Promoting constructive vigilance

That was the sub-title to the substantial (200 pages or so) new report released last week by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University on Chinese (PRC) influence activities in the United States (but with eight case studies on the situation in other countries, including one on New Zealand which draws largely on the work of Anne-Marie Brady).

The report is the product of a working group of 33 academics, think-tankers, and journalists specialising in PRC-related issues.  Around half those involved are academics.  Of the 33, 10 are ‘international associates’ –  again, about half academics –  bringing perspectives to bear on PRC activities in other countries, including three Australians and Anne-Marie Brady.

I read the report over the weekend.  I’m not sure there is a great deal new in it, but it is easy to read, and extensively documented, and the accumulation of material helps build the picture.     And even on New Zealand, there are striking lines from the Magic Weapons paper that one forgets

The Chinese government considers New Zealand an “exemplar of how it would like its relations to be with other states.” One unnamed Chinese diplomat even characterized relations between the two countries as similar to China’s close ties with totalitarian Albania in the early 1960s.

Or bits I’d never noticed previously

Individuals with strong ties to United Front organizations have donated several million dollars, primarily to the National Party. One such individual, who donated $112,000 to the National Party in 2017, is listed as an officer of no fewer than seven United Front organizations.

Then again, it was Labour bestowing the QSM on Yikun Zhang.

But the focus of the report is on the United States.  In many areas one is struck by the similarity of the story to the work done on these issues for New Zealand.

The Chinese Communist party-state leverages a broad range of party, state, and non-state actors to advance its influence-seeking objectives, and in recent years it has significantly accelerated both its investment and the intensity of these efforts. While many of the activities described in this report are state-directed, there is no single institution in China’s party-state that is wholly responsible…..   Because of the pervasiveness of the party-state, many nominally independent actors— including Chinese civil society, academia, corporations, and even religious institutions— are also ultimately beholden to the government and are frequently pressured into service to advance state interests.

or

China’s influence activities have moved beyond their traditional United Front focus on diaspora communities to target a far broader range of sectors in Western societies, ranging from think tanks, universities, and media to state, local, and national government institutions. China seeks to promote views sympathetic to the Chinese Government, policies, society, and culture; suppress alternative views; and co-opt key American players to support China’s foreign policy goals and economic interests.

or (more remarkably in the much larger US market)

In the American media, China has all but eliminated the plethora of independent Chinese-language media outlets that once served Chinese American communities. It has co-opted existing Chinese-language outlets and established its own new outlets.

The report builds to a set of policy principles and recommendations.  They group the principles and recommendations under three headings: Transparency, Integrity, and Reciprocity.   Under the first two headings, most of what they suggest seems (a) sensible, and (b) relevant to other countries where these issues arise, including New Zealand.

Here are the Transparency principles (there are more detailed recommendations below many of these).

Transparency is a fundamental tenet and asset of democracy, and the best protection against the manipulation of American entities by outside actors.

• American NGOs should play an important role in investigating and monitoring illicit activities by China and other foreign actors. They should as well seek to inform themselves about the full range of Chinese influence activities and the distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate influence efforts.

• Congress should perform its constitutional role by continuing to investigate, report on, and recommend appropriate action concerning Chinese influence activities in the United States. It should update relevant laws and regulations regarding foreign influence, and adopt new ones, to strengthen transparency in foreign efforts to exert influence.

• Executive branch agencies should similarly investigate and publicize, when appropriate, findings concerning these activities, with a view to promoting healthy and responsible vigilance among American governmental and nongovernmental actors.

• The US media should undertake careful, fact-based investigative reporting of Chinese influence activities, and it should enhance its knowledge base for undertaking responsible reporting.

• Faculty governance is the key to preserving academic freedom in American universities. All gifts, grants, endowments, and cooperative programs, including Confucius Institutes, should be subjected to the usual procedures of faculty oversight.

• US governmental and nongovernmental sectors should disclose financial and other relationships that may be subject to foreign influence.

And yet, to reflect on this list of items is to realise how much more serious the issue is here.   There are few relevant NGOs, the media is struggling and thinly-resourced, and instead of Parliament taking any sort of lead we have the former PLA intelligence official sitting in Parliament, not apparently bothering either National or Labour, and Raymond Huo –  with various United Front connections, and openly championing PRC perspectives –  chairs our Parliament’s Justice committee, dealing with electoral law.    The Opposition leader is soliciting large donations through people with close connections to Beijing, and Jian Yang is reputed to be the biggest National Party fundraiser.  (Again, in this regard US campaign finance laws, including disclosure provisions, are well ahead of our own.) The National Party’s president praises the Beijing regime and its leader, and if Labour’s president hasn’t been heard from for a while, he has form in that area too.   Our system is already corrupted, whereas (from the report) on this particular dimension the threat to the US system is still nascent.

As for the executive (political and official), they remain keen to say quite as little as possible – on any dimension of the issue (donations, cyber-security, Chinese language media, threats –  whether to Professor Brady or people in the ethnic Chinese community), and direct money to propaganda outfits like the New Zealand China Council to help keep the populace in line.  Winston Peters this morning refused to even accept an interviewer’s description of the PRC as becoming “increasingly authoritarian” (although, as he implied, there has not been a time since 1949 when it been anything other than highly authoritarian and repressive).

What of disclosure?  I linked the other day to a comment from consultant and former academic Paul Buchanan about PRC funding of parts of our universities.  If true, these contributions (and those of any other foreign government) should be fully and routinely disclosed.   And what about travel?   In the flurry of stories about Yikun Zhang it emerged that the Mayor of Southland had been travelling to the PRC, working closely with (and travelling at the expense of) Beijing-affiliated Zhang.   I was struck reading the Hoover report by the observation that US members of Congress can’t accept gifts of travel, and the same day I read that a reader sent me a link to a story about Clutha Southland National MP Hamish Walker (and other local body officials) on (PRC) paid trips to China.   Shouldn’t any such (paid for) trips simply be prohibited?  I’m sure MPs do their jobs better for some travel, but either they personally or the New Zealand taxpayer should be paying.  Not vested interests –  corporate or other governments.

What about integrity?  These were the high-level principles

Foreign funding can undermine the independence of American institutions, and various types of coercive and covert activities by China (and other countries) directly contradict core democratic values and freedoms, which must be protected by institutional vigilance and effective governance.

• Openness and freedom are fundamental elements of American democracy and intrinsic strengths of the United States and its way of life. These values must be protected against corrosive actions by China and other countries.

• Various institutions—but notably universities and think tanks—need to enhance sharing and pooling of information concerning Chinese activities, and they should promote more closely coordinated collective action to counter China’s inappropriate activities and pressures. This report recommends that American institutions within each of the above two sectors (and possibly others) formulate and agree to a “Code of Conduct” to guide their exchanges with Chinese counterparts.

• When they believe that efforts to exert influence have violated US laws or the rights of American citizens and foreign residents in the United States, US institutions should refer such activities to the appropriate law enforcement authorities.

• Rigorous efforts should be undertaken to inform the Chinese American community about potentially inappropriate activities carried out by China. At the same time, utmost efforts must be taken to protect the rights of the Chinese American community, as well as protecting the rights of Chinese citizens living or studying in the United States.

• Consideration should be given to establishing a federal government office that American state and local governments and nongovernmental institutions could approach—on a strictly voluntary basis—for advice on how best to manage Chinese requests for engagement and partnership. This office could also provide confidential background on the affiliations of Chinese individuals and organizations to party and state institutions.

That last suggestion seemed like one that should be considered here, as local government figures seem all to keen on accepting PRC approaches for relationships, oblivious to (or unconcerned by) the wider political context.  I’m not sure what Yikun Zhang’s interest in the Mayor of Southland specifically is, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t just that they got on well over a beer.  As the  report notes

….it is important for local officials to understand that local American “exchange” companies that bring Chinese delegations to the United States and promote professional interactions between the United States and China all depend on official PRC sanction and have received approval to receive Chinese delegations. The business model of such companies is, of necessity, as much political as financial. Even if they conduct high-quality programs, they should not be viewed as disinterested actors. They, too, are subject to rules made by the Chinese Communist Party, its united front bureaucracy, and united front strategic imperatives.

Where I was a bit more sceptical –  and where there seems to be some ongoing debate –  was around the idea of Reciprocity.    As academics, think-tankers and journalists, they are  –  as group – frustrated over how difficult it is for many to get visa access to the PRC, research in the PRC, use PRC government archives etc.  They contrast this to the fairly open access PRC researchers and employees of PRC media outlets have in the United States, and propose that the US should tighten up to try to gain greater access for outside researchers and journalists to China.  One can understand their grievance, but are these people really suggesting that open societies (the US or places like New Zealand) should adopt a PRC approach to things?    When it comes to foreign trade, “retaliatory” tariffs mostly end up hurting consumers in the country imposing them. Perhaps things are different when it comes to idea, research etc, but surely one of the great strengths – not vulnerabilities –  of our sort of system is our openness?

Early in the report I was struck by the observation that the working group did not “generally oppose” Confucius Institutes  (three in New Zealand, very many in the US –  although some have since been closed by the host universities).  But as I read on I found the specific recommendations

Confucius Institutes We do not endorse calls for Confucius Institutes to be closed, as long as several conditions are met.

US institutions should make their CI agreements public to facilitate oversight by members of the university community and other concerned parties. Those agreements, in turn, must grant full managerial authority to the host institution (not on a shared basis with the Hanban), so the university has full control over what a CI teaches, the activities it undertakes, the research grants it makes, and whom it employs. The clause in all Hanban contracts that CIs must operate “according to China’s laws” must be deleted.   If these standards cannot be attained, then the CI agreements should be terminated.

Furthermore, universities should prevent any intervention by CIs in curricular requirements and course content in their overall Chinese studies curricula or other areas of study by maintaining a clear administrative separation between academic centers and departments on the one hand, and CIs on the other. Finally, universities must ensure that all public programming offered by their CIs conform to academic standards of balance and diversity and do not cross the line to become a platform for PRC propaganda, or even a circumscribed view of a controversial issue. In fact, this report would suggest that universities not permit Confucius Institutes to become involved in public programming that goes beyond the CI core mission of education about Chinese language and culture. To go beyond these two categories invites opportunities for politicized propaganda.

As I understand it, few of those tests would be met in respect of the New Zealand Confucius Institutes (the one that is, as I understand it, is that the Confucius Institutes are not involved in the host university’s own courses or curriculum).   And, in addition, there is the unstated dimension as to whether our governments and universities should be facilitating the presence of PRC-appointed and paid staff in our schools –  the PRC being one of the most heinous regimes on the planet (as well as ruling a relatively poor country, which means we allow the taxes of poor foreigners to help pay for the education of our kids.)  If the PRC wants to subsidise Chinese-language learning then good luck to them, but let them set up downtown and market for clients in the way other countries’ language-teaching operations (Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institute) do.

Reprising a theme in my post on Saturday, there was this line about the compromised nature of universities.

The message from China to US universities is clear: Do not transgress the political no-go zones of the Chinese Communist Party or government, or you will pay a price. Sometimes the pressure is overt; other times it is more subtle and indirect, but no less alarming. Some American faculty members report troubling conversations with university administrators who continue to view Chinese students as such a lucrative revenue stream that it should not be endangered by “needlessly irritating Chinese authorities.”

There is lots more in the report, which is well-worth reading if you have the time.

Perhaps my bottom-line unease about the report was a bit of a reluctance to call a spade a spade.    For example, at least amid the discussion of the difficulties foreign academics and journalists face in the PRC, there was either a touching naivete, or a wilful refusal to face the fact, that the PRC is not a normal country, that just needs a few nudges to bring their attitudes and behaviours into line.   Why would one expect the PRC to behave differently, given the nature of the regime?   Obviously, all those involved know much about the true situation, but there was an apparent reluctance to say out loud that the party/State is  –  and for decades has been –  a malevolent force, at home, abroad, and increasingly in other countries.  Look at the tens of millions killed under the depraved indifference of the Party, the masss incarcerations, the forced organ transplant, at the near-total absence of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the rule of law, or at the decades of the one-child policy. Look at the huge scale industrial espionage.  Look at the militarisation of the South China Sea, the constant threats to free and democratic Taiwan, or all the influence activities the report documents in the US and other countries, including attempting to subvert ethnic Chinese abroad and pressure them –  whatever there citizenship –  to advance PRC ends.  I know some people regard comparisons between the PRC and late-1930s Germany as overstated or unhelpful.  But such parallels seem increasingly valid –  not as prophecy, but as description –  and helpful in prompting those –  some perhaps individuallly decent people –  who just go along, to stop and think about the nature of the evil they accommodate or abet.  New Zealand politicians, of both stripes, as an example.

We have to be more than sum of our deals, more than the flow of political donations.

People might (as I do) distrust Trump on these issues for his typical inconstancy.  The difference here is that there is a constancy, but one that seems determined to, in effect, serve PRC interests, not the interests of New Zealanders, or the values that underpin our society (perhaps those involved try to tell themselves the two interests are much the same?).   That is why I still regard the “choose between China and the US” line as a false one.  Our governments could choose to go along with much of whatever (limited amount) the US is doing in foreign policy (or not), and still have abandoned any sense of integrity around our own system.  Personally, much as I welcomed the decision to buy the P-8 aircraft earlier in the year, I’d be more persuaded by our “leaders” if they had

  • combined to get Jian Yang and Raymond Huo out of Parliament,
  • defunded the China Council,
  • amended electoral laws to stop Phil Goff funding his mayoral campaign with anonymous mainland donations and to force comprehensive disclosure (at the level of the ultimate human donors) of all significant political donations,
  • done something to manage the exposure of the universities and the way in which that exposure risks compromising effective freedom to speak,
  • agreed together to stop issuing statements of praise for the PRC and Xi Jinping, and
  • foreswore accepting donations from anyone with significant United Front connections.

As a start.

Without steps like that, we could end up banning Huawei,  buying P-8s, being in the good graces of the US and Australia, and it just wouldn’t matter much. We’d still have severely compromised the integrity of our political system and our own longer-term interests.

 

11 thoughts on “Promoting constructive vigilance

  1. If we can develop leading edge electron rocket technology without being noticed by Chinese spies, it does not say too much of the capability of Chinese spying activity?

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  2. “”agreed together to stop issuing statements of praise for the PRC and Xi Jinping, “” I disagree, qualified praise can be effective. “Damn with faint praise” – (idiomatic) to provide praise that is minimal or inconsequential, implying that such praise is the best that could be said.

    Judging by the data you published recently can anyone disagree with “The PRC has overseen a remarkable growth in China’s economy over the last 35 years. Taking it from the total destitution bequeathed by Mao to achieving a GPD per capita that is a quarter of Hong Kong or Taiwan.” No need to mention the unequal way this new wealth has been distributed.

    I like the American principles of Transparency, Integrity, and Reciprocity. If Jacinda would just sign this report and get our universities and civil servants to follow it them this issue could be put to bed.

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    • In fact we could have a whole new class of faint-praise statements:

      – congratulate PRC that there are still 1bn living Chinese (only tens of millions starved)
      – congratulate PRC that they haven’t actually invaded another country for some decades (altho to the what-aboutist I grant that the US has a worse record here),
      – congratulate PRC that there are still some mosques in China
      – congratulate PRC on their stunning rate of organ transplants and the saved lives (shame about the sacrificed ones)
      – congratulate PRC that there are still UIghurs walking free

      I’m not much one for the line that we should have a “respectful” relationship with the PRC. I’d settle for formal and distant, which probably rules out such statements!

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  3. Thing is Bob, the past decade’s GDP growth has been built the same way Muldoon built growth here. Borrow and spend; mostly on lavish infrastructure projects of dubious investment return.

    I’m China, until now, they’ve funded this via leveraging their own balance sheet – but given interbank OMOs that’s nearly exhausted – and now the Cutrent account balance is sliding towards deficit, which means they’re going to fund it on selling domestic assets (bond sales), FDI investments and loans. In otherwords, they’re going to start dragging the world into their insane banking bubble.

    When this pops, which it inevitably will, they will experience many years of low growth. And meanwhile, their population of working age is contracting, urbanisation is running into limits and the dependency ratio is rising. Hardly encouraging…

    We need to accelerate our efforts to build our trade links with India as a counterweight.

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  4. Peter

    I buy your analysis (mostly) but is India a real (substantial) option? It is already a significant market for export education (some genuine some dodgy) and if you look at most of what else is sold in China, there is little chance of getting significant dairy access (I’d have thought) and of course India is a huge – if inefficient- dairy producer. When/if China goes thru its nasty adjustment I suspect it will affect everyone quite materially, whether or not they are trading directly (after all, our commodity exports price in a world market, regardless of which specific markets we happen to be selling to at any point in time).

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    • When the Indian Student market tanked and dropped by 50% our education institutions just added more Chinese and Korean students. It looks like there are more students wanting to come to NZ than there are seats available. The industry looks quite resilient for massive drops by any one country.

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      • If we set our academic standards low enough and keep our currency weak compared to other English speaking countries then there will always be potential for international education.

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    • Is the US on the brink of recession? Amid all the market exuberance after Trump’s trade war truce, a sober warning sign has emerged that all is not well in the US economy. US bond markets spoiled the equities party on Wall Street last night as the treasury yield curve inverted – something widely considered an accurate predictor of recession.

      https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=12171060

      Looking more likely that the US could adjust before China?

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