Late last week I posted as a standalone item the comments that Peter Jennings, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (and former senior Australian defence strategy official), had made in response to my post about last week’s Asia New Zealand foundation roundtable on People’s Republic of China (PRC) influence/interference in New Zealand. Jennings was pretty critical of successive New Zealand governments’ attempts to pretend there is no issue.
This morning someone pointed out to me that Jennings had been interviewed on TVNZ’s Q&A programme on Sunday, so I took a look. His comments were pretty moderate (especially about New Zealand), and largely focused on the Australian situation, and the new foreign interference laws passed with support from both the Liberal-National coalition and the Labor Party. He highlighted issues around political donations, the Sam Dastyari affair (Labor senator forced to resign over inappropriate activities in this area), and noted that, between Federal and state Parliaments, there was concern that Dastyari’s wasn’t the only worrying case.
Re New Zealand, he noted that New Zealand seemed to face similar pressures as Australia, and that things weren’t that different in Canada, in the UK, and in many EU countries, and that in his view it would be smart if New Zealand and Australia tried to align their approaches. While noting that New Zealand and Australia had different geographies and different strategic imperatives, he noted some risk to the bilateral relationship (important to both sides) if our governments don’t take the PRC intrusions seriously.
Corin Dann, the interviewer, pushed back, suggesting for example that Sir Don McKinnon would see things differently. McKinnon is, of course, head of the government-sponsored China Council, designed never to see anything concerning, never to say anything upsetting, about Beijing and its activities. As Jennings noted, there is an interest in having an effective relationship with the PRC, but that all countries needed to recognise that there were downsides as well as upsides in relationships with such a massive power, in the process of being more dictatorial. He argued that even if officials were confident they had things under control – something he was explicitly sceptical of in his comments here – it was important for governments to take publics with them, and engage in open dialogue on the issues, risks, and responses.
Dann again attempted “what-aboutism” – every country spies, there is no military threat etc. Tell that to Taiwan – or countries with lawful claims in the South China Seas – was my reaction, but Jennings was a bit more emollient, simply pointing out that countries like ours did not engage in large scale intellectual property theft by cyber-hacking etc.
And finally, asked about the PRC backlash to the new Australian laws, Jennings noted that the PRC (and some its populist media) didn’t like the new approach, but that the relationship goes on. He argued that there was a mutual interest in a “steady relationship”, and that the PRC would come to recognise that Australia couldn’t do less than say “thus far and no further”. Given past PRC attempts at economic coercion (which I wrote about here) that seemed optimistic.
All in all, it was pretty emollient stuff, and there wasn’t even any material bad-mouthing of New Zealand governments – an approach which, fair and accurate or not, tends to get the backs of New Zealanders up.
But it was still all too much for two members of the Q&A panel, political scientist Bryce Edwards and former Minister of Defence, Wayne Mapp. The word “overwrought” appeared so often that one could almost use it to describe their reaction.
Edwards began claiming that there “no compelling evidence of a problem” in New Zealand, and asserted that the new laws continued Australia’s journey down a path towards being an authoritarian illiberal state, where people could no longer participate freely in political debate and protests. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what he was on about – and I hold no brief for the specifics of Australian legislation. The BBC – no right-wing authoritarian outlet – summarised the law thus
The laws criminalise covert, deceptive or threatening actions that are intended to interfere with democratic processes or provide intelligence to overseas governments.
They are designed to include actions that may have fallen short of previous definitions of espionage.
Industrial espionage – the theft of trade secrets – is among new criminal offences, while people who leak classified information will face tougher penalties.
The government also plans to ban foreign political donations through a separate bill later this year.
But I presume that what Edwards is on about is material in this Guardian article. But even if the specific points the critics make were sound – and both government and opposition disagree with them – they are details, perhaps even important ones, not a challenge to the basic proposition about PRC activities and agendas in Australia and similar countries.
Former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp then joined in, claiming that Australia would not put any pressure on us to follow suit, because our political donations laws were very tight. That would, presumably explain how former Foreign Minister Phil Goff was able to get a very large donation to his mayoral campaign from a PRC-based donor, through a charity auction organised by, among others, Raymond Huo? I’m not disputing that the New Zealand laws are tigher than Australia’s, but here is the relevant section from my post on the Asia NZ roundtable last week.
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”.
Dr Mapp went on to claim that there was no need at all for new laws in New Zealand, lauded New Zealand’s role as a pioneer in relations with the PRC, and highlighted favourably the New Zealand government’s choice to eschew the term “Indo-Pacific” in favour of “Asia-Pacific”. I can’t excited about that latter point – New Zealand has no exposure to the Indian Ocean, and on the other hand Asia is a big place, including Israel and Syria as well as the east Asian bit. But Mapp went on to declare that concerns about New Zealand were ‘overwrought” and that he would put his trust in his former National Party colleague Don McKinnon, over the perspectives of Peter Jennings. The McKinnon approach, like that of the China Council more generally, has been to consistently pooh-pooh any concerns, and in the article I linked to a few lines back even asserted that
To suggest we are too scared or cautious to ever rock the boat with China is simply incorrect.
I think most of us – agreeing or disagreeing with the stance – will take the evidence of our senses over Don McKinnon’s make-believe.
At this point, Anne-Marie Brady’s work, and her Magic Weapons paper, finally came up. Bryce Edwards volunteered that she had raised some points, especially about particular MPs (Jian Yang and Raymond Huo) and their closeness to PRC interests, that hadn’t really been debated, and which needed to be debated. But this was all too much for Wayne Mapp, who asserted that we hadn’t had the debate because we didn’t need to – the claims were all overwrought. Weirdly he then went on to assert that we wouldn’t go down the Australian path because we don’t have overwrought debates like the Australians do. One can only assume he was determined to keep it that way, and keep on avoiding debate and serious scrutiny of the issues.
So, for example, one can only assume that Dr Wayne Mapp, former Cabinet minister, former military intelligence officer, former law professor, and current Law Commissioner, is quite unbothered about such facts as:
- his own party putting Jian Yang on its list and, through successive elections, never disclosing his past.
- that past included study and work as part of the PRC military intelligence system, and
- membership of the Communist Party
- (experts point out that no one voluntarily leaves the Chinese Communist Party, and that given his military intelligence background he would only have been allowed to go abroad if was regarded as politically sound)
- Jian Yang himself now acknowledges, after the media exposed his past, that he had withheld key details from the New Zealand immigration authorities, and that the PRC authorities had encouraged him to do so,
- that in seven years in Parliament he has never once said anything critical about the PRC regime, whether about Tianammen Square or more recent abuses (domestic and foreign),
- that a prominent former diplomat and lobbyist has gone on record of Jian Yang (and Raymond Huo) that both are close to the PRC embassy, and that he is careful what he says in front of either man.
- or about the efforts of his own former Cabinet colleague, Chris Finlayson, to tar Anne-Marie Brady as some sort of xenophohic racist – one of the more despicable events of the last election campaign.
No, according to Dr Mapp, there is no problem here, just a few “overwrought” claims.
But, as I’ve pointed out previously, calling things “overwrought” or “sensational” is no substitute for dealing with the specifics of Brady’s paper. I’m not aware that anyone has rebutted anything much in her paper, despite plenty of opportunities over almost 10 months now. They aren’t just about Jian Yang, or even Raymond Huo. There are the party presidents grovelling to the regime, whether for fundraising or trade purposes. There are things like a former MP trying to block out from local Council minutes any record of listening to citizens with an alternative view on the regime. And it isn’t as if the issues and threats are all in past either – I was told just this morning about a university which has, under pressure, withdrawn, permission to screen a documentary on campus about aspects of the PRC regime. And much of it is about pressure on New Zealand citizens of ethnic Chinese orientation, unseen to most of us, but no less real for that.
It was a pretty extraordinary performance from Dr Mapp in particular. As Jennings had usefully pointed out, it is not as if these issues are unique to New Zealand But the sustained denial – whether wishful thinking or a deliberate choice to look the other way – of any issue, any risk, any problem, does seem to be something rather more specific to successive New Zealand governments and the Wellington establishment. They seem willing to sacrifice self-respect, and any interest in our friends and allies in other democratic countries including in east Asia, for the mess of pottage – some mix of trade for a few firms, and keeping the flow of political donations flowing.