NZ and the PRC: Friday bits and pieces

I noticed in the Herald’s “Dynamic Business” supplement, associated with the Deloitte Top 200 awards (themselves notably short on successful outward-oriented companies based on anything much other than natural resources), that the former Prime Minister John Key was interviewed about China.   It was, to say the least, a bit of a mixed bag.  In his first answer this line appeared

“I think Xi Jinping’s going to go down in history as a good leader of China.”

That would be in the history as written by the Chinese Communist Party (assuming it survives that long)?  I’d accept “consequential”, “influential”, even (in a bleak way) “pathbreaking”, but “good”?  What does John Key possibly see as “good” –  a term that usually has some moral connotation to it – about Xi Jinping’s rule?   It isn’t even as if the economy has been set on firmer foundations, let alone the seizures of power, seizures of territory,  the Xinjiang situation, or whatever.  But I suppose the PRC embassy will have taken note, and doors are likely to remain open in Beijing.

Key was then asked about the (straw man) question about balancing China and the United States.  I don’t particularly agree with his stance but at least –  in contrast to our current Prime Minister –  he seems capable of giving a straightforward answer, including recognising where our values, our culture, and our history take us.

…the reality is that our relationship with China is still a very economic relationship…. In the case of the US and our traditional allies –  Australia particularly – it’s a much different relationship.  They are the people that we culturally feel most at home with.  We share such a massive history.  Everything lines up much more closely there…..

I think if we turned our back on the Chinese, we’d find a lot more Irish an Dutch dairy products would flow into China and less would flow from New Zealand. It might be a bit mercantile but I think that would be negative for the New Zealand economy, for dairy farmers and for lots of New Zealand businesses –  from tourism to education services

I think he is mostly wrong about dairy –  it is a globally traded market and as we are seeing in the soybean market at present in time what doesn’t go to one country ends up going to another (if, say, the Irish and Dutch industries had WMP capability, to divert that product to China would involve not selling to the people they are now selling to).  But at least Key seems willing and able to give a straight answer –  even if it is an amoral one:  “never mind the nature of the regime, we should give priority to businesses selling stuff there”.

There was an interesting snippet in the Herald’s (typically rather well-sourced) “Insider” column in which it is noted that

NZ diplomats have been told the long-expected invitation for Jacinda Ardern to go to Beijing won’t come any time soon.

Perhaps that is the explanation for her shameful refusal to front up for the Herald’s longstanding interview request.  But if so, she needs to rethink her priorities.  Tea at today’s Berchtesgaden beats an open and honest discussion with –  and accountability to – her own citizens and voters, confronting concerns about the activity of the regime at home, abroad, and here in New Zealand?

You could read the account on the Chinese Embassy’s website of her meeting with the PRC Premier Li Keqiang and not come away with any sense of any awkwardness at all, with bizarre talk of working together for the “peace and prosperity” of the Asia-Pacific region.  We are presumably supposed to accept with a straight face words like these from the Premier

He also encouraged New Zealand companies to expand investment in China and boost technological cooperation with China, saying that China will conduct the cooperation on the basis of strict protection of intellectual property rights.

Surely only that distinctive New Zealand “Yeah right” should greet claims like that?.  Perhaps the Prime Minister’s perspective on the meeting would be different, but there is no similar account on the Beehive website (and if MFAT had problems with Beijing’s account, no doubt they have raised those concerns).

Can it really be that deals and donations are all that now matter to her?    If she doesn’t care about the citizens of the PRC, or about surrounding states, or even about how closed an economy China is in many respects, is she really not bothered about the PRC activities here?  Presumably not.  After all, Raymond Huo chairs the Justice committee and sits in her caucus, and Jian Yang sits on the other side, and not a word in heard from the Prime Minister.

There was an interesting post a couple of days ago from Paul Buchanan, the American (but New Zealand resident) former academic and now consultant on issues international.  He began by addressing the somewhat extraordinary suggestion (made by David Parker and the Prime Minister) that New Zealand could be some sort of bridge or broker between the US and China. He is simply dismissive of it, and doesn’t think either Beijing or Washington is likely to take it seriously.

For my tastes, Buchanan’s discussion  is altogether too cold (then again, perhaps his future isn’t tied to New Zealand?).   He suggests

While New Zealand audiences may like it, China and the US are not fooled by the bridge and broker rhetoric. They know that should push come to shove New Zealand will have to make a choice. One involves losing trade revenues, the other involves losing security guarantees. One involves backing a traditional ally, the other breaking with tradition in order to align with a rising power. Neither choice will be pleasant and it behooves foreign policy planners to be doing cost/benefits analysis on each because the moment of decision may be closer than expected.

I’ve disagreed with him in comments here on earlier posts, because I think he grossly overstates the extent of any sort of “economic dependence” of New Zealand on China.

On trade, New Zealand has an addict-like dependency on agricultural commodity and primary good exports, particularly milk solids. Its largest trading partner and importer of those goods is China. Unlike Australia, which can leverage its export of strategic minerals that China needs for its continued economic growth and industrial ambitions under the China 2025 program, New Zealand’s exports are elastic, substitutable by those of competitors and inconsequential to China’s broader strategic planning. This makes New Zealand extremely vulnerable to Chinese economic retaliation for any perceived slight, something that the Chinese have been clear to point out when it comes to subjects such as the South China island-building dispute or Western concerns about the true nature of Chinese developmental aid to Pacific Island Forum countries.

But even if there is some potential for short-term disruption to some sectors or firms, countries largely make their own medium-term fortunes. That was true of us in the past, is today, and will be still in the future.  Policymakers here have been very unwise in continuing to encourage stronger trade links with China, even as they recognise the sorts of threats and disuptions China has proved capable of in other countries, and the more aggressive approach China is taking internationally across a range of fronts.  No serious and free country, none with any integrity whatever, ever prioritises (for any length of time) the interests of a few of its export firms, over the values of its people.  In the medium to longer-term values and interests amount to the same thing.

And it is not as if other countries in years past have not faced these sorts of tensions.  Denmark and the Netherlands had Germany as a major trading partner in the late 1930s, but they didn’t simply roll over and invite Hitler in.

Perhaps more importantly, and a reason why I think the US vs China framing is a distraction, is that whatever the US is or isn’t doing, we face the interference activities of the PRC in our own country.  Simply taking a stand there –  clearing Jian Yang and Raymond Huo out of Parliament, standing up for Anne-Marie Brady and for those ethnic Chinese New Zealanders facing regime pressure and threats, being more open and serious about the cyber-security threats, shunning people with recognised United Front connections (not honouring Yikun Zhang), protecting and promoting an independent Chinese language media here.  These are the sorts of things a minimally decent government would be doing, even if it said not a word about abuses in China or China’s near-abroad.  But not our government: faced with the choice not between China and the US, but between decency on the one hand, and deals and donations on the other, they seem to side with the deals and donations.  And the National Party provides them cover to do so.

On the topic of cyber-security, the Australian papers this week had several stories about PRC cyber-attacks on Australia.   There were two classes of attack in the stories I saw –  one about a resurgence in direct cyber attacks on Australian companies, in violation of some deal Malcolm Turnbull and the PRC had done a couple of years ago.    The other built on this academic article, in which the authors report the results of a study showing how the PRC appeared to get round a similar deal between Barack Obama and the PRC in 2015, by using China Telecom to route selected international internet traffic through China –  where presumably the PRC could spy on it, copy it or whatever –  rather than following the standard (shortest distance) protocols. The authors provided evidence to the Australian media strongly suggesting a specific such attack involving Australia last year.

But here is the thing that interested me.  In the newspaper articles I read we saw senior government officials confirming “a constant, significant effort to steal our intellectual property”, and even a senior Cabinet minister expressing concern about the number and severity of such attacks.

By contrast, what do we get here, but blather from the Prime Minister about needing to keep an eye on cyber-security, and otherwise silence –  “national security” don’t you know, providing cover for anything ministers and officials don’t want to talk about.  I did see a Radio New Zealand article quoting a PWC person saying there was no evidence New Zealand had been caught up in the first class of attacks described above.  It would be nice to hear it from official sources, but even if it is true in the specific case, how likely is that the PRC approach to New Zealand is very much different than that to Australia –  take what they want, and can get at?   Occasionally, I make glib remarks about how perhaps New Zealand has nothing much advanced to steal, and when I do I get firmly put in my place, with links to various advanced university departments (for example).  Surely we might reasonably expect the Prime Minister or the Minister for the Intelligence Services to front up on this sort of issue, at least to give us reason to believe (confidently) that they aren’t living in some fool’s paradise, convinced they are uniquely immune from the efforts of the Ministry for State Security?

And finally,  I was sent yesterday a copy of a statement by a group called the New Zealand Values Alliance, which appears to be a group of ethnic Chinese people living in New Zealand who are concerned about the intrusion of the PRC into New Zealand.  (There is a similar, more prominent group in Australia, called the Australian Values Alliance.)   This was the statement

We, New Zealand Values Alliance(NZVA) , hereby issue the following declaration:

It is learned from media that the prominent China researcher Anne-Marie Brady has encountered on-going harassment which has recently widened to include a vehicle  sabotage of her private car, which “absolutely posed a risk to her life”.  We hereby express our concern and condemnation on the matter.

To our knowledge, similar harassments and threats sometimes happen to people who criticize CCP. Such harassments include text intimidation, tracking, stalking and a variety of harassment activities which has now escalated to sabotaging private vehicle to seriously threaten life safety.

We are very concerned about the personal safety of people who publicly criticize CCP. We earnestly appeal to the NZ government and police to pay close attention to the safety of those human rights activists and researchers against dictatorships and give more attention  to the rampant activities related to foreign political infiltration. Meanwhile an investigation into foreign interference should be started ASAP   and relevant laws be established for deterrence and punishment against related activities from agents with foreign interests.

Hard to disagree (the Values Alliance had an earlier statement about Jian Yang, reported here).  The organiser, a relatively recent migrant from China, Freeman Yu, has noted on his Twitter feed his own experience of what he talks of

Does this sort of thing bother our politicians at all?

You might have hoped that New Zealand political leaders would be speaking out  (let alone New Zealand academics working on China and/or international relations).  Former Prime Ministers, former Opposition leaders, former foreign ministers?  People like Don McKinnon, Jenny Shipley, Don Brash, Murray McCully, Helen Clark, Phil Goff, Geoffrey Palmer, Jim McLay, Jim Bolger or Mike Moore.  But, it appears, not a word from any of them, let alone Bill English or John Key.   A sad commentary, that rather tends to make the point Anne-Marie Brady was making in her paper about how too many of our elites have been persuaded that keeping quiet and going along is somehow in the best interests of New Zealand.  In fact, it largely just serves Beijing’s interests.

17 thoughts on “NZ and the PRC: Friday bits and pieces

  1. Yep Xi Jinping has been an amazing leader. A purge of the party reminiscent of Mao, the forced re-education of one million Urghurs, the imposition of Skynet and “social credit” scoring that will use AI to create an Orwellian China, militatisation of the South China Sea, clashes with Vietnam, South Korea, Australia, India and the US, the build up of massive debt vulnerabilities, house prices that discount 25 years of 10% CAGR household income growth, a trade war with the US that could trigger a financial crisis… I could go on….

    About the only thing I can think of on the positive side is that they’ve worked hard to tackle pollution.

    As much as Jacinda is a disappointment, I for one am thrilled the Key-error is over.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We’ve always known John Key is ‘amoral’ (I call him a weasel). The surprise, perhaps, is Ardern. She comes across as principled but it seems her principles are actually quite aligned to the Chinese Government’s. I think China’s actions will force us to choose sides and it is going to happen sooner than we think.


  3. Michael,

    The issue is not that NZ will have to make a choice between the US and PRC but that the choice will be forced upon us. I say “us” because after 20 years of residency I am in the process of applying for NZ citizenship so as to join my native born Kiwi wife and son in that regard, so my future is indeed tied to this country. More broadly, when I write about NZ in the International milieu I do not write as an American but as an objective analyst of the realities at hand.

    We will have to disagree about NZ economic dependence and the PRC’s economic leverage over it. I am pretty sure that my opinion will be put to the test fairly soon.

    In the meantime I hope that you are joining the movement now underway to publicly support Anne-Marie Brady amid a more general defence of academic freedom and freedom of expression. If you have not heard about it–and I would be surprised if you have not–just drop me an email and I will give you details.


    • Pleased to hear you are applying for citizenship. We all, of course, are influenced by our backgrounds (and I’m not remotely negative on the US, and have two US citizen children).

      I guess I still see the choice differently. It is a choice not really between the US and Beijing, but between Beijing and self-respect and decency in conduct of our own democracy. The values of our people tend to line up with those of people in the US, UK, Aus, Can etc – and barely at all with the party/state that is the PRC – but even if the US was sitting on the sidelines doing nothing, and even if we swore genuine indifference to the south or east china seas, we are still faced with situations like Jian Yang, Raymond Huo, Yikun Zhang, pressure on Anne-Marie Brady and anyone in the ethnic Chinese community speaking out about Beijing. Given the widespread NZ and Aus distaste for Trump (which, as a market-oriented economist and social conservative I strongly share) framing the choice as US vs Beijing seems unhelpful, and also suggests a lack of real agency and responsibility for how we manage our own country. I think the thing in your post that most struck me (origin of the “cold” description) was the suggestion that MFAT should be doing cost-benefit assessments of which “side” to align with. That suggests Beijing could be a long-term option. Only dilettante leftists – and perhaps a few blinkered business people – could possibly think so.

      On the economics, I guess the problem is that like most things in economics it will be impossible to tell decisively even if the test does come – partly because my argument is not that Beijing can’t cause significant disruption over a 12 month horizon to some sectors, but that the longer-term effects on NZ living stds would be minimal, but there are always lots of confounds in any analysis. A prudent government would, however, be taking the advice Peter Varghese issued in Aus recently – telling (public) universities taking Chinese student revenue to not treat as a permanent flow, and to manage accordingly. Our governments, of both stripes, have tended to want to double-down on the exposure to a known thug.

      Re Anne-Marie, I’ve repeatedly here supported the contribution she has been making, and deplored what look like PRC attempts at intimidation (and the apparent procrastination of the Police). I ran the Barme/Minford statement here last weekend and the Freeman Yu one yesterday, and have lamented – in yesterday’s post – the failure of retired senior politicians, or China-studies academics, to speak out on this issue. But I am a bit ambivalent about the specific effort you are referring to. This is the comment I sent to the person who showed me a copy of the document.

      “I suppose my slight unease about the letter, as a non-academic, would be that academic freedom per se is not what is under attack here (overt criticism of the PRC role in NZ is), and so the letter invites being fobbed off by the PM – if any journalist ever asks her – with a “this is a matter for the universities, and as I understand it there is no question of Canterbury university constraining Anne-Marie Brady’s freedom to research and speak out on these issues”.”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your comment about the Anne-Marie Brady document is interesting. It appears many academics are reluctant to sign on because a) they fear retribution of one sort or another (say, loss of funding); and b) they personally dislike Ms. Brady and/or claim that her research is flawed etc. The fact that people cannot separate personal animus and/or concern about funding from a defence against criminal harassment is telling. As for her research, her “Magic Weapons” essay is an example of applied research and was not meant to be a theoretical or conceptual path-breaker, so sniping about its quality is pedantic. My understanding is that the document is narrowly focused on academic freedom from pressure of any sort, be it from within an employing institution or from without in the form of NZ or foreign govt or corporate entities.

    Regarding your take on my comment about MFAT. In a past life I was part of a net assessment group in the US Department of Defence. We got together once a month and more often when needed to discuss a range of eventualities and scenarios. Our brief was to prepare contingency plans, especially on worst case scenarios, so that the bosses would not be caught unprepared should the worst happen. The saying was “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” That experience exposed me to a range of views and methods, be it gaming futures forecasting to black swan possibilities. Most importantly, it taught me the value of getting ahead of the curve via preparation in the face of multiple possibilities.

    That is what I think MFAT and others should be doing. They should be assessing the pros and cons of losing one or the other great power partner if push comes to shove. I certainly side against allying with a one party authoritarian regime, especially for purely economic reasons, over a (however flawed, and doubly so under Trump) democracy that shares basic values when it comes to civil liberties, human rights etc. So if I were sitting in a contingency planning meeting in MFAT I would be looking at alternate market options for NZ exports, diversification out of dairy etc. as well as potential restrictions on PRC student and business visas should crunch time come. But then again, my views are coloured by my experiences and others may see more value in siding with a rising power over a declining one. They may argue that democracy is over-rated at home and abroad, and that efficiency and growth are what count most when it comes to maintaining social stability and civic order. If such views do exist with the foreign policy establishment it would be good to debate them and hash out a consensus on a response before the choice is foisted upon us.

    One thing that we do agree on is the abysmal response of the government (and political elite in general) to PRC activities here, in the SoPac region and elsewhere. Whether it is the obsession with political funding, FDI or just plain cowardice I do not know, but it seems that (most of) our political leaders have abdicated any moral authority when it comes to calling the PRC out on some of its less pleasant activities.


    • Perhaps we aren’t that far apart. For what it is worth on the economics, I noticed Rodney Jones in the Herald yesterday taking much the same line as I do.

      The situation you describe re Anne-Marie is sad (and worse). I stronlgy associate myself with the heart of the Minford/Barme statement

      “The freedom from fear was long ago recognized as a basic human right; academics should be able to pursue their work, and their daily lives, without being subjected to intimidation. In any modern democracy worthy of the name, academic freedom and independent research are crucial “public goods”. They are also germane to university life.
      “As residents of New Zealand and as independent scholars — our main institutional affiliation is with The Australian National University as emeritus professors — we hereby express our deep concern about the on-going threats to Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s research and private life.
      “We hope that others whose research and teaching involves contemporary China will offer her and her important work collegial encouragement, as well as public support.
      “Furthermore, we also hope that the New Zealand authorities take the threats against Professor Brady seriously. We appeal to the Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Jacinda Ardern, and her coalition partner the Foreign Minister, the Rt. Hon. Winston Peters, to address directly the issues raised by her work which she has further articulated in practicable, and succinct, formal advice to the government.

      As a native New Zealander, I find the lack of indigenous NZ voices speaking up sad (and worse), much as I welcome the voices of Barme/Minford and of recent migrant Chinese like Freeman Yu.


      • Whatever one believes about Anne-Marie Brady’s work if that is the heart of the statement then every relevant academic should sign it. If I had the authority I would sack everyone who didn’t because they do not deserve to be in our universities.

        We should not underestimate the influence of Chinese residents of NZ with family in China and especially those studying temporarily in NZ. They are a potential fifth column but of course they would only be so if they have reason to think NZ society puts morality ahead of temporary wealth opportunities.

        Reading on Wikipedia about NZ’s response to lack of democracy in Fiji a decade ago and found “”The New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters described the current crisis as a coup and a “creeping siege on democratic institutions”.”” It seems NZ govt believes it is OK to bully smaller countries and is therefore terrified that China might take offense to even the smallest implied criticism from us.


  5. Did I see somewhere in the media this morning that Ms Ardern has “cancelled” her planned visit to Beijing next month? Such a shame, she could have taken up with President Xi face to face the many issues regarding CCP interference in our domestic affairs and China’s appalling human rights abuses. Ms Ardern could also have politely warned Xi not to snare our Pacific Island neighbours in debt traps from which to leverage concessions for strategic assets such as, oh I don’t know, naval bases. I am sure she would have achieved all this in a “kindly” fashion. There is no doubt much else to fruitfully discuss as well, such as the criminal harassment of Prof Brady and members of the local Chinese community. Perhaps Xi in the spirit of cooperation China enjoyed with the National government could have suggested some leads to assist the New Zealand Police who appear to be baffled? Someone is surely trying to make the CCP look bad? One can only hope the visit is rescheduled in the New Year. I am sure President Xi is looking forward to welcoming the leader of the fraternal Labour Party to Beijing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Clearly Jacinda cancelled because there were no Chinese officials of any importance to meet with her. Seems like she is getting the cold shoulder of Chinese officialdom.


      • Maybe she is being too fussy about who she mets – the head of the Chinese military has more men under control than we have living in NZ; I read they had over 7 million census workers in China’s national census so meeting China’s head of census would give Jacinda status. Shanghai with 24 million inhabitants must have a deputy mayor who has more people and probably a larger budget than Jacinda. In fact they have cities with over double NZ’s population that I had never heard of – Changzhou (12.4 million), Shantou (12 million), Nanjing (11.7 million), Jinan (11 million), Harbin (10.5 million).

        “” … the somewhat extraordinary suggestion (made by David Parker and the Prime Minister) that New Zealand could be some sort of bridge or broker between the US and China “” – those numbers persuade me Parker & Ardern are deluded and the best choice for NZ is to be like a mouse in an elephant enclosure: stay well away from trouble.


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