There was a headline on Newsroom this morning “Ardern softly raises concern over Uighurs”. That sounded interesting, even if that “softly” word was a bit of a giveway. Here is what the article actually said
Ardern told media at her weekly post-cabinet press conference that she was concerned by the Uighur’s plight, although she had not recently been briefed on the subject.
She said she might raise her concerns at a future meeting with Chinese officials, but made no firm commitment.
“Generally speaking we take the opportunity to raise issues of concern,[but] it would be pre-emptive to say what I would discuss,” she said.
Presumably she was asked a question and had to say something. That she was “concerned” was about as weak as you could possibly get – by contrast her Labor counterpart in Australia yesterday managed a “gravely disturbing”. The Prime Minister apparently went on to play down the issue further by specifically noting that she hadn’t been briefed recently. When a Prime Minister cares about an issue, the briefings will come quickly.
And then, in case anyone (businesses, donors, Yikun Zhang or the like) was worried that she might have said too much, when asked if she would raise her concerns with the Chinese government she couldn’t muster more than “I might”.
This for one of the gravest and most large scale abuses in modern times, being committed by a Security Council member. And the Prime Minister having called only recently for “kindness” to be some watchword of policy. Not much on display if you are a Uighur.
The Newsroom article, which seemed to be doing as much as possible to put the Prime Minister in a good light, ended with this comment.
Ardern flagged human rights concerns in a recent meeting with Li Xi, the Party Secretary of Guangdong Province, who visited earlier this year, as reported by Newsroom.
And so I clicked through to that article to refresh my memory.
“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.
Asked of Li’s response to the human rights issues, Ardern said: “It was heard and received.”
I suppose it is good to know it was mentioned, but a mere mention in a private meeting hardly seems likely to bother Beijing. And hardly likely to reassure New Zealanders that our elected “leaders” actually care much about the imprisonment of a million people, for little more than being who they are, let alone the more recent report of those Uighurs not in prison having regime spies forced on them, living in their houses to report on their attitudes and behaviours.
As it happens, we have a PRC perspective on the Prime Minister’s meeting last month with Li Xi, available on the PRC embassy website. This was the meeting where, so the PRC reports, the Prime Minister suggested strengthening relations between the Labour Party and the Chinese Communist Party (emphasis added)
New Zealand is ready to deepen bilateral cooperation with China in economics and trade, tourism and innovation, strengthen party-to-party exchanges
Isn’t there quite enough obsequious praise of Xi Jinping, courting of CCP-connected donors etc from Labour figures already?
Of course, the PRC account doesn’t mention the Prime Minister raising any human rights issues (which isn’t to suggest they weren’t mentioned) but how seriously do you suppose they would have taken any concerns anyway when they can report that the Prime Minister said this (again, emphasis added)
Ardern said New Zealand and China have something in common in improving people’s wellbeing, protecting the environment, and enhancing coordinated development, adding that the development strategies of both sides are highly compatible, with broad room for cooperation.
I guess at the most reductionist level there is something to the first point: both governments probably do want to lift the wellbeing of their people, although in the PRC case even that is arguable (control and submission to the interests of the Party seems more paramount). But it is a statement that is devoid of meaning, or moral content, when you contrast what a free and democratic society might mean by such statements, and what a regime that runs mass concentration camps, allows little no religious freedom, little or no freedom of expression, and no lawful vehicle for changing the government might mean. As for “development strategies” being “highly compatible”, is the Prime Minister giving a nod of approval to strategies that involve widespread theft of intellectual property, the absence (boasted of by the chief justice) of the rule of law, growing state control of even private companies (let alone a massive credit-fuelled, and highly inefficient, domestic boom that ran for some years)? It is just shameless pandering.
I don’t suppose the PRC is going to change any of its policies because New Zealand expresses disapproval, but what we hear from the Prime Minister and from the PRC’s reports gives us no basis to think the PRC would even believe that New Zealand governments cared.
Which is a good opportunity to include this tweet I noticed yesterday from someone abroad who comments on China issues.
The Churchill quote – from his famous ‘iron curtain” speech – is very apposite, but in the specific New Zealand context, and the way our politicians court the regime and fear doing or saying anything even slightly controversial, the commentators own line was a nice place to end.
It comes back to the values, not bank balances, we want to have for ourselves and for our children.