I have good memories of a young Don McKinnon. It was early 1980, my first year at Victoria University, and Don McKinnon was a first-term National MP. It was just a few months after the Soviet occupation/invasion of Afghanistan, and there was a strong push from many governments in the West against competing in that (northern) summer’s Olympic Games, to be held in Moscow. Don McKinnon was invited along to articulate and defend the government’s stance. It was a pretty hostile audience as I recall – the median student (or perhaps just the median of those who would turn up to lunchtime political meetings) was pretty left-wing (and of those who weren’t so left-wing not many had much time for the then Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon). I no longer remember many of the details of the event, but I do recall McKinnon vigorously fighting his corner, and making the case that New Zealand athletes shouldn’t be part of one of tyranny’s great celebrations – first Olympics in a Communist country) in the wake of such egregious aggression. Those were days of considerably greater moral clarity about such regimes – no doubt helped by the fact that there was not much trade with the Soviet Union, and our universities weren’t reliant on the Soviet market.
That was then. Today’s Don McKinnon is full of years, knighted no less. And any moral clarity on these sorts of issues appears to have been lost long ago. For these days, Don McKinnon is chair of the (largely) taxpayer-funded New Zealand China Council, set up by the previous government to run propaganda around the People’s Republic of China, and help ensure that public discontent around supping with the devil never becomes too problematic. Those aren’t their words of course, but the gist of the actual words they do use isn’t that different. They don’t exist to do foreign diplomacy (that is what we have MFAT for), they don’t exist to do business (individual firms and universities for that, they exist to propagandise New Zealanders – with our own money.
Mostly, the part-time Executive Director (of whom more below) speaks for the China Council. But every so often – perhaps whenever it seems as if a nerve has been touched – they wheel out the chair Don McKinnon. There was an op-ed in the Herald this time last year, ably responded to by Simon Chapple of Victoria University – a rare New Zealand academic willing to express scepticism. Sir Don wanted us to “respect” the People’s Republic of China – it was never made clear why, given the nature of the regime – and if there were ever any issues well the great unwashed could trust the “relevant agencies” to deal with them (conveniently ignoring that fact that many of the issues raised by Anne-Marie Brady a few months earlier were not illegal – they were questions of instead of right and wrong, surely matters for open debate.
Earlier this week Don McKinnon was back in the pages of the Herald. Straw men abounded. McKinnon opened with the Hauwei provisional decision taken by the GCSB. You’ll recall that when decision was announced the China Council put out a statement lamenting the proposed ban. I’m still a bit puzzled by that statement given that the chief executives of MFAT and NZTE sit on the Council’s Board and were presumably party to this public criticism of one of our intelligence agencies.
In his article this week, Don McKinnon has moved on a bit.
The substance of the decision is not for me to debate, but the risk is that it complicates the already complex management of the trade and economic relationship at a time of geopolitical tension.
but it really isn’t a much better stance from a former Foreign Minister, in a body largely funded by the taxpayer (not Huawei). Shouldn’t he be lamenting the fact – unquestioned – that the PRC is engaged in far-reaching cyber-intrusions and intellectual property theft in much of the world, the sort of approach that might leave anyone cautious about letting a PRC regime-controlled company (as they all are) loose on a 5G network?
But what of those straw men? This was the opening line of the article
The recent GCSB ruling in respect of Huawei must surely be a body blow for those who allege the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party are influencing New Zealand’s policy-making.
A “body blow”? Well, perhaps if anyone were claiming that New Zealand governments always and everywhere do what the PRC would prefer. But I’m not aware of any serious participant in these debates who says that. Beijing probably wasn’t too keen on New Zealand purchasing the P8 aircraft, and would presumably prefer we opted out of Five Eyes too. But they must be absolutely delighted that former PLA intelligence official, Communist Party member, Jian Yang still sits in our Parliament – even after all that background, and the active misrepresentations to the authorities, is in the public domain. Or that when new defence policy documents include a few mild but honest words, the only criticism in the political sphere is from an Opposition leader – himself having signed us up to an aspiration to fusion of civilisations – concerned that the government might upset Beijing. Or that the government refuses to participate in joint Western efforts to protest the gross abuses in Xinjiang (which the Opposition describe, PRC style, as vocational training camps). Or that Yikun Zhang, with clear and strong ties to the regime and Party can manage to be awarded – with bipartisan support – royal honours for services to New Zealand. How they must have chortled when they heard that. Or that both Ardern and Bridges are apparently so scared of a Beijing reaction that neither can manage a forthright defence of Anne-Marie Brady, or of ethnic Chinese New Zealanders being intimidated – here in New Zealand – by Beijing.
Don McKinnon purports to believe that none of this is an issue at all. Apparently we once – years ago – mentioned the South China Sea, and that was quite enough. As for political donations, there are plenty of serious people around – even people with ties to his own organisation – who evince unease about that situation – about, for example, another former Foreign Minister financing his mayoral campaign substantially with anonymous donations from the mainland. McKinnon isn’t stupid, and will know all this, so one can only conclude he doesn’t care a jot – about the integrity of the political system of his own country. The 1980 version of Don McKinnon wouldn’t have tolerated a KGB/GRU officer – never once heard to criticise any aspect of the USSR – in our Parliament. 2018 Don McKinnon thinks Jian Yang’s presence in Parliament is just fine – apparently any concerns are “unsubstantiated” (you mean the ones he himself belatedly acknowledged?) – and has the man sitting on the China Council’s advisory board.
The whole thing is suffused with that determination never ever to upset Beijing – and whenever anything might (eg Huawei) the emphasis is on the PRC perspective, not the New Zealand one. This reaches egregious extremes in this observation
National security is important but so too is our increasingly multi-faceted relationship with China.
National security isn’t everything. Civil liberties and our democracy matter a great deal too. But for a former longserving Foreign Minister to suggest, in writing (presumably carefuly drafted) that national security is something we should compromise on to keep the regime in Beijing happy is…….extraordinary (and that is probably too mild a word).
And this is one of the problems with the China Council. They do now often include a ritual line about our “very different values”. It is there in this week’s article too. But, strangely – conveniently for them – they never ever spell out the nature of those differences. Doing so might require them to speak or write in a way that suggested disapproval of aspects of the PRC – or, and I hope this isn’t so, a genuine belief that the PRC system is just as good as our own, only different, and simply nothing to worry about. So we never hear about (say) the imprisonment of a million or more people in Xinjiang, about fresh attacks on Christians in China, about the widespread theft of intellectual property, about a regime so insecure images of Winnie-the-Pooh are being banned, about the absence of the rule of law, about real military threats to free and democractic Taiwan, about the absence of freedom of speech, or even about the lawless revenge abductions of a couple of Canadians this week. Nothing. And why? Because there are deals and donations to keep flowing, and none of these things matter a jot – in the only sense that reveals importance, a willingness to pay a price (probably quite a modest one, if at all).
McKinnon ends with two more incredible comments. The first was
The risk of overreaction in New Zealand is all too real, however.
Really? With our supine political and business class, desperate as ever to play the issues down, and no doubt grateful to Sir Don for putting pen to paper. Some sign of any reaction among our purported leaders would be worthy of note. But then the China Council’s view of “overreaction” seems to be any reaction whatever – just let us get on with the deals and donations. Trust us…..
And at the very end
The short step from rational debate to panic can come at a heavy cost.
So never ever upset Beijing, or the thugs with the baseball bats will extort a price. But,trust us……they really are good guys, we are better for dealing with them, they’re good guys. Really.
The thing that really staggers me about the China Council is that with all those senior figures and all that taxpayers’ money the quality and depth of their propaganda and advocacy is so limited. They might have good practical arguments to make on some points, but making them should involve engaging substantively with the sort of detailed concerns being raised. The China Council has never made any attempt to substantively engage with Anne_Marie Brady’s paper – and, shamefully, has been totally silent on the apparent attempts to physically intimidate her (and thus to scare others). And they are fellow New Zealanders.
As it happens, there was another good example yesterday of our cowering “leaders”. Newsroom has an account of MFAT’s appearance at a parliamentary select committee, where much of the discussion seems to have been around the PRC, the “FTA”- upgrade, and so on. I’m not going to excerpt the story, but read it and all you sense is fearfulness from both sides – if the Opposition is critical it is that the government might have upset Beijing. There is no sense of self-respect, no sense of values that matter, just a backdrop of deals and donations – and that weirdly misplaced view about the significance of the PRC to New Zealand’s economic fortunes so actively fostered by yet another former Foreign Minister, Murray McCully.
And, finally, I must have hit a bit of nerve somewhere near the China Council. After a post the other day, this tweet appeared on the Executive Director, Stephen Jacobi’s feed.
Which was a bit odd really. I went back and looked at the post in question. And I couldn’t find any examples of me calling him names. I did note that “he appears to be Christian” but as on his Twitter page he calls himself an Anglican, and was tweeting a photo of an Advent service, that didn’t seem an unreasonable deduction. And as one Christian to another, it can hardly count as name-calling.
So I had a look back at any of my other past posts I could find when I’d written about Jacobi (here, here, here, here and here were the ones I could find). And yet anything resembling name-calling seemed thin on the ground (which was relief, because it is something I try hard to avoid – perhaps not always successfully). In one of those early posts I introduced Jacobi this way
The Council employs a part-time Executive Director, Stephen Jacobi. He spent considerable time at MFAT, but from his own account his focus was Europe and North America (including as our deputy high commissioner in Canada) and in trade negotiations. Since leaving MFAT in 2005 he has run his own consulting firm, and been employed as the public face of various trade-related bodies, including serving as Executive Director of the NZ US Council from 2005 to 2014. He is articulate and readily available to the media, but has no specialist expertise in China or (indeed) on the workings of New Zealand democracy. That isn’t a criticism – after all, neither do I – just to note that his arguments, and evidence, need to be reflected on and carefully examined, perhaps having regard to the interests that are paying him, not as coming from an expert authority in the area.
And that still seems right, and fair. He is a paid lobbyist and advocate – propagandist wouldn’t be too strong a word. Those are, more or less, job descriptions. I’m sure he believes most or all of what the job requires him to say. It is just a shame that the institution for which he works seems to have abandoned all sense of good and evil when it comes to the PRC.
But in the search for anything that might resemble name-calling, I did across lots of arguments, analysis, and some evidence. I don’t particularly expect Jacobi or the China Council to engage with me – although I’d be happy for them to do so – but the thing is that they don’t engage with China experts (notably Anne-Marie Brady) either. Instead, they play distraction, suggest racism is at work, call debates “unedifying” rather than engage in them, or – as in this case – suggest that all there is is name-calling. With so many resources at their disposal, that approach doesn’t exactly redound to their credit. With the politicians on side perhaps it doesn’t matter for now, but such large disconnnects between the values of a people, and the attitudes and practices of their “leaders”, are unlikely to last forever. It was Scott Morrison who only a few weeks ago observed that we – citizens of free and democratic countries – have to be more than just the sum of our deals. Or, as I added, of our political party donations.