Reflecting on the government and the PRC

Early last month, the government published its Strategic Defence Policy Statement.   That was the one that caused a bit of a flurry because of the inclusion of the odd, rather mild, honest statement that appeared to that put noses out of joint among the tyrants of Beijing and their representatives and advocates (not all PRC citizens) in Wellington.

And that was so even though early on the document reminded us that

New Zealand continues to build a strong and resilient relationship with China. Defence and security cooperation with China has grown over recent years, supported by a range of visits, exchanges, and dialogues.

It isn’t clear what values or interests the People’s Republic of China and New Zealand would share.   We knew better 50 years ago when we didn’t do military exchanges and joint exercises with the Soviet Union.

The pandering goes on with talk of how “China is deeply integrated into the rules-based order” (one of those much-used but very ill-defined phrases that seems to bear little relationship to reality).

Moving along, the report gets a little more frank, but in repeating lines that are news to no one.    China is not  –  and shows no sign of or interest in becoming – a liberal democracy, and its “views on human rights and freedom of information…stand in contrast to those that prevail in New Zealand”.   The document notes also growing Chinese military power and a disregard for international fora in dealing with “the status of sovereignty claims” in “disputed areas of maritime Asia”.     There is, rather brief, reference to attempts to “disrupt and influence Western nations’ political systems from the inside”, although those comments aren’t specific to China.

And (in a statement of what one would have hoped would have been blindingly obvious) there is this

Developments in Europe and Asia have crystallised a sense that non-democratic and democratic systems are in strategic competition, and that not all major powers’ aspirations can be shaped in accordance with the rules-based order [whatever the government means by that], in the way that had been hoped until recently.

And yet, if this is partly in reference to China, what have the presidents of both the Labour and National parties been doing praising Xi Jinping and the contribution of the PRC?  There has been no sign of them recanting.

A little later on in the document, there are two paragraphs specifically about China.  They are purely descriptive, with not a word of disapproval to be found among the descriptions of China’s aggression in the South and East China Seas, the construction of military bases on artificial islands in contested waters.  Remarkably –  but no doubt pleasingly to both Beijing and our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade –  there is apparently no mention of Taiwan, a key potential flashpoint, at all.

You could perhaps read the document more charitably than I have done –  for example, hints of unease about Chinese activity in Antarctica –  but it is still a pretty anodyne document.  There is no explicit or outright criticism.   Even China’s major geopolitical initiative, the Belt and Road Initiative, is described in positive terms.

But Beijing didn’t like it

At a press conference in Beijing on Monday, China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the country had taken note of the defence policy statement and “lodged stern representations with New Zealand on the wrong remarks it has made on China.”        …

“We urge New Zealand to view the relevant issue in an objective way, correct its wrong words and deeds and contribute more to the mutual trust and cooperation between our two countries.”

Quite telling that wording.  Not a matter, apparently, where reasonable people might disagree, but rather “wrong words” (and “deeds”) that need correcting.   New Zealand should abase itself.   And the PRC sometimes wonders why it doesn’t have more genuine friends….

The document itself is now rather old news.  But what struck me in the days and weeks after its release was that, anodyne as it was, it was made even weaker by the complete silence of the Prime Minister and senior Labour Party figures (and, for that matter, the Greens).  Labour is by far the largest component of the government, and not a peep has been heard from the Prime Minister (conveniently on leave when the policy statement was released).  But that is par for the course from the Prime Minister –  I wrote here about a speech she gave earlier in the year to the China Business Summit in Auckland.   There was no sign of any moral core to her views.   Not surprisingly, since her own party president has been in Bejing, since she became leader, praising Xi Jinping.   It is sickening.

Incidentally, for anyone inclined to look favourably on New Zealand First’s involvement in all this, I stumbled on an article on the PRC Embassy’s website about an event in Wellington a couple of weeks ago to celebrate the 91st anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army.  Among the speakers were our Defence Minister, Ron Mark, and our new Chief of Defence Force, Kevin Short.  Various other senior New Zealand officials also attended.  Neither man published the text of his remarks, but the Chinese Embassy reported them.

Here was Ron Mark

The New Zealand Minister of Defence Ron Mark extended his heartfelt congratulations on the 91st anniversary of the founding of the PLA and expressed his admiration for the contribution of the Chinese army towards safeguarding world peace. The Honourable Ron Mark noted that China is New Zealand’s strategic partner and that the relationship with China is one of New Zealand’s most important and valuable relations with foreign countries. Over the past 30 years since Royal New Zealand Navy frigates visited Shanghai in 1987, China-New Zealand military-to-military relations have continued to develop on the basis of openness and mutual respect.

What planet is the man on?  He’d probably have had a good word for the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe in 1938 as well.

As for the Air Marshal

Mr Short noted that over the past 91 years since its founding, the PLA has made tremendous contributions to China and the world.

A decades-long civil war, enabling one of the brutal and murderous regimes on the planet, and now  –  according to our own Strategic Defence Policy Statement

China’s military modernisation reflects its economic power and growing leadership ambitions. China’s growing military capabilities raise the costs of any potential internvetion against its interests and include stronger expeditionary capabilities, including a military presence in the Indian Ocean.  China has expanded its military and coastguard presence in disputed areas of maritime Asia. It has determined not to engage with an international tribunal ruling on the status of sovereignty claims.

Perhaps all that had slipped the Air Marshal’s mind when he made the kowtow before the PRC Ambassador, presumably with the approval of his Minister?

Distasteful as the PRC regime is, at least there was a bit more honesty in some of their reported remarks

In his speech, Defence Attaché Li Jingfeng stated that as socialism with Chinese characteristics entering a new era, the building of the PLA has also reached a new stage. With the deepening of defence and military reforms, the entire army adheres to the absolute leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and resolutely implements President Xi Jinping’s thought on building a strong military. By constantly advancing the policy of developing the military through political work, strengthening it through reform, and governing it according to law, the PLA’s combat effectiveness has been significantly enhanced

Against what external threat, other than those generated by the PRC’s own aggression, one has to wonder?

As the PRC Embassy reported it

The atmosphere at the reception was cordial and friendly. The participating New Zealand guests spoke highly of the achievements made by the Chinese armed forces and their contribution to world peace,

I guess we can take such propaganda with a pinch of salt, but it clearly wasn’t a remotely awkward occasion for such an expansionist power just a few weeks after that defence policy document had been released.  It should be a cause for shame among our ministers, officials and senior defence force officers.

And if I’m critical of our government and its officials, the Opposition is no better.  After all, they still have former PLA intelligence staffer Jian Yang –  the man who acknowledges he misrepresented his past to get into the country –  as one of the lesser lights of their parliamentary caucus.    Their leader was the man who, as a senior minister last year, signed New Zealand up to the Belt and Road Initiative, in a document full of nauseating and ingratiating rhetoric (next steps of which are due, in terms of the agreement, in the next six weeks).  Perhaps worse, when the government came out with its rather mild Strategic Defence Policy Statement, mostly just stating –  barely even criticising –  the blindingly obvious, Simon Bridges was all of a flutter.  The government couldn’t possibly say such things: it might upset Beijing.  There would be consequences he ominously warned.    Does the man have no respects for the values and systems of his own country at all?  Is he only interested in the perspective of a few businesses (including universities) that want better trade terms, never mind the character of the regime they pander to?  Never, ever, apparently must a disrespectful word be uttered.

There have been a few interesting articles around from abroad in recent weeks that are worth reading.  Perhaps most directly salient was a substantial piece in the Australian magazine The Monthly by John Garnaut, formerly a senior Fairfax journalist (and long-term China correspondent), more latterly an adviser to the Australian government.    His article is on the challenge PRC influence strategies pose in many countries –  in Asia, the Pacific, Europe and the Americas.

Garnaut writes

The CCP’s international influence system is a complex, subtle and deeply institutionalised set of inducements and threats designed to shape the way outsiders talk, think and behave. The modus operandi is to offer privileged access, build personal rapport and reward those who deliver. It seeks common interests and cultivates relationships of dependency with chosen partners. The Party uses overt propaganda and diplomacy, quasi-covert fronts and proxies, and covert operations to frame debates, manage perceptions, and tilt the political and strategic landscape to its advantage.

Beyond the foundational assumption of a single, civilisational “China”, the specific demands of United Front work are framed by permutations of three narratives: China is inherently peaceful and beneficent, the growth of Chinese power is inexorable, and China is vengeful and dangerous if provoked.

These narratives are internally contradictory but consistent over time. The first two are delivered openly by leaders, diplomats and state propaganda. The third is usually delivered via back channels with plausibly deniable connections to the state: PLA “hawks”, specialist military hardware websites, academic forums, personal meetings with top leaders, editorials in the Global Times. Together, this messaging orchestra is designed to condition audiences into believing that the rewards are great, resistance is futile, and outright opposition may be suicidal.

The meta-narrative of Beijing’s ever-growing power is the drumbeat that accompanies China’s policies of territorial coercion across its southern and eastern seas. It is the subtext that persuades foreign governments to remain silent as Beijing abandons restraint in the restive borderlands of Tibet and Xinjiang. It is also the incentive for economic beneficiaries to avoid seeing, or to rationalise, or to even actively support the Party’s efforts to degrade the values and institutions of civil society.

That final sentence sounds a great deal like the New Zealand situation.

But Garnaut isn’t just writing about distant places like New Zealand and Australia.  Of Taiwan he writes

In May I attended a closed-door forum hosted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy that was publicly opened by the deputy foreign minister, François Chih-Chung Wu. He set aside diplomatic platitudes to issue this plea for international help:

“In Taiwan, and in countries elsewhere, China moves from soft power to sharp power, and then to hard power. And it is becoming more brazen every day … In other countries, this process may begin with a Confucius Institute, scholarships, grants, but the next thing you know you must self-censor discussions China considers sensitive … In the face of this authoritarian onslaught of China’s misinformation, cyber hacking, bribery, economic coercion, theft of technology, and intrusion in internal politics – Taiwan is crucial. If it can hold on, other democracies will be able to hold on. But if it fails, there will be no security for the democratic governments of the world.”

He also writes about the Singaporean government’s expulsion last year of a resident Chinese-born US citizen, a reasonably prominent academic, for being an “agent of influence for a foreign country”.     Garnaut writes

What is striking about this official statement is that it makes detailed allegations relating to a form of espionage that sits a long way from the traditional Western counterintelligence agenda. The intelligence officers who were allegedly behind this operation were not stealing secrets. And nor were they aiming to directly control any policy lever. Rather, they were allegedly planting or nurturing a series of words and ideas in order to tilt the strategic decision-making landscape in a particular direction. They didn’t want to force Singaporean policy makers to make decisions in their favour. Rather, they wanted to condition policy makers to make such decisions of their own volition.

He quotes a recent speech from a retired top Singaporean diplomat (reprinted in the government-managed media in Singapore)

“China does not just want you to comply with its wishes. Far more fundamentally, it wants you to think in such a way that you will of your own volition do what it wants without being told. It’s a form of psychological manipulation.”

As I read that, it brought to mind Beijing’s description of the New Zealand defence document: “wrong words”.

Garnaut reports his own experiences, and the attempts of the regime to suborn his reporting

At first, my exposure to United Front work was all about inducements, with an occasional warning to keep me on my toes. I was offered red envelopes, neatly packed with US$100 bills. And sounded out for a lucrative “consultancy” arrangement with a Hong Kong bank. In one encounter, I was offered air tickets, hotel accommodation, a five-star family holiday, a job, and a gift bag containing bottles of Bordeaux wine valued at up to US$2000 each. These were all reciprocity traps, to be avoided at all costs. Gradually, over time, the ratio of carrots to sticks was inverted.

Garnaut was recently the subject of legal action by one extremely wealthy PRC resident in Australia,  put out by his open and sceptical reporting.

Another recent piece people might like to read was piece by Didi Kirsten Tatlow, long-serving (and then China-resident) journalist, and currently visiting fellow at the (German) Mercator Institute for China Studies, on some of the ideas, values, and language (often ancient) that seem to guide PRC actions today, including around the United Front activities  (“Imperial philosophy meets Marxist orthodoxy in Beijing’s global ambitions”).

In one quote, resonant of Beijing’s descriptions of the defence policy document,

A direct consequence of this worldview is that, from the party’s point of view, China’s sovereignty applies everywhere in the world. The party-state reserves for itself the right to negate values such as freedom of speech anywhere if it feels these challenge its sovereignty.

This stance is often expressed in terse demands to “outsiders” to apologize for getting things “wrong,” such as classifying Taiwan as a nation, or referencing the Dalai Lama in an advertisement, as happened recently to western airlines, hotels and car companies. These demands are increasingly coupled to direct threat to trade, in a classic example of jimi.

Rarely is the rationale behind the demand spelled out, but it was, in January, in an article in Global Times. The article responded to a previous New York Times article that documented how Chinese diplomats and soccer officials were interfering in political and speech freedoms in Germany. (That article was by this author.)

Efforts in Germany to support the rights of Tibetans were not a question of free speech, wrote Zhang Yi in Global Times: “What the author fails to understand is that the Tibet question is a matter of Chinese sovereignty; the Tibetan separatists aimed at splitting China and they should not use freedom of speech as an excuse,” Zhang wrote.

In that quote the underpinnings of the democratic order are removed and the intrinsic value of free speech negated everywhere. This isn’t simply change. This is revolution, in the sense of overturning. While the Global Times is not the party or government, the sovereignty argument expressed by Zhang cleaves to official thinking.

Towards the end of her paper, Tetlow notes

How can an anti-democratic, universalist China be accommodated and managed?

Firstly, a mental reset is needed. In a time of system competition it is of utmost importance to understand one’s competitor. Chinese officials and official commentators often talk about “changing and improving” global governance – pluralist societies must assume they mean to do it. Open societies must stop seeing the People’s Republic of China as a paler copy of themselves, merely lagging in terms of democratic modernity. Such teleology is unjustified, barring major political change in China.

By seeing the threads that the party is picking from the past and weaving into the future, we see China as it is – human yet totalitarian, strong yet weak, defensive yet aggressive, and ultimately a great challenge to democratic nations. When China calls for a tianxia-esque, civilizational system such as the “commonwealth of human destiny,” we must listen carefully, analyze closely the historical context and development of the term, identify the techniques used to achieve it, and assume party leaders mean to implement it if they can.

And what of the vaunted Belt and Road Initiative, that local taxpayer-funded PR outfits like the China Council and the Asia New Zealand Foundation are constantly keen to talk up (and on which the New Zealand government soon has to make decisions)?  I noticed a new short piece out of a US think-tank suggesting that all might not be well with the programme even inside the PRC.

the PRC’s policymaking apparatus appears to have already responded to concerns of BRI overreach by adjusting the scale of lending to limit possible financial risk. BRI lending by major PRC banks has dropped by 89% since 2015, and lending by commercial banks—who are dealing with their own financial issues domestically—has ceased almost entirely. Policy banks have also scaled back, despite their status as arms of PRC government policy.

What are these concerns?

On July 20, Sun Wenguang, a retired professor of physics at Shandong University, penned an open letter criticizing China for “offering almost CNY 400 billion in aid to 166 countries, and sending 600,000 aid workers” (Canyuwang, July 20). On August 1, as he expanded on his concerns in an interview with the US-based Voice of America, police forced their way into Sun’s apartment. As he was taken away, Sun could be heard saying, “Listen to what I say, is it wrong? Regular people are poor, let’s not throw our money away in Africa … throwing money around like this doesn’t do any good for our country or our society.” (VOA Youtube, August 2)

Ah, the character of the regime our politicians and officials pander to…..

As the author notes

Although a Western observer might dismiss a few professors’ unhappiness with the BRI as ivory tower grumbling, PRC academic critiques are worth noting, since outspoken academics are often the channel through which other PRC societal elites communicate their dissatisfaction with the CCP.

And draws atttention to one much-better-connected leading academic’s recent essay.

Although Sun has long been a government gadfly, he is also long retired, and resides far from the center of power in Beijing. But similar criticisms have found voice much closer to the corridors of power. On July 24, Xu Zhangrun (许章润), a professor at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, published an extraordinary essay entitled “Imminent Fears, Imminent Hopes” (我们当下的恐惧与期待). Among many other criticisms, Xu excoriates Xi’s government for its profligacy abroad, saying:

At the recent China-Arab States Cooperation Forum [on 10 July 2018], [Xi Jinping] announced that twenty billion US dollars would be made available for ‘Dedicated Reconstruction Projects’ in the Arab world, adding that [China] will investigate offering a further one billion yuan to support social stability efforts in the [Persian Gulf]. Everyone knows full well that the Gulf States are literally oozing with wealth. Why is China, a country with over one hundred million people who are still living below the poverty line, playing at being the flashy big-spender? (China Heritage, August 1)

Xu Zhungrun’s essay is a fascinating read (the readily available, and extensively quoted, translation was done by the Australian China scholar living in the Wairarapa).   As the translator notes in his introduction

On 24 July 2018, Xu published a lengthy online critique of China’s present political and social dilemmas. In issuing his Jeremiad, Xu, who is something of a latter-day  儒, locates himself in the Grand Tradition by effectively addressing a Memorial to the Throne, 諫言 or 上書. Given the relentless police repression and intensifying ideological clamp-down in Xi Jinping’s China, this is a daring act of ‘remonstrance’ 諫勸.

The professor doesn’t pull his punches

Over-investment in international aid may well result in deprivations at home. It is said that China is now the world’s largest source of international aid; its cash-splashes are counted in billions or tens of billions of dollars. For a developing country with a large population many of whom still live in a pre-modern economy, such behaviour is outrageously disproportionate. Such policies are born of a ‘Vanity Politics’; they reflect the flashy showmanship of the boastful and they are odious. The nation’s wealth — including China’s three trillion dollars in foreign reserves — has been accumulated over the past four decades using the blood and sweat of working people, in fact, it has actually been built up as a result of successive policies and countless struggles dating from the time of the Self-Strengthening Movement [launched during the Tongzhi Restoration during the 1860s when, following its defeat in the Second Opium War, the court of the Qing-dynasty adopted the first modernising reform agenda in Chinese history. By saying this Xu, to an extent, indicates that he does not completely embrace the Communist narrative or its soteriology]. How can this wealth be squandered so heedlessly?

The era of fast-paced economic growth will come to an end; how can such wanton generosity be tolerated — a generosity which, in many ways, replicates [the vainglorious Maoist-era policies when China boasted that it was the centre of world revolution to] ‘Support Asia-Africa-Latin America’ [which meant that an impoverished China was generously giving aid to Third World countries in an effort to gain political advantage and counter the influence both of the American imperialists and the Soviet revisionists] that led to countless millions of Chinese being forced to tighten their belts simply to survive, and which even saw the corpses of those who had starved to death scattered in the fields.

Recall that New Zealand too –  far richer than China per capita –  is a recipient of this lavish PRC “foreign aid” –  paying for language teaching assistance in numerous of our state schools,  all encouraged by our government at the expense of poor Chinese.

Average Chinese are most frequently offended by the way the state scatters large sums of money through international aid to little or no benefit. China is still slowly making its way up the steep slope of development. In terms both of basic infrastructure and social facilities, as well as in regard to people’s ability to access welfare, we are confronting massive problems; our burden is great and the road ahead leads far into the distance. And I make this point without even mentioning the crisis in aged care, or issues related to employment opportunities and education.


Even the most commonplace international meeting organised in China involves extraordinary levels of expense. There is no regard for budgets; fiscal waste and the heedless loss of human work hours is considerable. Such activities are content-free and superficial. It’s all about pursuing ‘Vanity Politics’ not ‘Practical Politics’, let alone ‘Hard-edged Politics’. Such events have nothing to do with the so-called ‘venerable traditional of warmth and hospitality demonstrated by the Chinese people from ancient times’; only the most vain and self-serving [leaders and bureaucrats like to] indulge in such things. If foreigners were to copy what we ar constantly doing here, then the VIP-filled headquarters of the United Nations in New York would be on police lock-down 24/7, and the headquarters of the numerous international organisations based in Geneva and Paris would perforce have to stage nightly fireworks displays with their personnel expected to be decked out in all their finery all the time.

One might think of cocktails to celebrate the 91st anniversary of the PLA.  But more tellingly one might think of PRC gifts to PNG (a fancy convention centre and a new six lane highway for example) to enable it to host APEC this year.


An emergency brake must be applied to the unfolding Personality Cult. Who would have thought that, after four decades of Reforms and the Open Door, our Sacred Land would once more witness a Personality Cult? The Party media is going to extreme lengths to create a new Idol, and in the process it is offering up to the world an image of China as Modern Totalitarianism. Portraits of the Leader are hoisted on high throughout the Land, as though they are possessed of some Spiritual Mana. This only adds to all the absurdity. And then, on top of that, the speeches of That Official — things previously merely to be recorded by secretaries in a pro forma bureaucratic manner — are now painstakingly collected in finely bound editions printed in vast quantities and handed out free throughout the world. The profligate waste of paper alone is enough to make you shake your head in disbelief.

Didn’t former Labour leader Phil Goff pay for a large chunk of his mayoral campaign auctioning off collected works of Xi Jinping, to PRC-based donors?

It is a bracing read, and one can wonder at the likely fate of the courageous author.

Meanwhile, our Prime Minister –  and her Opposition counterpart – refuse ever to utter a critical word about the regime, or what it represents here  (Jian Yang, the infiltration of Chinese community groups, control of the Chinese language media), abroad (South and East China Sea), or back home.    The most egregious recent example is around the mass concentration camp (actual detention, and extreme surveillance for those not detained) in Xinjiang.    What would it take for Jacinda Ardern, Simon Bridges, Winston Peters, Ron Mark, James Shaw, Marama Davidson to speak up and speak out.   Does nothing but a dollar matter in their world nowadays?  It looks a lot like civilisational decadence taken to whole new levels.  So well-schooled it doesn’t even occur to them to speak up.     Another cocktail party perhaps?  Pass the canapes, and quietly ignore the great evil Beijing and the CCP are responsible for –  not just in decades past, but (in more refined, and perhaps unnerving) forms right now.

These were parties that once prided themselves on standing against (variously) apartheid South Africa, French nuclear testing, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, mass murder in Cambodia or Rwanda, and so on.  Is there anything left they believe in enough, or care about enough, to speak up, take a stand, or do something?