On the anniversary of learning about Jian Yang

It was a year ago today that the Financial Times and Newsroom told us that we’d had a People’s Republic of China spy in our midst….well, in our Parliament actually.   Unknown to the voters – but presumably not to the National Party hierarchy, which must (presumably) have done its candidate vetting – for six years Jian Yang had sat in our Parliament, had sat each week in the governing party’s caucus, had spent several years on Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee, and been part of official government delegations to the PRC.  And, so this joint FT/Newsroom investigation revealed, Jian Yang –  who had only moved to New Zealand in his 30s – had  (in the words of the FT article)

….spent more than 10 years training and teaching at elite facilities including China’s top linguistics academy for military intelligence officers, the Financial Times has learnt. Since being elected in 2011, Mr Yang has been a big fundraiser for the National party. He has consistently pushed for closer ties with Beijing and for international policies and positions echoing those of China’s Communist party.

He’d been a member of the military intelligence system of the People’s Republic of China….in colloquial terms, a spy.

The story sparked no action from the National Party –  other than the then Attorney General and minister for the intelligence services attempting to tar the stories as “racist” –  and Jian Yang was duly re-elected to Parliament ten days later, where he sits still.  Doing little (search Hansard, and you’ll find  – for example – that, despite being a third term Opposition MP, he has asked only two oral questions this Parliament).  And explaining less (he has refused all media comment to English language media for months, while apparently being quoted regularly in the PRC-dominated Chinese language media).  He has been fully backed by both the previous and current National Party leaders.

The story unfolded further.  Having initially claimed he’d been fully open about his past –  while explicitly asking the FT not to report it –  Jian Yang eventually acknowledged that he had withheld information about his PLA background when he had lodged residency and/or citizenship applications to New Zealand.  Extraordinarily, he told journalists that he had done this because the PRC authorities had told him to –  this even though by the time he was applying to New Zealand he hadn’t lived in China for some years.  But nothing seemed to happen as a result.   A few weeks earlier, the Green Party leader’s acknowledgement that in her youth she’d lied to claim welfare benefits, had (rightly in my view) cost her her job, and a full MSD investigation supposed to result in a refund.

It also emerged that Jian Yang had been a member of the Chinese Communist Party –  only a small minority of PRC citizens are members –  and although he claimed no longer to be a member, China experts say that from a CCP perspective no one leaves the Party unless they are expelled.   And Jian Yang had clearly been in favour with the Party, regarded as politically sound etc, or he’d never have been allowed  –  with his background in the PLA system  – to leave the country to study.

Various observers have noted the way in which Jian Yang prominently and frequently associates with the PRC embassy in New Zealand.  It was noted that in Jian Yang’s maiden speech –  where MPs often talk about the things that shaped them, their values etc –  he couldn’t bring himself to condemn the Tiananmen Square massacres.  In fact, in now seven years in Parliament it isn’t clear that he has ever said anything critical about the Party-state he chose to leave –  one of the most evil and repressive on the planet.

Even a doyen of the establishment –  former diplomat, current member of the board of the Contemporary China Research Centre, Charles Finny –  who claimed to have known for years of Jian Yang’s intelligence background was moved to comment in a TV interview that he knew that Jian Yang (and Labour MP Raymond Huo) was close to the PRC embassy, and that he was always careful what he said in front of either man.   The (unstated) implication was that he was worried that anything he said might well be passed back to the PRC Embassy.  It was an extraordinary admission, that he didn’t feel comfortable being fully open to people serving in New Zealand’s Parliament, who have sworn allegiance to New Zealand.

But then the whole situation is extraordinary:

  • we’d never have tolerated a former Gestapo official, who later acknowledged he’d lied about his background (on the instructions of his German masters) to get into the country, and who didn’t (once) have a bad word to say about the Nazi regime, to have served in our Parliament,
  • we’d never have tolerated a former KGB/GRU official who’d……..to have served in our Parliament, especially while the noxious Soviet regime was still in power,

And yet, even if Jian Yang won’t say so, that is the sort of regime the People’s Republic of China and its CCP rulers actually is.

In truth, there would probably be outrage (reasonably and understandably so) if someone with a background in US military intelligence lied about their background to get into New Zealand, and somehow got into our Parliament, refused ever to say anything critical about the US, and still spent lots of time close to the US Embassy.  And, for all its faults, the US is a long-term military and intelligence ally of New Zealand.

But about Jian Yang….nothing.  No investigation into those applications for residency/citizenship  –  by contrast, didn’t we turf out Indians on student visas who had (perhaps unknowingly) misrepresented their finances?   And not a word now from any member of Parliament, or any political party (there were a few comments suggesting unease from Winston Peters, but that was before he took office).

I’m sure there are decent people in Parliament, but none –  not one – seems to have any moral courage when it comes to this issue.   Don’t upset Beijing, don’t upset the donors, don’t upset that handful of big businesses that have chosen to make themselves highly exposed to the wrath of Beijing.

But then why would we really be surprised.  As Anne-Marie Brady’s paper –  released just a few days after the initial Jian Yang revelations – highlighted, the presence of someone like Jian Yang in a prominent place in New Zealand public life is just the tip of iceberg when it comes to the way in which the PRC has sought (successfully it seems) to seek influence in New Zealand (and a range of similar countries).  Little of it appears to be illegal, and perhaps little of it even should be (although tightening up, and closing some of the loopholes in, our electoral finance laws has merit, as would stronger rules on post-Parliament employment opportunities for former ministers).   The issue is more about political will.

And the political will is clearly to keep the New Zealand public in the dark as far as possible (did National advertise in 2011 their recruitment of an uncritical Communist Party member and former member of Chinese military intelligence?), play up spurious –  well, simply wrong –  arguments about New Zealand’s reliance on China for our economic fortunes, and do all they possibly can to play nice (and more) with Beijing.  Both National and Labour party presidents have been on record in the last year praising Xi Jinping and his regime, even as he has assumed more power, and the regime has become more repressive.  It is sickening.  But keep the money flowing, and simply set aside any values New Zealand governments once stood for seems to be the approach of all our political leaders, and their underlings.

Not a word, for example, has been heard from the Prime Minister or the leaders of the Green Party.   Given that Jian Yang is a member of an opposition party –  whom normally they would have no interest in protecting –  that suggests they think it is just fine to have a former member of Chinese military intelligence, who acknowledges he lied to get residency here, and who simply never says anything critical about Beijing, as a member of Parliament.   In my book, that makes them at least as bad as the current National Party leadership and MPs.

It is shameful.

A couple of weeks ago, ministers of the Five Eyes group issued a declaration about foreign interference in domestic politics, and wanting more surveillance powers etc.  Andrew Little, our justice minister and minister responsible for the intelligence services, was part of that grouping.   There were some fine words

We condemned foreign interference, being the coercive, deceptive and clandestine activities of foreign governments, actors, and their proxies, to sow discord, manipulate public discourse, bias the development of policy, or disrupt markets for the purpose of undermining our nations and our allies. Foreign interference threatens a nation’s sovereignty, values and national interests — it can limit or shape the polity’s ability to make independent judgements, erode public confidence in our political and government institutions, and interfere with private-sector decision making. We agreed the five countries would work collectively to counter foreign interference, protect our individual sovereignty, and ensure our values and interests are upheld.

But it is all a bit meaningless when successive New Zealand governments are so utterly supine around China, unbothered by the (plain as day) presence of Jian Yang in our Parliament.  Political leaders, cheered on by elements of big business, voluntarily assuming some sort of quasi-vassal status also sacrifices the nation’s values and the interests of its people.  It should erode public confidence in our leaders and our institutions.

Of course, the current government –  or at least elements of it – would have you believe that it is different.   And I was pleased to see them committing to purchase the P8 patrol planes-  even if the PRC threat to New Zealand isn’t really military, there is a military dimension to the threat to other free societies nearer the PRC.  And there are relationships to maintain with Australia (in particular) and the US, for non-PRC issues.  And they do seem rather worried about the activities of the PRC in the South Pacific and Melanesia –  potential debt-traps, potential military bases, and so on.

But they won’t name the evil.  They won’t speak openly about the character of the regime.  They won’t even call out the unacceptability of Jian Yang’s position.

There was a story on Newsroom the other day, clearly sourced directly from the Prime Minister, in which the message was supposed to be that the government was speaking up (“an increasingly frank New Zealand line on China”) –  including when a member of the Politburo came through Wellington last week.

“We acknowledged of course we are both countries on different development paths, that the nature of our political systems, but that we’ve always as our two countries found ways to discuss those differences in a way that works for our relationship, and I put human rights under that category,” Ardern said.

The detention of Uighur Muslims in Chinese “re-education camps”, the subject of concern by a United Nations panel, was raised under that banner, Ardern said.

 But that first paragraph is what all New Zealand politicians always say: we find ways to “discuss these differences”, but never actually mention them openly.  I’m sure the PRC leaders get used to those private ritualised conversations, which make no difference to anything.  Since they happen in private among “men or women of the world” they probably don’t even make anyone uncomfortable.  Couldn’t have that of course.

This time, it seems, there was some mention of the Xinjiang situation.  I guess that is better than no mention, but where is the moral leadership of the Prime Minister in shaping New Zealand perceptions of the regime she is dealing with?

Thus, having given lots of time to a New York Times columnist for a puff piece, a serious New Zealand journalist notes the continued refusal of the Prime Minister to engage seriously on issues around the PRC and New Zealand.

We hear nothing from our political leaders about:

  • the growing Chinese threat to a free and democratic Taiwan,
  • nothing about the ongoing militarisation of the South China Sea,
  • nothing about the debt traps associated with much of the PRC “aid”
  • nothing about the outrageous evil being perpetrated by the regime in Xinjiang (perhaps a million people in concentration camps),
  • nothing about new threats to religious liberty for Christian Chinese (“install surveillance cameras or close down”),
  • nothing about organ donor abuse,
  • nothing about new PRC laws to essentially require all Chinese companies to act as agents of the Party-state (including ones that operate here, notably Huawei),
  • nothing about the growing attempts to treat all ethnic Chinese abroad as forever part of the PRC

And, of course, nothing about that very visible tip of the iceberg Jian Yang.

The Xinjiang situation has been getting more attention internationally recently, including a searing report from Human Rights Watch.   One academic observer who read the report in full drew up a lengthy list, from the various interviews HRW did, about things that get you locked away.  Here are the first 10 –  the complete list is here.

Things which may cause you to detained without trial and locked away in an education camp indefinitely, in Xinjiang, China, 2018:

  • Owning a tent
  • Owning welding equipment
  • Owning extra food
  • Owning a compass
  • Owning multiple knives
  • Abstaining from alcohol
  • Abstaining from cigarettes
  • Wailing, publicly grieving, or otherwise acting sad when your parents die
  • Performing a traditional funeral
  • Inviting more than 5 people to your house without registering with the police department

But our political leaders show no sign of caring.  Actually caring, when you hold positions in government that enable you to do and say things, implies more than a quiet, and no doubt very very muted, pro forma word to your CCP peers when, at the same time, you are trying to negotiate new deals with them.

How about levelling with the New Zealand people about the nature of the regime – the Nazi Germany of our day, if (so far) with more staying power.   How about bringing even a modicum of a moral stance to politics, not subordinating everything to the business interests of a few firms, and the fundraising imperatives of the political parties?   Yes, it would require some courage, and some rare honesty.  But it would be much truer to the values most New Zealanders uphold.   Perhaps there would be a price –  there almost always is for things that matter, things that are worthwhile –  but if tiny Palau can stand up for itself (though for how long?) surely distant, diversified, New Zealand could?

Saying “enough” and refusing to any longer tolerate Jian Yang in our Parliament would be a (pretty modest but) telling start.  More likely, a shameful anniversary will pass in embarrassed silence…and again next year.