The (generally subservient, or even servile) relations between New Zealand and the People’s Republic of China have been back in the news this week. It isn’t as if there have been material new developments – except perhaps confirmation that Winston Peters (who won’t tell New Zealanders, let alone the PRC, what his government thinks of the PRC’s latest steps in militarising artificial islands illegally created in the South China Sea) is a fully paid up member of the “never ever upset Beijing” establishment.
The news was mostly just a couple of reports: testimony at a US Congressional commission (and the subsequent train wreck of the radio interview of one of those testifying) and the publication of material from a Canadian security services academic conference. In both cases, perhaps it was newsworthy that such events were taking place abroad, and that New Zealand’s experience was being aired more widely. But both lots of material seemed to draw entirely from material already in the public domain, including notably Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons paper. The Canadian material is all published under Chatham House rules – in this case, no ascription of authorship at all – but when I read the material on New Zealand it was so similar to Brady’s other published material, that I just assumed she was the author.
As I noted the other day, in Radio New Zealand’s interview with him, former CIA analyst Peter Mattis, one of those who testified before the Congressional commission, performed really badly. He just didn’t know the material, and appears to know nothing about New Zealand beyond what he had read in Brady’s paper. Unsurprisingly some of the more vocal defenders of the “nothing to see here” club were pretty exuberant. Here was the Executive Director for the (taxpayer-funded) New Zealand China Council
But, as I outlined in my post on Monday, none of what Mattis referred to in his testimony – or indeed of the activities Anne-Marie Brady has written about has been refuted. Nothing.
Meanwhile the Prime Minister confirmed her membership of the “nothing to see hear” club, claiming that none of the Five Eyes countries had raised issues with her (as distinct from raising them with diplomats and senior public servants?) and answering questions thus
When asked what specifically was being done to review the country’s safeguards she said the Government made “independent decisions based on evidence and the best option for New Zealand”.
“For example, there is a national security test in our law governing space and high altitude activities.
“Parliament has regulated for national interests in the telecommunications area [TICSA]. We have strong provisions to counter money laundering and the financing of terrorism.”
Which gets to the issue hardly at all – no doubt deliberately.
Over the course of the week, I found one interesting article commenting on these issues, from an American security expert who lives in New Zealand, former academic Paul Buchanan. He notes
The impact of Chinese influence operations has been the subject of considerable discussion in Australia, to the point that politicians have been forced to resign because of undisclosed ties to Chinese interests and intelligence agencies have advised against doing business with certain Chinese-backed agencies. As usual, the NZ political class and corporate media were slow to react to pointed warnings that similar activities were happening here
unlike the US and Australia, NZ politicians are not particularly interested in digging into the nature and extent of Chinese influence on the party system and government policy. This, in spite of the “outing” of a former Chinese military intelligence instructor and academic as a National MP and the presence of well-heeled Chinese amongst the donor ranks of both National and Labour, the close association of operatives from both parties with Chinese interests, and the placement of well-known and influential NZers ….. in comfortable sinecures on Chinese linked boards, trusts and companies
Buchanan thinks these matters are worth investigation, but notes that
….the more interesting issue is why, fully knowing that the Chinese are using influence operations for purposes of State that go beyond international friendship or business ties, do so many prominent New Zealanders accept their money and/or positions on front organisations? Is the problem not so much what the Chinese do as as a rising great power trying to enlarge its sphere of influence as it is the willingness of so-called honourable Kiwis to prostitute themselves for the Chinese cause?
There wasn’t anything like the same willingness to associate with causes of the Soviet Union, arguably a less repressive and less aggressively expansionist power than the PRC – and certainly less active in the political life of countries such as New Zealand and Australia.
Buchanan is keen to stick up for the current New Zealand government, suggesting that the Peter Mattis testimony (see above) had attempted to suggest the current government was particularly bad (which wasn’t the way I read it, and certainly isn’t the thrust of Professor Brady’s paper, which came out before the election).
Let’s be very clear: for the previous nine years National was in power, the deepening of Chinese influence was abided, if not encouraged by a Key government obsessed with trade ties and filling the coffers of its agrarian export voting base. It was National that ignored the early warnings of Chinese machinations in the political system and corporate networks, and it was Chinese money that flowed most copiously to National and its candidates. It is not an exaggeration to say that Chinese interests prefer National over Labour and have and continue to reward National for its obsequiousness when it comes to promoting policies friendly to Chinese economic interests.
Labour may have the likes of Raymond H[u]o in its ranks and some dubious Chinese businessmen among its supporters, but it comes nowhere close to National when it comes to sucking up to the Chinese. That is why Jian Yang is still an MP, and that is why we will never hear a peep from the Tories about the dark side of Chinese influence operations. For its part, Labour would be well-advised to see the writing on the wall now that the issue of Chinese “soft” subversion has become a focal point for Western democracies.
As for what Labour (and New Zealand First) will be like in government, it is still early days. But, at present, it is hard to put any daylight betweeen the approaches of National and Labour. No doubt that is welcome to the MFAT officials and the business interests that need to keep things sweet with Beijing, and local party officials who need to keep up the fundraising. But it is as if they are happy for New Zealand to be almost a vassal state, corrupting our own historical beliefs and values in the process.
Thus, it is fine to say that Jian Yang reveals problems in National. And isn’t it a disgrace that not a single National MP, present or past, has been willing to stand up, speak out and say that is simply unacceptable to have a former PRC military intelligence official, former (?) member of the Chinese Communist Party, in our Parliament? But…….not a word on the subject has been heard from anyone in the Labour Party either. By your silence Prime Minister – and all your senior colleagues – you too become just as complicit. All else equal, it should have been easier for people in the political opposition to speak out than for someone in Jian Yang’s own party (for some of his own party people there is more at stake, including perhaps a list ranking). But not a word.
And, of course, National makes no effort to call out Raymond Huo, or Labour’s use of a Xi Jinping slogan as part of their advertising campaign last year. Once we expected higher standards than this from our members of Parliament. But now, it seems, there are deals to be done, campaigns to finance, and so on. And so the presidents of both major political parties can laud a tyrannical expansionist regime which, not incidentially, brutally suppresses its own people (as just another example, this article from the latest Economist.) It wouldn’t have happened (and rightly so) with apartheid South Africa, with the Soviet Union – or perhaps these days even with US political parties.
Just a few weeks ago, it was that denizen of the centre-left, Hillary Clinton, who was highlighting the risks in her speech in Auckland. To deafening silence from our own centre-left government.
I don’t suppose any of this reluctance has anything to do with illusions about the nature of the regime. Our political leaders know about the near-complete suppression of free speech, the prison camp that Xinjiang has become, about suppression of freedom of worship, and about decades of forced abortions. They know about the PRC’s aggressive and illegal expansionism in the South China Sea, and its increasing intimidation of free, democratic and prosperous Taiwan. They know about the (in many cases) successful attempts to corrupt political systems in various places around South Asia. And they know about the activities, and strategies, of PRC authorities in countries like New Zealand, Australia, and Canada (as only three of many) to exert control over ethnic Chinese groupings, including Chinese language media. They know the PRC now takes the view that ethnic Chinese abroad – even citizens of other countries – are expected to work in the interests of Beijing, and are at times coerced to do so (imagine if the British government acted thus among those of us of British descent in New Zealand). They know our schools (my daughter’s high school among them) and universities are taking money from the PRC regime, on its terms.
But, knowing all this, they just don’t seem to care. Or if, in some back recess of the brain there is some sense in which they vaguely lament all this, it doesn’t motivate them to do anything about it, or even to have an honest and open conversation engaging New Zealanders. It is just a corrupted system.
There is a lot of focus at present in Australia – a country facing very similar issues, but at least with an active and open political debate (including in the Labor Party) as to how best to deal with them – on legislative changes designed to combat (mostly) PRC influence. Perhaps there is a case for some legislative initiatives here (eg around former ministers taking up roles serving foreign governments, or organisations controlled by foreign governments), but – and this comes back to Paul Buchanan’s point – I suspect the bigger issues aren’t legislative but attitudinal. On both sides of politics.
Jian Yang would be out of Parliament tomorrow if Simon Bridges and his National colleagues had an ounce of decency on these sorts of issues (and if, somehow, Jian Yang was resistant, at least he’d be an isolated backbencher, out of caucus for the rest of the term). Jian Yang would be explaining himself to the English language media if there were an ounce of decency and respect for standards in public life.
Confucius Institutes’ activities could be banned from our state schools if either main party actually cared. Universities, supposedly bastions of free speech. could – as some overseas have done – close their Confucius Institutes – but most have made themselves quite dependent on the flow of PRC students.
Ministers and senior Opposition figures could openly lament the aggressive expansionist appraoch of the PRC in the South and East China Seas. Closer to home, they could ensure they avoid United Front controlled organisations, and speak out for a diverse Chinese language media market. And so on.
But, instead, they seem terrified. If they did any of that there might not be an upgrade to the preferential trade agreement between New Zealand and China. And party fundraising might get quite a bit harder. Some New Zealand exporters might find more technical roadblocks in their path, as some Australian firms have been recently.
This isn’t the approach of a political system that has retained any self-respect whatever. It is sad to watch, and shaming that these people represent us. It is, purely and simply, appeasement at work. As if nothing can be done, and nothing should be done. Worse than Neville Chamberlain on my reading, because so much here seems to be just about the economic dimensions.
Taking a stand would, most likely, have a short-term cost. But China does not, and never has, determined our material living standards or those of Australia. We – our resources, our people, our institutions – determine that. (It isn’t even as if the PRC is one of the economic success stories of Asia – at best a middle income country, in a region of Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore.) If you have a business that is heavily reliant on the PRC – our universities (basically SOEs) and some tourism operators mostly – you might take a hit. But, as the old saying goes, when you dine with the devil you need a long spoon. More specifically, you knew the sort of regime you were dealing with, and you dealt anyway. It isn’t clear why the rest of us need to be sold-out, or have our values ignored, to serve your particular business interest. It is one of the (many) downsides of bilateral trade agreements that it encourages ministers to put values to one side, or even a clear assessment of longer-term foreign policy threats, in the interests of corporate interests wanting to increase profits now.
Incidentally, I also doubt that changes to electoral donations laws are very relevant here, Unlike Australia, we already have laws preventing large foreign donations (except, for example, large ones such as those to Phil Goff’s campaign through auctions). And many of the issues of real concern in Australia relate to very large donations by relatively new Australian citizens of PRC origins. Unless one wants to move to exclusively state funding of political parties (and I certainly don’t) you can’t pass laws to stop people giving to a party on the basis of the policies such a party professes and practices – however pernicious such policies might be. Rather, it comes back to attitudes and to leadership. Whatever ongoing diplomatic relations – correct but formal – our governments need to have with those of the PRC – there can be no reason for party Presidents to be praising such a dreadful regime. Perhaps we should revert to the practices of decades past where MPs and party leaders had little or no involvement in, or knowledge of, party fundraising. And perhaps party leaderships needs the courage to turn down donations when the motives appear questionable. Would it come at a cost? Most probably it would, at least in the short term. But, in a sense, the only real test of a system’s integrity (or that of an individual) is when they are willing to pay a price for what they believe.
Finally, this weekend marks the 29th anniversary of the massacre, by PRC authorities, of hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of unarmed students in and around Tiananmen Square. The anniversary will go unmarked, and unremarked on, in the PRC of course. That is the sort of regime our governments and business leaders defend.
This was how National MP Jian Yang alluded to these events in his maiden speech in Parliament
In April 1989 a great opportunity was opened up for me when I received a scholarship from the Johns Hopkins University in America. However, in the weeks following, student demonstrations swept China. The Chinese Government’s policy change afterwards prevented me from leaving to study in the United States.
Perhaps this weekend some journalists could invite him to flesh out his remarks. An openly critical comment on the PRC – who embassy he seems to remain very close to – would certainly be a first. A refusal to even engage – by an MP paid and elected by all New Zealanders – is, of course, more likely. Perhaps they could also ask Labour MP, Raymond Huo – also an adult in the PRC in 1989, now chair of the New Zealand Parliament’s Justice Committee – for his take on the events of 4 June 1989, and the sort of regime/Party that undertook such actions and now forbids its own people to even discuss them. It isn’t as if either MP is a Cabinet minister. But perhaps speaking out would interrupt the flow of party donations, upset some people doing business in China. One often reads of PRC authorities using threats to family back in China to keep ethnic Chinese overseas in line. If that sort of constraint exists in either case, an MP subject to such pressure might have our sympathy, but clearly would not be free to fulfil his duties to New Zealanders.