Blathers away when directly asked

Another week and another Matt Nippert article in the Herald updating us on the Prime Minister’s continued refusal to be interviewed substantively on the government’s approach to the People’s Republic of China.

A Herald request filed in May to discuss the Government’s China policy with Ardern was this week again rejected, with possible windows for an interview now pushed into early next year.

Perhaps it  –  refusal to be interviewed by a serious journalist on a major public policy issue – might not matter as much if our MPs were not, apparently, all in thrall to the PRC, such that there is no questioning in Parliament of the government’s approach on this really important issue.  But Parliament is useless –  and worse –  and the Prime Minister simply avoids (refuses to face) sustained media questioning.  Not, it seems, that many try, but to their credit the Herald has.

Cheap virtue-signalling is apparently fine: the Prime Minister was reported as (to her credit) having refused to travel in a Maserati at APEC.  But that’s only PNG, and hardly anyone here (well, perhaps a few MFAT diplomats) will question her small stand against such excess.

But she is not willing to engage seriously on the activities, including those in our own country and own political system, of a great (if evil) power.

Fortunately, an occasional journalist does still manage to ask the odd question.  But they are typically short interviews, and rarely focus in on things she is directly responsible for, and so she gets away with what can only be described as “blather”.    There was an excellent example on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report yesterday when she was interviewed by Guyon Espiner.

It was a consistent attempt at minimising any issues, relativising everything, and never ever calling out China on anything.  It was actually pretty fundamentally dishonest to the New Zealand public, in attempting to imply that all that is really going on is a trade dispute.   Then again, I thought she was given a pretty easy run by the interviewer.

Thus, we were told that there was “significant consensus” around the APEC communique and that the issues were only a few words.  But she knows as well as anyone that most such communiques are just bumpf anyway, and the real issues always resolve around a few critical words.  It matters a lot –  tells us a lot – that neither the US nor China decided that it was in their interests to compromise on this specific point, which could almost certainly easily have been drafted around (and the results spun by each side) had there been a will to do so.  (“Unfair trade practices –  of course we disapprove of those, but our country doesn’t have any, just standard national security provisions”.  That sort of thing.)

She stated that both sides should “step back and de-escalate”, without addressing the substance of the issues at all.    But she must know that her consistent refusal to say anything of substance plays into the hands of the People’s Republic.  You might think –  as I do –  that Trump’s initial focus on bilateral trade deficits is pretty flakey, but it doesn’t detract from the wider issues around theft of intellectual property, market access, and so on.  The PRC remains one of the least open markets in the world.  And the US by contrast, for all its many faults, is one of the most open.

The government seems to see itself as having some sort of role as a ‘bridge” between the US and China.  Questioning drew on a comment to that effect over the weekend from the Trade Minister, David Parker.   The Prime Minister attempted to minimise this, talking of some specifics around WTO governance.  But perhaps the interviewer could have pushed her rather more on what it is that the government disagrees with in the recent combined (ie not just the US) EU, Japanese, and US approach

On November 12, the United States, European Union, and Japan will submit a package of proposals to the World Trade Organization’s Council on Trade in Goods that would significantly help curb China’s practices of heavily subsidizing its state-owned enterprises. They are also discussing ways to prevent China from forcing Western companies to transfer technology to Chinese firms.

The Prime Minister was asked why we wanted to be a “bridge”, to which her response was to burble on about a “values-based approach”, an independent foreign policy, and not picking sides.  Surely in any sort of values-based approach –  one where life is more than deal and political donations – you would be found on the side opposing the greater evil?  But, of course, there was none of this from the Prime Minister, just the suggestion that somehow being neutral was better, for its own sake.  To believe her, for example, you’d have to believe that Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser were forced into World War Two against their better judgement, rather than as leaders of an independent country deciding to act together with other countries that shared our values, and the attitude to the presenting evil.

It is the sort of answer that wins praise from the largely taxpayer-funded propagandists for all things PRC.   It shouldn’t be acceptable to decent New Zealanders, not compromised by deals or donations.

The interviewer tried again, asking if she was really saying we (well, she) was as aligned with the PRC as with the United States (with whom, as he pointed out, we are in a longstanding intelligence relationship).  Even there she couldn’t manage a straight answer, burbling on about how “we align ourselves with a set of principles and values. Some of these things are not black and white”.  But even then she seemed to be trying to reduce everything to technical details about a trade dispute.  No sense, for example, that imprisoning a million people in Xinjiang, for being who they are, qualifies as pretty unconditionally “black”.  Or probihiting freedom of speech, scoffing at the rule of law, widespread theft of intellectual property, severe restrictions on freedom of religion, and no capacity of a country’s citizens to change their government –  and all that is mostly just the internal stuff –  are pretty black.  No other country –  let alone our own – is perfect, but in real life you choose to align with real people and real countries, and when you choose to consistently refuse to identify that New Zealand has a lot more in common –  in its values –  with Australia, Canada, the US, Japan, the UK, Taiwan, or EU –  than with the PRC, by default you side with other lot.   You give legitimacy to their evil.

The interviewer moved onto the Belt and Road Initiative, which the previous government signed us up to last year –  some sickening text (“fusion of civilisations”), but mostly a big propaganda win for the PRC.  Because although the Prime Minister tried to spin her listeners suggesting that lots of countries had signed up, we are the only advanced country – and the only Five Eyes partnership country – to have done so.   Of course, given that the deadine in the original agreement for specifics has now passed, one might deduce that the government is not too keen on doing too much under the loose aegis of the Belt and Road Initiative.  Perhaps the pressure from Beijing for some specifics is beginning to mount –  if, for example, New Zealand wants that extension of the preferential trade agreement (or the Prime Minister wants that trip to Beijing).

The interviewer moved onto matters we have full control over: our response to the PRC influence and interference activities in New Zealand.    He quoted Anne-Marie Brady’s line that those activities (“covert, corrupting, coercive”) were now at a “critical level”.   The Prime Minister simply refused to engage with specifics (she was “very cautious about labelling”), talking about the need for good and broad “legislative frameworks” –  as if the real issues were primarily legislative, rather than attitudinal ones being at least as important  – while naming nothing specific there either (although some mention of cyber-security).   We need, we were told, to be “vigilant across the board”, trying to play distraction with references to North Korea and Russia.   She was, she said, comforted that there was no evidence of interference in the election, without being pushed to engage with the fact that the current inquiry into last year’s election is being led by her own MP, Raymond Huo, who is himself associated with various United Front organisations, who adopted a Xi Jinping slogan for Labour’s campaign, and who organised the function at which Phil Goff funded a large chunk of his mayoral campaign with a “donation” (charity auction bid) from mainland China.  I wonder how the intelligence services would feel if they were called to testify to a committee chaired by Mr Huo?

And, finally, the interviewer moved on to the burglaries at Anne-Marie Brady’s home and office, and suggestions of interference with her car.   There was no clarion call in defence of the freedom of New Zealanders (academics or otherwise –  this isn’t largely about academic freedom) to write, advocate and lobby as they like, no observation that while the investigation hadn’t yet been resolved, if there were evidence of involvement of a foreign power it would be a very grave matter, which the government would need to respond to with utmost seriousness.  Instead we got attempts at obfuscation and procrastination.  She told us she didn’t comment on intelligence briefings, only for the interviewer to point out that she was first one to mention intelligence services.  Twice she attempted to point out that she had “been away”, as if she’d been communing with nature alone on top of some high mountain, not travelling on a government plane, accompanied by all manner of senior government officials.

If it wasn’t that surprising –  given what we’ve come to see of her performance –  it was disappointing nonetheless.   I wonder if we will even get a straight answer when the Police finally – next year, the year after  –  finish their investigation.  Effective freedom of speech –  let alone a stand for the core values of New Zealanders – seems to be an inconvenience next to keeping the donations going, and keeping the business interests trading with China (notably Fonterra, the universities, and the tourism sector) on side.  Her only “value” in this area seems to be the dollar.

But, of course, she gets away with it because the Opposition leader is just as bad.   She has Raymond Huo in her caucus (and in a senior select committee role), he has Jian Yang, and both seem to keep the donations flowing, and neither will call out the other.  The parties combine to honour Yikun Zhang for what, it seems, is in effect services to Beijing.

There was an interesting article in the Financial Times yesterday, reporting that the US is considering banning exports to China of a range of advanced technologies

In a document published on the Federal Register, the commerce department listed all the products it might subject to export curbs. These included items from genomics, to computer vision and audio manipulation technology, to microprocessor technology, quantum computing, mind-machine interfaces and flight control algorithms.

It is the sort of thing that illustrates that however silly the initial focus on bilateral trade deficits was, the tensions between the US and China are well beyond that stage now.  At a time when the Chinese economy is in any case looking under more threat as the longrunning credit boom appears to have exhausted itself, and the authorities seem unsure how –  if at all – to respond, surely an honest and decent Prime Minister would be more interested in levelling with the public, about the nature of the regime in Beijing, the nature of its threats here and abroad, than in engaging in some sort of weird amoral “balancing act”.   If she wants to run the “not black and white” line, at least she could honestly recognise the distinction between off-white and something very very deeply dark grey.

But not in New Zealand.  One could almost say she puts herself in something like the same category as Trump over Saudi Arabia –  with obfuscation and avoidance, rather than bluster, her chosen rhetorical style.

In closing, and having praised the Herald for persevering (I guess at near-zero cost) in its quest for a serious interview on these issues, I noticed this earlier in the day

Translated from Chinese by
New Zealand has fallen.

Bill Bishop is a pretty astute and highly-regarded China analyst (who wears his distaste for Trump pretty visibly).  I clicked the link and sure enough there seemed to be a whole series of sponsored articles (links down the right hand side of this particular article) from the People’s Daily –  main Chinese Communist Party newspaper – on the Herald website.  Quite extraordinary.

Brexit and UK economic performance

Flicking around the web yesterday afternoon I noticed this tweet from Matt Ridley (more formally the 5th Viscount Ridley), the British journalist, businessman and author of various smart books including The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.  (Ridley was also formerly  –  from 2004 to 2007 when it hit the rocks –  chairman of Northern Rock.)

Ridley is reportedly strongly pro-Brexit.  In my book, that is to his credit (had I been British, I’d almost certainly have voted Leave too.  Then again, the next recession is likely to shake the euro and the EU itself to its very foundations anyway).

But it was the quote from the paywalled Telegraph article that caught my eye.  Those look like pretty impressive numbers, at least for the first 10 seconds until one realises that they are almost certainly total GDP comparisons and British population growth had been faster than that of most of the other countries of Europe.  And, of course, polling data suggests that was one of the factors that led to the Leave vote in the first place –  in and of itself, higher population growth is hardly a mark of Britain’s economic success, let alone a clear welfare gain for the British.

But it left me wondering how the UK had done on other, more relevant, economic comparisons. For example, growth in real GDP per capita and growth in real GDP per hour worked.   The euro was launched on 1 January 1999, so here are a couple of comparisons (using annual OECD data) for growth from 1998 to 2017.  The comparators are  the 10 older western European countries that are in the euro (excluding Ireland whose GDP numbers are messed up by the tax system, and don’t –  to a substantial extent –  reflect gains to the Irish, and Luxembourg) plus Denmark, which isn’t in the euro but whose currency has been firmly pegged to the euro since its creation.  I deliberately didn’t include the former eastern-bloc countries, partly because they joined the euro at various different times over the last 20 years and because something else more important –  post-communist convergence –  is going on there.)

First, real GDP per capita.

UK 1

and then real GDP per hour worked.

UK 2

It isn’t an unimpressive performance over that period as a whole, especially considering (a) all the hoopla at the time the euro was created, including from some trade economists, about the new economic possibilities, and (b) the UK productivity performance since the period encompassing the 2008/09 recession has been really poor (growth in real GDP per hour worked of only 2 per cent in total).   And, I guess, it is now more than two years since the referendum, and the real naysayers would have predicted a further worsening in UK productivty growth since then.

Of course, on the other hand, it is fair to point out that the UK is in the bottom half of these countries for its level of productivity.    On the OECD estimates, in 2017 only Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece had lower average labour productivity than the UK.   But over the 18 years in the chart those laggard countries underperformed, while the UK did actually manage some convergence.

I don’t think these numbers themselves shed any real light on how the UK will do, in economic terms, relative to the rest of western Europe over the next decade or two (whether or not there is the brief, but perhaps initially quite costly, disruption associated with a “no deal”).  And it is interesting just how widely performance has diverged even among countries in both the commmon currency and the single market.   People make choices about nationhood, and how they want their country run, for a whole variety of reasons, and in most cases a few percentage points of GDP either way doesn’t weigh that heavily –  as I’ve pointed out previously, many post-colonial countries (notably in Africa, but including Ireland) underperformed economically after independence, but probably few really regretted the choice of becoming independent.   Brexit won’t change the twi n facts that the UK is a moderately prosperous country, nor the fact that –  inside or outside the EU –  it has productivity challenges, if it wishes ever again to be in the very front rank of economic performance.

I attended a lecture a couple of weeks ago by the historian and “public intellectual” Niall Ferguson.  He noted that he had supported Remain, for what seemed to be not entirely serious reasons (he is/was friends with David Cameron and George Osborne and thought they were doing a good job, and was himself going through a messy divorce and thought breakups were very hard).  But he had become frustrated by what he described as “the bleating, whining, grumbling of the Remainers” and suggested that he now supported Brexit for two reasons.  The first was that, in his view, the EU could only survive if it became more like a federal state (good luck with that) and the UK could never have been a part of such an entity.  And the second was a hope that Brexit would help the UK confront the fact –  captured in the data above –  that its economic challenges are there whether or not it is in the EU.

I was reading last night an 1882 lecture by French philosopher and historian Ernest Renan, titled “What is a nation?”.   It seemed relevant at present, emphasising as he does that nationhood isn’t about race or language, but about two things

One is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received. Messieurs, man does not improvise. The nation, like the individual, is the outcome of a long past of efforts, sacrifices, and devotions. Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate: our ancestors have made us what we are.

A nation is therefore a great solidarity constituted by the feeling of sacrifices made and those that one is still disposed to make.


Nations are not eternal. They have a beginning and they will have an end. …..At the present moment, the existence of nations is a good and even necessary thing. Their existence is the guarantee of liberty, a liberty that would be lost if the world had only one law and one master. By their diverse and often opposed faculties, nations serve the common work of civilization. Each carries a note in this great concert of humanity, the highest ideal reality to which we are capable of attaining.

That makes sense to me.  As does, through all its challenges and mismanagement, Brexit.