presiding over a system that can’t even produce prosperity (unlike, say, Singapore or Taiwan, or South Korea or Japan).
I don’t have much respect for Jian Yang either. He may be a perfectly pleasant person, may even have been a competent academic. But that isn’t the issue. He served – voluntarily – an evil regime, in its military intelligence system, he misrepresented that past to get into New Zealand and into Parliament. And if he has ever had a Damascus Road experience – now deploring the evil he once served – the public has heard nothing of it. Oh, and despite being an elected member of Parliament – on the list, elected by all National voters – he simply refuses to front the media. You can avoid searching scrutiny in the PRC, but you shouldn’t seek to (and shouldn’t be able to) here.
I don’t have much respect for those who’ve, apparently successfully, managed to exert regime control over Chinese language media here.
And I have even less respect for the New Zealand politicians, and party leaders, from every single party (so it appears), who simply let this stuff go by, and try to pretend there isn’t an issue.
Oh, but those weren’t the people Jacobi was meaning? I guess probably meant ethnic Chinese New Zealand citizens. But as a group, they simply aren’t the issue anyone (including Professor Brady) has been raising issues about in this debate. If anything, part of the issue is about protecting the rights and freedoms of these people – fellow New Zealanders – from the PRC regime interventions, and attempt to exert influence and control. But it suits those who want to avoid the real issues to pretend that the debate is about ethnic Chinese in New Zealand more generally, rather than about the activities – some probably illegal, others just threatening or flat-out wrong – of a heinous regime.
I’ve been reading a lot about the interwar period recently. As I’ve done so, the more apparent the similarities between the current situation vis-a-vis the PRC and that of the 1930s. Parallels are never in the nature of exact mirror images. And perhaps in the end the differences will prove greater than the similarities. But the same expansionist tendencies, the same denials of personal liberties, the same making trouble among diasporas, the same border disputes, perhaps even (in the long term) the same economic weaknesses, and (on the other side) much the same – India aside this time perhaps – desperate desire to appease and pretend there is nothing much to worry about. As I say, perhaps the parallels are overblown, but I suspect we’d get much more value from some serious engagement on those sorts of topics, rather than more taxpayer-funded efforts to pat the public on the head, suggest there is nothing to worry about, and bat away any critics – expert ones like Professor Brady – as somehow insufficiently civil or respectful.
On which note, where are the rest of the genuine China experts in New Zealand? Presumably many of them will have perspectives on these issues? I wonder if the media have approached these people – mostly academics paid with public money, partly to advance knowledge, public debate etc. If they won’t talk, one has to wonder why not, and what that would say about our self-respect as a society, and our willingness to nurture and cherish what made countries like New Zealand what they were at their best.
At very least we deserve rather better, and more substantial, engagement with the issues and concerns from our elected leaders, and from their paid voices (such as Mr Jacobi).