“Free from interference” – Ardern

In an interview earlier this week the Prime Minister claimed, once again, that New Zealand politics was free from interference from the People’s Republic of China (or anywhere else).     Were that statement true, it seems pretty clear that we’d be unique.  And yet she makes it anyway.  (And, of course, no leader of any other political party challenges her fairyland denial.)

I could, but won’t, link to stories and reports of PRC interference activity in pretty much every other country.  There are the obvious places like Taiwan.  And there are the places New Zealanders barely even think of, such as Greenland.  And almost everywhere in between – Tonga, Palau, Norway, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Papua New Guinea, Australia, the United States, Greece, Israel, numerous countries in Africa, the Maldives, Pakistan, Malaysia, Cambodia and so on and so on.   There just isn’t anything that unique about New Zealand –  indeed, Anne-Marie Brady’s paper was written as one case study of how the PRC operates in many different countries.

What about Australia, for example?  There was a new, and substantial, article out yesterday.   It opens this way

CHINA has a concerning plan to infiltrate and interfere with Australia at the highest levels. And it has national security experts on high alert.

And proceeds to quote extensively a number of Australian experts in the area.

Here is Prof Rory Medcalf of ANU’s National Security College

But a determined focus by China to influence and take control of the “tone and policy choices” of decision-makers in the West has been a game-changer for spying, he said.

“In some ways, the espionage problem is probably worse than it was during the Cold War.”

and

But a determined focus by China to influence and take control of the “tone and policy choices” of decision-makers in the West has been a game-changer for spying, he said.

“In some ways, the espionage problem is probably worse than it was during the Cold War.”

and

Professor Medcalf claimed China operated entire departments whose goal is “to co-op and exploit goodwill and friendly voices in foreign countries in order to increase China’s power and influence” abroad.

“That’s all kinds of seemingly innocent friendship societies and business lobby groups and so forth, but it provides a bridge for long-term Chinese influence,” he said.

In a New Zealand context, think Yikun Zhang or Raymond Huo, for example.

Another expert

The telecommunications giant Huawei was blocked from bidding to develop and rollout Australia’s 5G mobile network due to security concerns.

According to ASPI cybersecurity expert Tom Uren, it would have been impossible to employ Huawei without some degree of risk.

“The main concern is that they could covertly intercept our communications and get access to our devices — computers, phones, anything with a signal,”

Perhaps the PM thinks this just isn’t an issue here?

Controlling members of the Chinese community in Australia seemed to be a major priority, Prof Medcalf said.

“We’ve got a large and diverse number of Chinese communities — 1.2 million people approximately — and the Communist Party wants to silence descent and criticism. In order to stay in power, the Chinese regime needs complete content from its own population.

“Criticism anywhere is a threat, especially criticism that can echo from outside within China.”

Summing up

But what is the actual goal of this new and unprecedented era of espionage, particularly for a participant as active as China?

“It differs from country to country but I think there are three or four key objectives for China in respect to Australia,” Prof Medcalf said.

“China wants to weaken the Australia-US alliance to reduce the possibility that Australia would support America in a conflict in the Asian region.

“It’s also trying to silence Australia’s independent voice in the Indo-Pacific region to make it less critical of Chinese policy. Many countries in South-East Asia look to Australia to be a solid voice. If that can be silenced, other voices can potentially be silenced as well.”

China also has an interest in growing its technological advantage in both a military and civilian sense, and Australia is home to both quality, cutting-edge research and sensitive materials shared by allies.

“And as I’ve pointed out, the final goal is to do with seeking to control Chinese communities in Australia,” Prof Medcalf said.

“It’s really important to note that this increased awareness is not about being anti-Chinese. It’s about protecting Australia and Australians. That includes Chinese Australians. If we let foreign powers intimidate communities here, we have failed to protect their freedoms.”

Perhaps one day our Prime Minister could enlighten us on where she thinks the issues, and threats, are so different (non-existent apparently) for New Zealand?      She might, perhaps, one day, comment on the presence in our Parliament of a former PLA intelligence official, Communist Party member, and close associate of the PRC Embassy.  No problems there either I guess?   There are none so blind as those who determinedly refuse to see.

It all seems to be part of the same scared-of-your-own-shadow, never ever risk upsetting Beijing, policy –  betokening a craven lack of any self-respect (let alone engaging honestly with voters) that has come to increasingly characterise New Zealand governments and political parties over the last decade or more.    Mostly it probably doesn’t need overt Beijing pressure: rather our political “leaders” have trained themselves to anticipate potential pressure points, with discretionary grovelling (adulation of the regime from party presidents Haworth and Goodfellow) thrown in for good measure.

I was reading a piece the other day that reminded me of visits in times past by people Beijing was most unhappy with.  There was the Dalai Lama for example, or democracy advocate and imprisoned (and then exiled) dissident Wei Jingsheng.   Looking up the latter’s visit in 2002 I stumbled across this piece, from the days when ACT was more courageous.

The chairman of the Overseas Chinese Democracy Movement – Wei Jingsheng is in New Zealand for a week. Mr Wei has spent nearly 20 years in jail in China. He wrote some of the more famous statements calling for democracy 10 years before the Tianamen Square protests.

Parliaments around the world have honoured Mr Wei for his principled stand for democracy. The Australian Parliament last week put on a function for him. Then he comes to Helengrad. Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff only agreed to meet him in his electorate office. Rodney Hide attended a function for Mr Wei on Saturday night at Auckland’s Dynasty Restaurant, organised by the Auckland Chinese community. He was surprised to see Jonathan Hunt attending a Labour Party function in the next room.

“This is a stroke of good fortune,” thought Rodney. “I’ll introduce the Speaker to Mr Wei.”

“I’d be honoured to meet him,” Hunt said, “but at the appropriate time” – ie after China becomes a democracy.

The Speaker let Tu Wylie camp in Parliament but he won’t meet the man whom millions of Chinese recognise as their “Nelson Mandela”.

At least Goff met him somewhere.

There was the reminder that in 2002 then Acting Prime Minister Jim Anderton and Foreign Minister Phil Goff had met the visiting Dalai Lama at Parliament.

(These days, Phil Goff funds his mayoral campaign with a large mainland donation, and is routinely photographed with prominent United Front figures and visiting members of the brutal regime in Beijing.)

A few years later, Helen Clark was willing to have only a chat in an airport lounge in Brisbane, and by the time John Key took office he was ruling out such a meeting altogether.

And so we move forward in time. In 2015, MFAT –  at the request of their minister – was issuing warnings to National MPs not to attend Falun Gong celebrations, because the Chinese wouldn’t like it.  Or two years ago when then Deputy Prime Minister Bill English refused –  at the last minute, having previously accepted the meeting  – to meeting two leading figures in the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.  Mr English denied this cancellation had anything to do with Chinese political pressure, while conceding that

Mr English said a scheduled meeting with Anson Chan and Martin Lee did not go ahead earlier this week after he was informed there were diplomatic sensitivities.

In other words, the PRC Embassy saw that the message got to MFAT, who strongly advised the Deputy Prime Minister to cancel.   Back in those days –  was it only two years ago – there was even an Opposition spokesperson willing to take a stand.  Just before leaving politics, Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman, who did meet with Martin Lee and Anson Chan –  both highly respected figures –  noted

The government should not have cancelled the meeting with Mr English, he said.

“It is a point of principle that New Zealand decides who it meets with, without interference from other countries – it’s very, very simple.

Who supposes now that either Labour or National leaders or ministers –  maybe not even the most junior of backbenchers –  would agree to meet Martin Lee, Anson Chan, the Dalai Lama, Wei Jingsheng.  Or those investigating serious claims of official murders to support organ transplant businesses. Or…or…or.

What MP or Minister, let alone Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition will call out some of the most egregious abuses of recent times –  the mass imprisonment in Xinjiang?

Call it interference, call it influence, call it whatever you like, but it is an approach totally out of step with New Zealand values and aspirations, and all too much in step with Beijing.   And, on the other hand, both National and Labour party president seem to fall over themselves to praise the regime and its leader.

Call it coincidence if you like (but no one will believe it) but our (hand selected) ethnic Chinese list MPs, aren’t New Zealand born and raised, but recent migrants with strong ongoing ties to the Beijing regime, both never ever heard having uttered a disapproving word of Beijing and its approaches.   Same goes, it appears, for Yikun Zhang’s associate Colin Zheng –  who National Party president Peter Goodfellow is keen to encourage into the candidate selection process.  Is it remotely likely that either main party would countenance an ethnic Chinese candidate who was themselves Falun Gong, or someone with the House Church background, or who advocated vocally for independence for Taiwan, or who simply spoke out strongly against all manner of PRC human rights abuses and foreign policy aggressions?    What planet does the Prime Minister think we live on when she claims there is no PRC interference/influence on New Zealand politics.  In areas like these, New Zealand politics seems almost totally compromised by Beijing?

Of course, it isn’t all about party donations – disclosed or not, carefully kept below disclosure thresholds or not.  Trade matters too, but again that is simply to make the point about how New Zealand leaders have allowed themselves to be cowed by Beijing.  Decent countries don’t engage in attempts at economic coercion when someone says something they don’t agree with.  Beijing does, repeatedly.  And our politicians behave like battered wives, making excuses for their abuser, and reluctant (with less excuse than the abused wife) to actually make a stand.   If anything, they feed a sense a vulnerability, with lectures (false) about New Zealand economic dependence on China, and encouragement to the tourism and export education industries to make themselves more exposed to trade with a country that has proved quite willing to use threats and economic coercion to bring countries back into line.  (By contrast, there have been calls recently in Australia for universities to look to better manage their exposures, to reduce their vulnerability to future disruptions to the flow of Chinese students –  a rather more robust approach than anticipatory caving in to Beijing’s preferences.)

The measure of what you value is the price you are willing to pay for it.  Our politicians seem to put almost no value on a robust independence from Beijing, even though in New Zealand’s case the maximum conceivable downside (in economic terms concentrated in tourism and (subsidised) export education) is so much smaller than for many countries nearer China.  Too many donations, and too much pressure from a few entities at the “big end” of town, all aided and abetted by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  Our universities, where you might in some ideal world hope for a robust defence of freedom, and freedom of speech, seem more interested in business deals with PRC government entities –  see, just this week, Victoria University’s membership of a partnership of universities to promote the Belt and Road Initiative.

A commenter asked me the other day what I thought should be done.  My response was along these lines.

There are also gradations of response. I’m not suggesting NZ put itself in the vanguard of an international move to consistently fight the PRC’s domestic human rights abuses – dreadful as they are, and good as the occasional word would be. It would be a good start if our political parties stopped praising the regime and its leader, stopped telling stories (self-serving) about our economic reliance (stressing instead that we make our own prosperity), and agreed – perhaps in some sort of accord – that (that includes the Phil Goff mayoral campaign) would not take donations from abroad and would not take donations or support/associate with people regarded as having strong ties to the PRC and its United Front organisations. The removal of JIan Yang and Raymond Huo from Parliament would be good – quietly perhaps (outcome matters more than noise) – and – wary of identity politics as I am – I’d be delighted to see selected for lists or seats ethnic Chinese NZers who were (say) Falun Gong practitioners, advocates of Taiwanese independence, or (individually) willing to speak up and speak out about the human rights abuses.

Mostly these aren’t matters of legislative change, but about self-regard and self-reliance.

(And, of course, for other –  macroeconomic –  reasons I would sharply reduce our immigration targets generally, which would have the incidental, but helpful ,specific side effect of stopping future influxes of Beijing-sympathetic migrants, and allow more space for the existing ethnic Chinese NZers to build and maintain independent and diverse media, community associations and so on.)

We can’t change the world.  But we can change ourselves, demand better from our politicians, look out better for the interests of our fellow citizens, the ethnic Chinese New Zealanders, many of whom never came from the PRC at all, and many of those who did came to embrace the sort of freedom, democracy, and rule of law that has long prevailed here.  Sadly, the current crop of politicians have no interest, and simply abet the Prime Minister in her absurd claims that there is no PRC interference/influence in New Zealand –  the PRC being not just any state, but one of the more heinous on the planet.

Finally, many readers will already have seen it, but Anne-Marie Brady posted this last night.

The list is longer than is immediately visible there. It brings together links that demonstrate something of the character and connections (and alleged treatment of people in his own home area), and sympathies/loyalties of Yikun Zhang, the man both National and Labour are happy to court – and to honour.   Both sides should be ashamed.  Both should urgently revisit their fundraising, and if they had really discovered any decency would consider returning all and any donations arranged by or on behalf of Yikun Zhang and others (no doubt a small group at his level) of his connections and apparent loyalties.

And voters in Southland might start demanding answers as to quite what their mayor is doing trailing round China with Yikun Zhang, such a close associate and supporter of such an evil regime.

A troubled recruitment process?

Early last month I wrote about the advertisements placed on behalf of the Reserve Bank Board, presumably with the acquiescence of the Minister of Finance, looking for people interested in becoming external (part-time) members of the new Monetary Policy Committee, to be established once the amending legislation –  currently before a select committee –  is passed.   Recall that under this legislation the Minister of Finance would be able to appoint only someone recommended by the Board.   Applications closed on 7 September.

I was fairly sceptical as to who would be interested in these roles –  which might seem attractive at first glance, but are much less so at second or subsequent glance.

It will be interesting to see what sort of people the Board and the Minister come up with, assuming that Parliament eventually passes legislation along the lines of the current bill (and bear in mind that we have a minority government again).  It is hard to see why the roles –  probably little more than silent adjuncts to the Governor – would be attractive to really good people, or who will really be free to take them up (even an academic –  apparently not wanted by the Governor –  might struggle to commit 50 days a years, spread over the year, not just in the long summer vacation).

and

And so it will be interesting to see what people they finally manage to attract, both in the first round, and a few years later when the novelty has worn off.  A smart (but deferential) semi-retired person would probably fit the bill quite well, but since the government and the Bank have been clear they don’t want people who might rock the boat, and they apparently aren’t keen on economists, and since even the externals together will be a perpetual minority, you wonder why someone good would be interested.   Pocket money probably shouldn’t be the motivation, at least if the government were serious about putting in place a strong, well-functioning, MPC.  Of course, as it is, there is no evidence of such intent.

A few days ago I was having a conversation with someone about these roles, which prompted me to wonder about progress, about what sort of applicants they had attracted, and so on.   Given that applications closed on 7 September, you’d have assumed that by now they would be well through the process of getting towards a list of names the Board could recommend to the Minister of Finance.

But apparently not.

On Tuesday I lodged an OIA request with the Board, asking for

  1. total number of applications received,
  2. the proportion of total applications received from women (as best the Board or its agents could tell),
  3. the proportion of total applications received from people currently resident in New Zealand, and
  4. the proportion of total applications received from people currently employed at a university.

and for the same information for the applications taken further (ie not immediately dismissed as unsuitable by the Board or its recruitment firm).

On Wednesday, I had a impressively quick response to the second half of the request. I was told

No applicants have been selected yet for further consideration.

It must, in that case, be one of the slowest recruitment processes ever.

As it happens, I still had the information pack provided to anyone expressing interest in the positions (which I had requested purely for research purposes), and on flicking through that I found an approximate timeline, which indicated that the original plan was for a shortlist to be presented to the Board at its meeting last week.  The Board only meets once a month, and Board papers usually go out a week prior to the meeting.  As applications had only closed on Friday 7 September, this seemed like a normal and expected timeframe –  the first Board meeting after applications closed at which names could (reasonably) be considered.   The implication of the timeline was that last week’s Board meeting would approve a shortlist, because it goes on to indicate that interviews would be occurring in late October/early November.

It isn’t clear quite what is going on.  But one hypothesis is that the pool of applicants was sufficiently small and mediocre that the Board (and perhaps the Minister) has been left in a bit of a quandary.  If there were even three or four able and impressive people applying there should have been no difficulty in drawing up a shortlist (the Minister plans to make three appointments) and sending a “thanks, but no thanks” response to the others.  Instead, they probably have a very small pool of applicants, a few of whom might at a (considerable) pinch fit the bill, but none of whom would add lustre or credibility to the government’s claims about the fresh perspectives outsiders would add to the new MPC.

As I suggested the other day, one problem with this (highly unusual) appointment process, in which the Minister cannot simply appoint people in whom he (in this case) has trust, is that if the Minister wants to inject names to the process he has to do so behind the scenes (a word in the ear of the Board chair), in a non-transparent (and thus not very accountable) way.    Suggest a fairly borderline political crony and so long as he can persuade the Board to recommend that person –  and the Board has ongoing battles to fight, including around its own role after the rest of the RB Act review –  the Minister is substantially immunised against Opposition attacks (“but I only acted on the recommendation of the Board”) in a way he wouldn’t be if he were directly responsible for all appointments.

Who knows quite what is going on at present.  Perhaps the Board chair has just had a prolonged illness and been unable to deal with the matter (in which case he has my sympathy).  More probably, they (Board and Minister) have found it a lot harder to interest good and credible people in the role –  the more so after the Governor was openly expressing his distaste for economists in the role –  and are now casting around trying to work out what to do next, whose arm to twist (to try to interest).   If so, it isn’t too late for them – Board, minister, Treasury –  to think again and propose amendments to the legislative model (and to official statements as to how it will work), in ways that might attract really able people, and make this reform the landmark step forward it could have been (but at present is unlikely to be).