Thoughts prompted by the open letter

There was an open letter to the Prime Minister, cc’ed to the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, released this morning and signed by 29 people (mostly academics), prompted by

….the reports of intimidation and harassment suffered by Professor Anne-Marie Brady of Canterbury University. According to news reports, she has been repeatedly burgled and her car tampered with, starting from December 2017. Reports have suggested that these events are related to her high-profile academic work on overseas influence campaigns by the government of the People’s Republic of China.

The letter calls for two things

…we echo the recent calls by Professors of Chinese history and literature Geremie Barmé and John Minford for the New Zealand authorities to take the threats against Professor Brady more seriously, in consideration of their implications for all New Zealanders.

(I ran the Barmé/Minford letter here last week.)

We also urge Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to make a clear statement in defence of academic freedom in New Zealand in light of the Brady case, and to be very clear that any intimidation and threats aimed at silencing academic voices in this country will not be tolerated.

It should be hard for decent people to dissent from the broad thrust of the letter (which even appears to have briefly united ACT and the Green Party –  at least the bits out of office.)  One might quibble about the details –  for my own tastes it seems a bit too focused on “academic freedom” (which is mostly about the relations between universities and their staff), as distinct from the more general freedoms of New Zealand citizens and residents, including those of the ethnic Chinese community, whether or not they happen to be associated with a specific government tertiary institution –  but the thrust of the case really shouldn’t have needed saying, and yet apparently did need to be said.

But I found two things about the statement interesting.  First, who did and didn’t sign.  And, second, the (reported) reaction of the Prime Minister.

By my count, 21 New Zealand-based academics signed (plus a couple of PhD students, and one New Zealander working at a US university).  Of those 21, only one appears to specialise in international relations, and none appear to be specialists in matters to do with China (politics, society, economics, international relations or whatever).

One of the signatories was (former academic and now) consultant Paul Buchanan.  In  an exchange of comments here on Saturday, and in reference to this letter he noted

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.

Perhaps some of our media might like to ask, for example, those involved in the Contemporary China Research Centre about why not one of them signed this statement (or, so far as I’ve seen, have issued their own statements supporting Professor Brady).   As a reminder

The New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre is New Zealand’s national research centre on China. We are based at Victoria University of Wellington with New Zealand’s other seven universities all being University Members of the Centre, University of Auckland, Auckland University of Technology, the University of Canterbury, the University of Otago, the University of Waikato, Lincoln University and Massey University, and with each University providing a Deputy Director.

Here is a list of the senior people at CCRC, including the Executive Chairman, Tony Browne (who also happens to chair Victoria’s Confucius Institute, and to sit on the board that advises the PRC government agency on the Confucius programme worldwide).   As the excerpt says, there is a director and then deputy directors in each university, and there are research/senior fellows.

But then here is the Advisory Board to the CCRC.   It includes representatives of MFAT, NZTE, MBIE, and Treasury, as well as the Director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, the chair of Education New Zealand and the former chair of the New Zealand China Trade Foundation.

The CCRC helps run courses for MFAT.  And it hosts various visiting delegations from PRC government agencies.  Just next week, it is hosting a conference on next year’s Year of Chinese Tourism which event, no doubt, the PRC Embassy smiles benignly on.

Wouldn’t do then for anyone to speak up or speak out.  I don’t suppose there was anything quite as crass as a directive to all to keep quiet, but all those involved surely know which side their bread is buttered on (perhaps they wouldn’t have got appointed if not).  Much as I care about the intimidation and threats to Professor Brady, if there is a narrow issue of academic freedom, it is probably more about the utter silence of the rest of the China-focused New Zealand academic community.  It was perhaps also telling that no university vice-chancellors signed the open letter.  Perhaps they are all sympathetic –  and there have been no reports of Canterbury trying to close Professor Brady down –  but they have enrolments to sell, and the PRC is a big and threatening market.    But, again, perhaps some journalist could ask them about their attitude to attempts to intimidate a prominent New Zealand academic?

I guess the Prime Minister will probably get some direct questions on this issue at her post-Cabinet press conference, or in her weekly media rounds tomorrow, but I was interested in her initial response, as Radio New Zealand reported it.    It was terse and largely empty, apparently attempting to avoid the issue, with brief comments along the line that she “supports” and “defends” academic freedom, but that she couldn’t say anything more substantive until the Police investigation had concluded. She couldn’t even manage –  wasn’t willing to –  make a statement that was (in the words of the signatories)

“very clear that any intimidation and threats aimed at silencing academic voices [or others] in this country will not be tolerated.”

And, again as Radio New Zealand reported it, Professor Brady understands that the Police investigation has already concluded, and the question now is whether the government will show any backbone.     Whose values is the Prime Minister actually sticking up for?

Of course, if anything the Leader of the Opposition, interviewed on Radio New Zealand a few minutes later, was worse.  He managed some quick passing comments vaguely in support of the letter –  I guess he could hardly say he opposed “academic freedom” –  before moving on to run his own (in effect) defence-of-Beijing line.    Rather rashly he declared the US and China to be in a “virtual war”, was more or less defending Huawei (there was “no smoking gun” –  it might be a bit late when there is, surely?), and criticising the government for being a little hesitant about the Belt and Road Initiative (recall that Bridges was the minister who signed us up for a “fusion of civilisations”) and for upsetting China by buying the P8s and stating a few honest words –  never echoed by the PM –  in a defence policy statement.

“We’ve got a situation of inflamed language, particularly from the Foreign Minister whether it’s been on defence strategy, whether it’s been Belt and Road. These things will be of concern to the Chinese and they will be sending a [subtle] signal.”

As if he belonged to the youth wing of the Labour Party, he was reciting lightweight lines about how “we shouldn’t take sides”.   Not in opposing evil?  Not in resisting aggression?   That wasn’t New Zealand’s historical approach –  National or Labour. Then again, his stance seems to be avoiding even taking New Zealand’s own side, given the continued presence of Jian Yang in his caucus, and Yikun Zhang in arranging large donations for his party.

To return, finally for now, to the Prime Minister, TVNZ ran a story/article on Friday night about the decision – no doubt from Beijing –  to deny the Prime Minister a trip to Beijing this year.   With the website version there was a little video clip from the opening moments of her meeting with Chinese premier Li Keqiang in Singapore a couple of weeks ago.  I very rarely listen to such clips, but for some reason did this time.   The clip captures the Prime Minister opening the meeting stating that she was encouraged by “the significant common ground between your vision for China and the policies of my government”.  She went on to observe that “just as you are focused on a balanced development model and the wellbeing of the Chinese government, my government is focused on sustainable economic development and a fair society”.

It is, frankly, sickening and shameful.  Our Prime Minister, elected leader of a free, open and democratic society, governed by the rule of law etc suggests that there is “significant common ground” between her government’s policies and those of one of the most brutal un-free regimes on the planet, that has spent at least the last six years going backwards not forwards on the sorts of values and practices that most New Zealanders cherish,

Sure, Prime Ministers and like need to mutter pleasantries at the start of meetings, but surely “did you travel well, and get a good sleep?” beats this sort of stuff?    And why is she giving recognition and apparent approbation to the desire of the Chinese Communist Party to extend its brutal rule (“the wellbeing of the Chinese government”).

Is there any decent moral core there at all?  No wonder she hasn’t managed a robust defence of free and open debate, of the sort the academic signatories called for.

(I’d been going to write a bit about former NSW premier, former Australian foreign minster, current head of a somewhat Beijing-sympathising think-tank, Bob Carr’s interview on China-related issues on TVNZ’s Q&A last night.   There were plenty of bits to disagree with, but actually compared to either Simon Bridges or Jacinda Ardern he came across as fluent and somewhat reasonable.  Perhaps it helps being out of office, but he was willing to welcome Mike Pence’s efforts to highlight China’s human rights abuses, and was explicit that he would not have signed Australia up to the Belt and Road Initiative.    By his standards, New Zealand’s “leaders” seem very far gone.)

20 thoughts on “Thoughts prompted by the open letter

  1. The New Zealand Police investigated and detected and captured Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur within 30 days. By comparison the Ann-Marie Brady episodes should have been a walk in the park – surely


    I have stated here in the past a criticism of NZ academics and their propensity for silence


    • You can’t credit the NZ police for that capture. The french neglected to factor in the busy body housewives gossip channel that rings NZ. They were already on the radar when they landed in their dingy from a french submarine. The police did not give enough credence to gossiping housewives to prevent the bombing but by subsequent follow up they easily captured our french bombers.


    • I do wonder just how widely circulated this Open Letter was among university staff. I never saw a university-wide (or other) email mentioning it or seeking signatures.

      A couple of signatories stand out for me on it, but I think it’s just worthwhile mentioning Associate Professor Nicola Gaston, Department of Physics, University of Auckland.

      She also took a very principled and high profile stand on sciences role in democracy – and the similar silencing of scientists- again via ‘fear of speaking up’ type of tactics. A blog post on this subject is here;

      I link to it within my lectures on the science/policy nexus in NZ environmental management.


  2. Yes and in Australia, Bob Carr’s nickname is “Beijing Bob” – makes you wonder what nickname you’d apply to our spineless politicians.

    The worst one of all is our Foreign Minister. He’s all fire and brimstone when in opposition but the moment he has a Ministerial 7-series he’s meek and mild. Boy, he takes his supporters for fools. And perhaps they are?


    • Hard to choose among them. If hyprocrisy is the deference vice pays to virtue, perhaps at least Winston had glimmerings of an alternative model (probably even runs it when he talks to say Mike Pompeo).

      I hate the fact that Trump is associated with the phrase, but the entire swamp needs draining. Although that then brings to mind this from St Luke’s gospel

      24When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it passes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ 25On its return, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and dwell there. And the final plight of that man is worse than the first.”…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Why would they pick on Bob Carr when Kevin Rudd is a more obvious candidate for a Chinese Rudd name, afterall he speaks fluent Poh Tung Hua(mandarin) and he has a degree in Chinese Studies and is usually on forums supporting the Chinese regime?


  3. Not taking sides?

    “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.
    We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
    Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.
    When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.
    Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
    — Holocaust Elie Wiesel in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1986

    “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
    ― Edmund Burke

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I appreciate your stance on this, Michael. What we need from the PM is a strong moral stand. Waiting for the outcome of an investigation that has been unproductive for an entire year is mere escapism. She should be ashamed of herself, hiding behind such a feeble excuse.

    Politics nowadays is all about perception management. A pattern of criminal behaviour using our most prominent critic of Chinese foreign policy as target is enough to get intelligent observers thinking the communist regime is trying to get away with state-directed terrorism in Aotearoa. How contagious does the PM want this perception to become? Is she really silly enough to believe that allowing the contagion to spread is a good idea?

    It isn’t even in the regime’s interests to be inducing such misbehaviour here. Both countries would derive mutual benefits from eliminating it: diplomacy succeeds on the basis of reciprocity and mutual respect. The least she can do is remind the regime that our relations with them will work best on that basis.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. You have a lot more confidence in modern New Zealand than I do. Back in the late 70’s, Bill Rowling complained that “If we can get together behind a rugby team, we should be able to get together for other things.

    Well actually, we can’t, and the Springbok Tour is not a counter-example. And it’s got worse since then.

    Most of the changes in this country in recent decades – economic reforms, homosexual law reform, gay marriage, et al – have happened less because of an enlightened majority approving of them, than small, influential minorities pushing hard and the vast majority shrugging their shoulders and going “meh”. It will be the same with trans-gender issues and with China.

    It’s the NZ way: there’s beer in the fridge, the sun is shining, and fishing awaits. We get along to go along and we want to save ourselves from a lot of bother. Unless it personally screws us over we’re not going to react. It’s why John Key had 70% approval and why Jacinda is popular also. Different telegenic quantities but similar smiley “no worries” attitude that Kiwis approve of.

    We will do nothing about China or this particular situation. We’ll float on the seas stirred up by China and the USA and hope we come out ok.

    And as China grows wealthier, together with other parts of Asia, they’ll buy more of us.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. We might be called upon (at least morally) to take a stand sooner rather than later.
    During a recent trip to Tonga (and subsequent reading) i was shocked to discover the level of Chinese control via predatory lending and the covert build up of military assets there and elsewhere in the South Pacific. It’s probable that China will seek to recover this unpayable debt by direct seizure of assets such as land, whole Islands and fisheries resources. Tonga has zero chance of meeting it’s obligations.
    Where would we stand? Behind our nearest neighbour or behind Chinese imperialist ambitions?
    Do we continue contributing aid money knowing it isn’t going to the people but to meet interest obligations to China?
    Would we genuinely be prepared to help counter the very real military threat?
    Forget about the utterly delusional Greens; where would the two main parties stand?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s