Foreign government influence, the PRC, and the Wellington establishment

Somewhat to my surprise, a few weeks ago an invitation dropped into my email inbox.   It was from the Asia New Zealand Foundation – a (almost entirely) government-funded entity, staffed at senior levels by former MFAT people, with a mission

to build New Zealanders’ knowledge and understanding of Asia. 

These are the people who occasionally run public surveys, the results of which are marketed to bewail how little people know about Asia.  I managed to get all the latest questions right –  including which (of 4) Asian countries the Mekong river didn’t flow through –  and did surprisingly well on one of their harder quizzes.  But I still can’t name which English counties the Severn river runs through, all the countries the Rhine flows through, or all the states the Mississippi runs through or between.  I don’t feel  particularly disqualified as a result.

The invitation?

You are invited to attend a roundtable discussion being hosted at the Asia New Zealand Foundation on the conversation around foreign influence in New Zealand.

It went on

After observing the unhelpful polarity in the discussion in Australia, the Foundation has given some thought to how it could support a constructive conversation in New Zealand, namely one which:

– encourages expert voices to speak freely;
– sets a constructive tone for challenging these assessments and perspectives, without acrimony.

It was to be what they described as a “Track 1.5” event (in this world, Track 1 apparently involves official to official dialogue, and Track 2 involves non-government people talking to counterparts, but this forum would involve both).   Senior officials would attend, and speak, while as for the others

this event will involve up to 20 members of the business, media and academic community who are thinking strategically about this issue.

We were told that “the Government is keen to hear participants’  views” on issues such as

How can government and others talk about foreign interference, and its response, in a way that is constructive and sends coherent messages to a wide range of stakeholders (ie government agencies, public, business, international partners and state actors)?

I was a bit surprised to be invited.  I don’t lay claim to any particular China expertise, but I am interested in New Zealand policy and politics, and I suppose I had been a little dogged (perhaps even annoying, including to some others who were on the invite list).  So, with a little trepidation and low expectations, I accepted the invitation.  Expectations were low because in the entire document that accompanied the invitation the People’s Republic of China didn’t rate an explicit mention, and because if anything the focus seemed to designed to be about all being nice to each other.

the purpose is to bring different voices to the table on what is a challenging but important issue for New Zealand – and to discuss how we would like to engage with each other moving forward.

The event was held under Chatham House rules.  And since they were rather sensitive on the point (even sending out a later reminder about letter and spirit), this is the explicit rule this post is written under

The Chatham House Rule will apply to this roundtable. This means that participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed. There will be no note or output of the discussions.

Of the attendees, perhaps all I can say is that it was a very Wellington audience –  a description, and a flavour, rather than a criticism.

Every though everyone in the room knew that meeting wouldn’t have been held were it not for the issues around the People’s Republic of China, there was a rather desperate desire apparent to avoid singling out the PRC.   Indeed, the meeting opened with a statement about wanting to “talk as much about the risk as about any risk actor”, and that together with a statement near the end about not talking about the “who” but the “what” tended to bracket the discussion.

We heard that the Prime Minister had said publicly that New Zealand had experienced Russian cyber-attacks, we heard reference to Russian use of chemical weapons, about “fake news” and RT, we heard about the US pulling out of the Paris climate agreement (which, last time I looked, was their perfect right) and about questionable new US tariffs.   On the other hand, National MP Jian Yang –  former member of the Chinese intelligence system, Communist Party member, someone who admits that he misrepresented his past to New Zealand immigration authorities because Beijing told him to –  would have been mentioned not at all, except that I mentioned him (to note the omission) late in the discussion.   Trade ties –  and the heightened exposure some New Zealand entities have created for themselves, knowing the risks, and in turn putting increased pressure on the New Zealand government to keep quiet –  also barely got a mention.   Specifics quickly get awkward and personal.

Speakers were keen to convince us that officialdom was right up with the play (the issue being “owned” overall by DPMC), and working hand in hand with our Five Eyes partners,  They weren’t, we were told, “naive and unprepared” but rather actively engaged in “detecting and countering interference” –  apparently some overseas partners are even envious of some of the telecommunications legislation implemented here a few years ago (an observation that should probably leave New Zealanders a bit nervous).  Any suggestion of a threat to our membership of Five Eyes is, we were told, “spurious”.  I presume that means “false”.

I guess I came away with the impression that officials think they are more or less on top of the outright illegal stuff.   One hopes they are correct.

My own concerns tend to be with stuff that is legal, or just overlooked.   And where political cravenness, fear, and good dose of pursuing short-term opportunities as if oblivious to the character of those being dealt with, seem to matter as much as any active direct PRC intervention here.  Stuff like, for example, the way our major political party presidents laud Xi Jinping or the CCP, or the way a major party campaigns with a Xi Jinping slogan, or the refusal of anyone prominent to ever say anything critical of the PRC in public.  Or the willingness of our public universities to take PRC funding for culture/language learning, with PRC controls over the sort of people allowed to teach (Falun Gong adherents need not apply, nor those pro-democracy, those favouring respect for Taiwan’s independence etc).  Or the way our trans-Tasman school of government is in partnership with the Chinese Communist Party.  Last week our political leaders went back and forward over what to say about the US border/illegal immigrant issues.  The political editor of our largest paper called for our leaders to show we had an “independent foreign policy”.  I’d have thought the treatment of the PRC was more of a test of that one.   South China Sea anyone?  Taiwan –  a prosperous democratic state increasingly menaced by a power we’ve signed up with in some “fusion of civilisations” vision –  anyone?

Or one might look for any sense of real concern for our own ethnic Chinese citizens –  especially those who despise the regime, or have few/no modern ties to the PRC –  whose media, whose cultural associations etc are increasingly in the thrall of regime-friendly United Front entities.  Or concern for the New Zealanders of Chinese ethnicity who face threats to families back in the PRC if they do make a stand, or speak out, on anything.

I’m not suggesting there were no direct references to the PRC at the roundtable, but it seemed awkward, rather than any sort of open or really honest conversation.  I’m sure everyone there knows the character of the PRC regime –  at home, abroad, and here.  But…it was clearly awkward to talk about, and no one wanted to name the PRC as one of the most awful regimes now on the planet –  between its external expansionism, defiance of international law, attempts to rewrite history, attempts to use diasporas to serve its purposes, domestic concentration camps (much of the province of Xinjiang), political and religious repression, organ harvesting, and so on, the Nazi Germany equivalent of our day.  If you won’t name the character of the bad actor, you are unlikely to be serious about resisting or responding.   It is hardly as if the goals of the PRC/CCP, including through the United Front organisations in (various) countries like ours, is any great secret.

Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised in a couple of areas.  There was clear unease, from people in a good position to know, about the role of large donations to political parties from ethnic minority populations –  often from cultures without the political tradition here (in theory, if not always observed in practice in recent decades) that donations are not about purchasing influence.  One person observed that we had very much the same issues Australia was grappling with (although our formal laws are tighter than the Australian ones).  Of ethnic Chinese donations in particular, the description “truckloads” was used, with a sense that the situation is almost “inherently unhealthy”.   With membership numbers in political parties dropping, and political campaigning getting no less expensive, this ethnic contribution (and associated influence seeking) issue led several participants to note that they had come round to favouring serious consideration of state funding of political parties.   I remain sceptical of that approach –  especially the risk of locking in the position of the established parties, or locking out parties the establishment doesn’t like – but it was sobering to hear.

There was also unease about the suborning of former politicians (jobs after politics), and the suggestion of a need for stand-down periods.  And there was something of a call for more open government engagement on these issues (not, obviously, direct intelligence matters).  One person contrasted the speech a few months ago by the Australian head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, highlighting some of the issues and risks, and the near-silence by our own senior officials and ministers.    But here I suspect there was a bifurcation between those who felt the government should be on the front foot playing down the issues, and those who felt it should be more open in recognising them and engaging in debate with New Zealanders about how best we should respond.  Of the taxpayer-funded China Council’s efforts in this area –  attempting to minimise or trivialise the issue – one participant observed that they had been “unsophisticated and unhelpful”.

I guess my sense was that few of the people at the roundtable were at all comfortable participating in wider public or political debate: many were or are bureaucrats, not accustomed to visibility or audibility.  And many of the non-government people had business or similar interests that would make speaking out difficult, and potentially threatening to finances and professional opportunities.  There wasn’t even much sign of robust debate around the table of the meeting itself –  occasional awkward observations typically being left to stand, with no response or debate (although this may partly have reflected time constraints).

Many seemed to feel a real distaste for the nature of the debate in Australia over the last 12 to 18 months.   One discussant pushed back, arguing that what was needed was a robust public debate, not just involving subject experts, but citizens, and that –  moreover –  some heat was often an inseparable part of shedding light, and that arguably the Australians had done the debate better.  I’m in that latter camp.   On the other side, someone plaintively quoted one of the participants in the Australian debate as accepting that he had occasionally overdone things on Twitter, but surely that is almost in the nature of the medium?   Civility is a considerable virtue, but it isn’t the only one, and sometimes civility and politeness can be a cover for avoiding really confronting issues.  It is fine to quote –  as someone did – the old line about playing the ball not the man, but people are the actors here:

  • Jian Yang, personally, is in our Parliament, is a former member of Chinese military intelligence, did misrepresent his past, is closely associated with the PRC Embassy,
  • Bill English and Simon Bridges (on the one hand) and Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters on the other sit silently by,
  • Chris Finlayson did openly attack Anne-Marie Brady (none of whose significant claims has been overturned or substantively challenged) as some sort of racist xenophobe,
  • Raymond Huo is closely associated with United Front bodies, and did adopt a Xi Jinping slogan for Labour’s campaign among the Chinese community,
  • Peter Goodfellow and Nigel Haworth do laud and magnify Xi Jinping and the PRC,
  • successive foreign and trade ministers make up stuff about our economic reliance on the PRC, and keep very very quiet whenever any awkward issues arise.

No one makes these people do any of these things. They choose to.   There are explanations perhaps, but not justifications.

In the end, I appreciated the invitation to the roundtable, and I did learn a few things.  But it didn’t leave me really any more confident than I had gone in that the establishment was at all keen or willing to have New Zealand stand up and do things differently, not just safeguarding our formal institutions (which probably aren’t that threatened), but with some self-respect, standing up for the sort of the values countries like our own have long stood for, and which the PRC/CCP is –  in many cases –  the antithesis.   Roosevelt’s four freedoms, and things like that –  on all of which the PRC either falls well short, or seems to simply regard them as “not applicable here”.

Then again, the real issue isn’t advisers per se, but the reluctance of successive elected governments to do or say anything that might prove awkward with Beijing.  Implied threats  – to individuals or to the economy (economic coercion and the like) –  are interference, even if there is nothing direct for intelligence agencies and the like to pick up on, and even if –  as in the case of economic coercion –  politicians are often excessively fearful.  Political donations may be part of that story, I don’t think they are anything like the entire picture.  And yet none of that was discussed.