National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States is a bit like Radio New Zealand National, and about as left-wing in the assumptions and orientations (sometimes probably unconscious) of most of its presenters and interviewers. I listen regularly to their politics podcast, and it struck me recently that the people involved are probably almost as left-wing as our Prime Minister (who, while an MP, served as president of the International Union of Socialist Youth, complete with the speech in which she used the word “comrade” 15 times in eight minutes).
Which is by way of saying that when NPR reports on a story, it isn’t exactly Breitbart, or the fevered imagination of some vast right-wing conspiracy. These are people with whom you’d think our Labour and Greens parties would normally be in sympathy with.
But earlier this week, NPR published a lengthy story about the influence activities of the People’s Republic of China in Australia and New Zealand. It is missing a few nuances, but is an interesting treatment for an international audience. In the Australian section there is a nice quote from a serious senior academic.
“China’s different in scale and it’s different also in that it can integrate the private sector, education, civil society — all arms, if you like — of the state and the community with the objectives of the Chinese Communist Party,” says Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University. “We’re not really dealing with a normal country here. We’re dealing with an authoritarian party state, where in fact Chinese citizens owe a higher loyalty to the party than to the state itself. So what we’re dealing with here is the largest secret organization in human history.”
Medcalf says the problem is not China’s people, but its Communist Party. Some of the most vulnerable victims of the party, he says, are Chinese people who left their country to live in democracies like Australia and New Zealand.
Very similar themes to those in the work, on this side of the Tasman, of Anne-Marie Brady – vilified in last year’s election campaign by the then Attorney-General and Minister of National Intelligence as some sort of nasty xenophobe.
NPR interviewed Chen Weijian who
….moved from China in 1991, escaping imprisonment for working on a pro-democracy newspaper. He restarted the newspaper in New Zealand, but even there, Beijing caught up with him, he says: A pro-Chinese Communist Party newspaper in Auckland sued him for defamation after he criticized it for being too pro-Beijing. Ongoing legal fees forced his paper into bankruptcy in 2012.
“Their paper was funded by businesses supported by China’s government,” Chen says. “So an overseas Communist Party’s propaganda wing crushed our democratic newspaper here in New Zealand.”
A reader who is closer to these things tells me
The Chinese newspaper which crushed Chen Weijian’s pro-democracy paper is the Chinese Herald, now NZME’s joint venture partner of the Chineseherald website.
The international news on this website are primarily sourced from the three major CCP’s state media and they apparently uphold the CCP’s stance.
Last year, local media reported that a prominent, Chinese-born member of New Zealand’s Parliament, Jian Yang, had lied to authorities about his education background on his citizenship application for New Zealand.
Yang, a member of the National Party, which led the government from 2008 to 2017, had worked for 15 years in China’s military intelligence sector. He studied English at the People’s Liberation Army Air Force Engineering University, taught at the college for five years after graduating and then obtained a master’s degree at the People’s Liberation Army University of Foreign Languages in Luoyang, one of China’s best-known military intelligence schools.
Later, at the same institute, Yang taught English to students who were studying to intercept and decipher English-language communications on behalf of Chinese military intelligence.
Yang declined an interview request from NPR. He admitted to journalists last year that he was a member of China’s Communist Party, though he insisted he has not been an active member since he left China in 1994. He has steered clear of the media spotlight since the scandal hit.
NPR joining the honourable company of all English language media that Jian Yang – an elected member of the New Zealand Parliament, elected (to their shame) by all National Party voters – simply refuses to talk to.
Chen Weijian goes on, rather more speculatively in some places
“Jian Yang is not just connected to China’s Communist Party,” says Chen Weijian. “He was sent here by them to spy on New Zealand. But people in Yang’s party — the National Party — all think he’s good for New Zealand-China relations. A lot of his party’s donations come through him, and he often leads government trips to China to make lucrative deals there.”
Yang, who has served in Parliament since 2011 and remains in office, played a prominent role during official visits to China in 2013 and 2016, sitting alongside then-Prime Minister John Key opposite Chinese leader Xi Jinping and serving at times as interpreter during bilateral meetings.
As Yang’s political influence grew, so did New Zealand’s economic dependence on China. In 2008, New Zealand became the first developed country to sign a free trade agreement with China. As a result, trade between the two economies has tripled in the past decade, largely because of China’s thirst for imported New Zealand milk: A quarter of all imported milk in China comes from the tiny island nation.
The (so-called) FTA was signed three years before Jian Yang turned up in national politics, and as a the world’s largest exporter of milk powder it seems probable that exports to China would have increased considerably over the last decade whether or not an FTA had been signed, whether or not Jian Yang was in Parliament.
NPR talked to Charles Finny, former diplomat, trade negotiator, and now lobbyist who declared last year that he knew Jian Yang (and Raymond Huo) and was always very careful what he said in front of either of them.
Finny [talking of FTAs] believes the same to be true in politics. He says China has most likely been using New Zealand as a testing ground for diplomatic relations with other developed nations.
“We’re small, nonthreatening,” he explains. “We’re not as close to the United States. China, I think, wants to learn from us about how to deal with other, larger players. It’s very common for Chinese leaders when they’re just about to be appointed to a big position to come to New Zealand to learn about democracy, to learn about how to deal with the media, to learn there are going to be some protests — all these things that are going to be a much bigger factor in bigger relationships, they get to learn how to deal with it here.”
Perhaps, but you get a pretty easy ride here. Universities lined up to have photos taken with Xi Jinping. Our former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley went out of her way to ensure that the visiting Chinese leader in the 1990s didn’t have to see protestors.
NPR did talk to one senior New Zealand politician who made some interesting remarks (if typically cryptic and defensive) that seem to have had surprisingly little local media attention.
After New Zealand’s intelligence agency began looking into Yang’s background in 2016, he was removed from parliamentary select committees on foreign affairs, defense and trade. But he hung on to his seat in Parliament, leaving some wondering why.
“The answer to that is not something that can be given today, but it is an answer that will soon have to come from our country and our system as to what our response is,” Winston Peters, New Zealand’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, tells NPR. “At that level of growing public interest — and I would think intelligence interest as well — plus the shared intelligence from our closer allies, one would be naive in thinking that our response would not be forthcoming.”
Does that mean anything at all? And if so, what? Surely it is pretty clear why Jian Yang hangs onto his seat, despite his past, and his misrepresentations to New Zealand authorities, being exposed and acknowledged? And despite his ongoing close associations with the PRC and his refusal to ever utter a negative word about that totalitarian state. On the one hand, the National Party wants the donor money and doesn’t want to risk the relationships with donors by acknowledging that there is something very wrong. And, on the other hand, because all other parties – including that of the Deputy Prime Minister, once in office – make it easy for National to do so. Not a negative word is heard from any of them – the Prime Minister, the minister responsible for the intelligence services and the electoral system, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence, the leaders of the Green Party (or their foreign affairs or intelligence spokespeople).
The interview with Winston Peters obviously got a little tetchy.
Analysts in the U.S. and Australia have suggested the Yang case is evidence that China is exploiting New Zealand as a weak link in what’s known as the “Five Eyes,” the intelligence alliance including the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This angers Peters. He is the longest-serving parliamentarian in New Zealand’s history [which he isn’t] and has long been vocal about his country’s dependence on China, but he draws the line when his country is criticized for being used as a political tool for the Chinese.
“This country turned up to two world wars, two years before the United States on both occasions,” he points out. “So we don’t like that sort of talk down here.”
The journalist obviously missed the important context that Peters only ever says anything critical when he is in Opposition and unable to actually do anything.
One might point out in response to the Deputy Prime Minister that 80 years ago our then government was at the forefront of calls to pushback against aggression by Germany and Italy, recognising the nature of the evil. So different today…..
The NPR journalist then turned to Stephen Jacobi
“To suggest that New Zealand may be naive, well, OK, fine,” says Stephen Jacobi, executive director of the New Zealand China Council, a group in Auckland promoting business ties. “We don’t have to see the world the same way Americans do, or even Australians do. We’re very proud of that.”
Jacobi says the evidence against Yang — who serves on the board of his organization — is largely hearsay and is not enough to prove that he is working for China’s government.
The NPR people obviously missed the rather important point that the China Council isn’t just a bunch of businesses wanting to sell out their own country for another deal, but a taxpayer funded organisation designed to play distraction and influence public opinion in favour of the (successive) government’s strategy of doing much the same.
New Zealanders might be proudly independent, but only foolish people are proud of having a different view from other countries simply for the sake of it. Most New Zealanders aren’t that foolish. Jacobi – whose background was trade with the Americas – seems to simply ignore issues around the integrity of our political system, the evils of the PRC regime, and its external aggression. But who cares about those things when there are deals to be done by your members, visits to host etc.
But his comment about Jian Yang is interesting. On the one hand, he now seems to concede that there is something to the concerns (it is only “largely” hearsay). Perhaps things like the:
- service in the PLA military intelligence system,
- membership of the CCP,
- expert assessments that (a) no one voluntarily leaves the Party, and (b) a person with his background would not have been allowed out of the PRC unless he was regarded as totally politically safe and reliable,
- the acknowledged misrepresentations of his past on immigration/citizenship forms,
- the photographic evidence of his close ongoing associations with the PRC Embassy,
- the absence of any sign, in his time in Parliament, of ever being willing to criticise the PRC regime, for anything.
Does he actively “work for” the Chinese government? One hopes not, but even if not – and Charles Finny appeared to think otherwise, on national TV – the list of things we know, with a high degree of certainty should be enough to have any leaders of decency and integrity dissociate themselves from Jian Yang. Perhaps it is a bit like the Kavanaugh case: the relevant standard, in putting people in influential leadership positions, shouldn’t be whether one could avoid a criminal conviction. In Jian Yang’s case, it isn’t even clear that he could get over that hurdle in respect of the immigration/citizenship non-disclosures.
The willed reluctance of the New Zealand establishment to confront the issue was captured again in this week’s Newsroom column by Peter Dunne. Writing about who might leave Parliament at the next election, our longserving former minister writes
Likewise, Dr Jiang Yang may decide to stand aside if the vague but persistent whispers about his links to Chinese intelligence agencies persist and intensify
You mean pretty basic, now acknowledged, “links” like the fact that the man worked for them for a decade? A bit more than a “whisper”.
The NPR story ends with some coverage of Anne-Marie Brady, both her papers (and associated testimonies) and the break-ins to her home and office, which are widely assumed to be the ultimate responsibility of the PRC authorities. There isn’t anything new in that section of the story, although it is good for a wider range of overseas readers/listeners to be exposed to the material.
The Peters quote aside, in many ways there isn’t anything new in the NPR story; the news is as much that another major overseas media organisation, one whose people are probably not generally unsympathetic to the leftish slant of most New Zealand politics, ran it.
But I was struck by it partly for the contrast with the speeches the Prime Minister was giving last week on her progress through New York, making the most of her baby for publicity purposes (I checked, and Tony Blair and his wife had a child while he was Prime Minister, who wasn’t – as far as I could tell – paraded at the UN General Assembly). I read all six of them, looking for substance and mostly coming up short. It was the speech to the United Nations General Assembly that I focused on most. After all, there might have been hardly anyone there is hear it, and only a few Guardian types to praise it, but it was an official statement of New Zealand Prime Minister to an international agency which New Zealand is a founding member of.
There were plenty of sly digs at the United States – some even warranted – but not a word, directly or indirectly, about the People’s Republic of China. It might be the most populous country on the planet, with the largest (total) GDP, on an aggressively repressive path domestically (as just one particularly egregious example, those million or more people of Xinjiang in concentration camps, having done nothing but be) and a pretty aggressively expansionist path abroad, including the direct interference in the commercial and political affairs of other countries, including our own. There was a whole section on “universal values”, which of course bears no relationship to how the People’s Republic operates. There was a great deal on climate change, most just cheap rhetoric – and perhaps not that different from what Xi Jinping might have said. And then the speech ended this way
Perhaps then it is time to step back from the chaos and ask what we want. It is in that space that we’ll find simplicity. The simplicity of peace, of prosperity, of fairness. If I could distil it down into one concept that we are pursuing in New Zealand it is simple and it is this. Kindness.
In the face of isolationism, protectionism, racism – the simple concept of looking outwardly and beyond ourselves, of kindness and collectivism, might just be as good a starting point as any. So let’s start here with the institutions that have served us well in times of need, and will do so again.
Kindness and collectivism. There’s the answer, at least according to our Prime Minister. Frankly I found it unnerving that we get this level of vapidity of someone charged with running the government. “Kindness” is an admirable, perhaps under-rated, characteristic in interpersonal affairs, but it is hardly any sort of useful benchmark for making public policy. In fact, it is incredibly naive and dangerous, and simply pays no heed to the realities of human nature. As for “collectivism”, perhaps it is something the members of the Interational Union of Socialist Youth think fondly of, but many of the rest of us are inclined to think of manifest evils of the Soviet Union and Communist China (I could recommend a couple of good books I’ve read recently – here and here). I’m pretty sure neither the term nor the idea of “freedom” or “liberty” appeared in the Prime Minister’s speech at all. Much of the active government talk was rather reminiscent of the sorts of speeches the Chinese Ambassador gives here every few weeks, with her talk of
“building of a community with a shared future for mankind”
Or rather like Simon Bridges signing the government up last year to an aspiration of a “fusion of civilisations” with a regime so evil.
Not, of course, that the PRC would be so vapid as to suggest that “kindness” is some sort of watchword for policy, whether domestic or international.
But then why would we be surprised. The President of the Labour Party sings the praises of the regime, and of Xi Jinping. And, so we learn from the Chinese Embassy website (although not from the Prime Minister), on the recent visit of a Politburo member there was talk of strengthened ties between (presumably) the Labour Party and Communist Party of China (emphasis added).
Li, secretary of the CPC Guangdong Provincial Committee and a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, met with New Zealand Prime Minister and Leader of the Labor Party Jacinda Ardern on Monday.
Li said China is ready to work with New Zealand to enhance political mutual trust, expand economic cooperation, keep closer party-to-party exchanges, and strengthen coordination and communication in international and regional affairs.
People say (I see it even in the ACT newsletters) that the Prime Minister is a nice kind person at an individual level, but she seems wilfully indifferent – if not worse – to the nature of the regime with which she and her party deal, and about whose evils – and whose interferences here – she will never once openly speak of, whether at home or in New York.
It was interesting to see the government joining yesterday in a multi-national effort to denounce various incidents of Russian government hacking. I welcome them doing so, even if I couldn’t help wondering what marked out our own government’s signals intelligence efforts, Waihopai and all. Isn’t such interception what governments do? And isn’t complicity in actual and attempted murder on foreign soil – about which the government was so slow to speak out, whether over the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine or the Skripal case – rather more substantively important.
But those were rather cheap words – about episodes not actually involving New Zealand directly – signifying not much more than our ongoing relationship with the UK and Australia. But China is a much bigger issue globally, and particularly in New Zealand, than Russia is.
And where is the Prime Minister on things like Xinjiang (or do “universal values” not apply there)? Where is the Prime Minister on things like the episode in the South China Sea earlier in the week – a Chinese warship within 45 metres of a US ship on innocent passage through international waters – let alone the now fait accompli of the illegal militarisation of reefs etc in that sea? Where will the Prime Minister be on the new in-depth Bloomberg story about the PRC using their place in supply chains for espionage purposes?
The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies
The attack by Chinese spies reached almost 30 U.S. companies, including Amazon and Apple, by compromising America’s technology supply chain, according to extensive interviews with government and corporate sources.
Or on the PRC attempts to use research cooperation agreements, including with NZ universities, to steal sensitive technology?
And, of course, where is the Prime Minister on situations like Jian Yang, or Raymond Huo – apparently associated with various United Front bodies – who sits in her own caucus.
Perhaps she and her colleagues think kindness is the answer?
“Kindness” is no substitute for a serious hardheaded analysis or for engaging with the New Zealand public on the nature of the PRC threat, here and abroad. It seems more like an excuse for covering your ears and eyes and reciting repeatedly “hear no evil, see evil”. But then there are none so blind as those who wilfully choose not to see.
(And critical as I am of the Prime Minister here, there is no sign that any party in New Zealand is any better, even if not all of them would use quite her particular vapid rhetoric to simply avoiding facing reality, or standing up for New Zealand and the values of her people, and her friends in other free and democratic countries.)
But what did Winston Peters mean in those quotes above? Perhaps some New Zealand journalist could ask him?
Tomorrow, I might tackle the latest public effort of a senior public servant to dine with the devil.