Avoiding upset to Beijing: the Wellington establishment

A week or so ago I wrote here about some comments made by Jason Young, the (then) acting director of the Contemporary China Research Centre, which is based at Victoria University.   Dr Young’s contribution appeared to be to claim that any New Zealand debate around the People’s Republic of China, including its activities in New Zealand, was some sort of “fact-free zone” –  while ignoring all the facts in plain sight –  and to lament the absence of better quality debate, while not himself seeking to add much to it.  It seemed like an attempt to play distraction.

As I noted in that post

The chair of CCRC is Tony Browne, former New Zealand Ambassador to the PRC, who also just happens to be the chair of the PRC-funded (and controlled) Confucius Institute at Victoria University (CCRC and the Confucius Institute seem to share an administrator as well).  The CCRC itself seeems to work hand-in-glove with MFAT……and its advisory board is largely made up of public servants (MFAT, MBIE, Treasury, NZTE, Asia New Zealand Foundation) plus the chair of Education NZ and the former chair of the New Zealand China Trade Association.

It didn’t seem like an organisation that was ever likely to say anything critical…..and in the unlikely event it did, there would be repercussions all round.

A day or two later, Stuff had an article on the Contemporary China Research Centre, prompted (it appeared) by some mix of those Jason Young comments I’d been writing about and the announcement that Jason Young had been confirmed as director of the CCRC.  Young was, as one might expect, championing his institution

Young said the debate around the role China played in New Zealand, and the wider region, was more complex than had been discussed in the recent media reports and academic articles in New Zealand.

“Sensationalist claims about extensive Chinese influence in New Zealand highlight the importance of the knowledge and understanding the Victoria University of Wellington-led New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre (NZCCRC) brings to public debate,” he said.

“It is crucially important we have a New Zealand institute that can think about New Zealand interests and New Zealand needs and New Zealand values and New Zealand problems.

“Obviously, we can draw on what American, Australian and other scholars are saying, but there are unique elements that need to be addressed from a New Zealand perspective.”

The new head said the centre’s advantage was its independence, and ability to speak with “a New Zealand voice”.

At that point I began wondering how he could say all this with a straight face.   He doesn’t appear to have been misquoted or misrepresented either (I kept an eye on his Twitter feed and on the CCRC website and there were no corrections or clarifications) –  what Stuff quote him as saying appears to be what he believes.  Remarkable what one can come to believe when one’s job (and recent promotion) requires it.

To their credit, Stuff picked up the point about the close ties betwen the PRC-funded Confucius Institute at Victoria and the CCRC.

The centre shares a location, chairman, and administrator with the Confucius Institute, which is funded by the Chinese Government.

Chair Tony Browne told Stuff the institutes operated independently.

Rebecca Needham, director of the Confucius Institute at Victoria, said she wouldn’t stand for any political influence from the Chinese Government.

So let’s try to unpick this a bit, including the web that ties together MFAT, the CCRC, Tony Browne personally, the Confucius Institute and so on, in ways that make it exceedingly unlikely that the CCRC will ever be able to (or interested in) providing detached critical commentary on any threat posed by the PRC.   When he speaks, Dr Young is likely to be expressing his real views, but he’ll have been chosen for the role in no small part based on the inoffensiveness (to his patrons and sponsors, and their funders –  in Beijing and the Beehive) of his views.

Take the connection between the CCRC and the Victoria University Confucius Institute.  It isn’t just that they share a:

  • location
  • administrator
  • chairman

which seems quite a close tie, all things considered.  I went back the other day and read the Annual Reports of the CCRC, and this is what I found.

From the first report in 2009

12. Confucius Institutes. The Centre has supported and facilitated the working on the establishment of a Confucius Institute at Victoria University. Canterbury University is also establishing a Confucius Institute in Christchurch.

and from the 2010 Annual Report


That was Xi Jinping himself.

The two bodies seem to operate hand-in-glove.  It is hardly likely that the NZ CCRC –  chaired by Tony Browne –  will ever be publishing critical material on the PRC, which would make difficulty for, say, the Confucius Institute, chaired by the same Tony Browne, and funded by the government of the PRC to propadandise for the regime in our universities and schools.   Presumably not even Dr Young or Mr Browne would pretend that the CCRC could ever be a source of critical scrutiny of the Confucius Institute programme itself  (which has raised serious concerns in other countries, to the extent of a number of universities discontinuing the programme).    NZ CCRC and the PRC are partners in all but name (in addition to the various formal partnership arrangements CCRC has with PRC universities and government agencies).

What else do we learn about the CCRC?    From the 2017 Annual Report

The Centre has continued the successful partnership with the China Capable Public Sector Programme, managed and funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade for officials from across the public sector.

The Masterclass is an intensive five-day course on China designed and taught by the China Centre. It is exclusively for public sector workers and is delivered through a series of introductory talks and roundtables, followed by scenario-based activities. This year the Centre has put on two Masterclass events with excellent feedback.

It looks like a worthwhile programme, but it is also a significant business arrangement and financial arrangement with MFAT, who will be most unlikely to welcome anything that rocks the boat (and I’ve heard that MFAT/CCRC have been quite selective in which perspectives get presented at these courses). I don’t suppose CCRC would be running MFAT’s course for them had they ever openly made life difficult by casting doubt on the “never ever upset Beijing” line that seems to guide officials and ministers.

From that same annual report we also find

The Centre’s Executive Chair [Tony Browne] has continued in his role as a member of the Executive Board of the New Zealand China Council. He has also been appointed to the International Steering Committee of the Silk Road NGO Cooperation Network.

The China Council?  The (largely taxpayer-funded) advocacy group, on the board of which sit the chief executives of MFAT and NZTE, to champion the relationship with the PRC, apparently by never ever saying anything critical, and pooh-poohing anyone else who does.

As for the Silk Road NGO Cooperation Network, it appears to be another PRC government facilitated body.

Tony Browne, the former New Zealand Ambassador to Beijing, must be a busy man.   I remembered that I had met him once.   Among his many hats is that he is co-director of the China Advanced Leadership Programme, run by the Australia-New Zealand School of Government (itself a partnership involving various Australian universities and Victoria University).

The China Advanced Leadership Program (CALP) is an annual three-week program for Chinese officials, delivered in Australia and New Zealand. The aim of the program is to develop productive relationships between high level public officials of Australia, New Zealand and China.  The program has been operational since 2011 and is delivered across multiple Australian and New Zealand cities.  The program is made possible due to ANZSOG’s relationship with the Organization Department of the Chinese Communist Party.   

It must be a quite a revenue-generator for the universities concerned.

Who attends

Who are our participants?

Senior and emerging Chinese public officials from central and provincial governments – Up 25 senior officials in China are carefully selected by ANZSOG’s program partner, the Organization Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The Organization Department occupies a unique role in the hierarchy of the Chinese government – it oversees appointments of all key positions within the administration. Previous delegations have included Vice-Ministers from the Central Government, Party Secretaries, City Mayors, and Directors-General.

All, quite explicitly, CCP members.

Who speaks?


ANZSOG brings together the highest levels within government, business and academia in Australia. Previous contributors have included Prime Ministers and Deputy Prime Ministers of Australia, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Governor-General of Australia, state Premiers, the Treasurer, former Prime Ministers, Chief Justice of Australia and other top political leadership, CEOs of federal and state government agencies, business and industry bodies. The program provides a world-class learning opportunity in Australia and New Zealand for senior Chinese officials. Past contributors include The Hon Susan Kiefel AC, The Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, The Hon John Howard OM, AC, The Hon Bob Carr and The Hon John Brumby AO.

And me.  I don’t think Graeme Wheeler ever quite got the message about the PRC.  The organisers were keen to have him speak, and twice the job got passed down the line, ending up with me.    The day I last spoke, they’d also had John Key, Gerry Brownlee, Phil Goff and Iain Rennie speaking.  It is all taken very seriously.   (If anyone is interested, I got the Reserve Bank to release the text of my 2014 address, on the evolution of economic management in New Zealand over almost 200 years.  I think I avoided upsetting the visitors or being nauseatingly obsequious.)

You might suppose that being a partnership between numerous Australian universities and Victoria University, ANZSOG wasn’t of much moment in New Zealand.  In fact, the state and national governments are members.  And of the Board, three are New Zealanders –  in the chair is Peter Hughes, the current State Services Commissioner.  And what of ANZSOG’s ties with the PRC?  It isn’t just a commercial relationship involved in running that course.    Instead, ANZSOG lists as “affiliate partners” a small number of agencies including

Affiliate partners

It is all terribly cosy.  The presence of the Chinese Communist Party speaks for itself.  But CELAP describes itself as

China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong (CELAP), a Shanghai-based national institution, is funded by the central government and supervised by Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee.

Does it amount to much?  Probably not, but it is hardly a sign of governments ready to take a detached, and perhaps critical, approach to the PRC, or to foster such free and frank perspectives among their own public servants.

Reverting to the Victoria University Confucius Institute, the director Rebecca Needham was quoted in that Stuff article as saying that

she wouldn’t stand for any political influence from the Chinese Government.

And no doubt that is quite true as written.  But presumably she doesn’t count as “political influence” the sorts of prohibitions in these arrangements that, for example, screen the Mandarin language teaching assistants for their own political and religious soundness (Falun Gong need not apply)?   Perhaps, since she is a skilled and experienced bureaucrat, the “Chinese government” in that quote does not include the entity in the PRC that funds the Confucius Institute?  The Office of Chinese Language Council International (colloquially Hanban) apparently describes itself as a “non-government and non-profit organization”, but is chaired by a PRC vice-premier and reports to the PRC Ministry of Education.

Apparently, the directors of these Confucius Institutes are typically appointed by the host institution, not by anyone in the PRC.    And yet, when your institution is launched, here in Wellington, by Xi Jinping, when your institution depends on ongoing PRC funding, lets not be cute and suppose that anyone slightly risky –  or ever needing “political interference” to do the “right thing” –  would be appointed to the job.

And what of Ms Needham?  When I looked her up, it turns out that she was a long serving MFAT staffer, including a stint as New Zealand Consul-General in Guangzhou, leaving MFAT only a year or so ago.   Remarkably, despite serving now as the director of a PRC funded entity, devoted to the advancement of PRC interests in New Zealand, she is listed on the MFAT website as part of the “China Capable Public Sector Community of Practice”   which

brings together a core group of China experts from across the public sector who provide input and advice to the CCPS programme and connect people to share knowledge, learn, and collaborate around common concerns, problems, opportunities, or interests regarding New Zealand’s engagement with China.

The rest of the list is made up exclusively of current New Zealand public servants.   It looks like a good initiative, and the role of this “community of practice” is described as

The role of the CoP is to:

  • Act as a trusted advisor to agencies to inform strategic thinking, broad policy direction, and operational issues on China matters when invited
  • Provide advice and guidance on the New Zealand perspective and China context in the development and delivery of CCPS curriculum initiatives
  • Share knowledge and experience through participation in CCPS curriculum activities
  • Foster networks with China experts across the sector
  • Model a collaborative approach to develop a cross-sector mindset on China capability.

But Rebecca Needham works for an organisation funded by the government of the PRC, devoted to the advancement of various PRC interests in New Zealand.  Did MFAT not even recognise the potential for conflict, for differences of interest or views?

And, of course, Needham shares a location, an administrator, and a chairman with the Contemporary China Research Centre.

To repeat, no one should look to the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre for any independent perspectives on the PRC, or its relationship with New Zealand.   That will, presumably, serve the government and MFAT (and perhaps Beijing) well, but sadly it will also mean that even when the CCRC does put out good material, or host worthwhile workshops, that might offer some (fair) perspectives on Beijing, its contribution will be tainted by the knowledge that it would be most unlikely to ever offer anything on the other side.  The CCRC is neutralised by construction, and by appointments (chair, director, board members), by business dealings, and by association.

And thus we’ve heard nothing from it on, say, the presence in our Parliament of a former member of the Chinese military intelligence establishment, former (?) member of the CCP, close associate of the PRC Embassy and various United Front organisations, who misrepresented his past to voters, who acknowledges that he misrepresented his past to New Zealand immigration authorities at the encouragement of his former PRC masters.   None of those facts is in dispute.  And the silence, or attempts to play distraction, by the CCRC, the China Council, and so on is deafening, and sadly telling.