Our Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister gave an interesting speech in Washington last weekend. It was a bit saccharine and ahistorical (past rivalries over various Pacific island and atolls anyone?) for my tastes, but the overall thrust – urging the United States to be more active in the (south?) Pacific – wasn’t something I much disagreed with.
The People’s Republic of China wasn’t named as a threat, but it didn’t take a genius to see the connection. I remain somewhat sceptical that simply offering bigger “bribes” (call it development assistance if you want) is any way to build a more resilient Pacific in the medium-term. That has to come down to values, domestic accountability (hardly likely to be fostered when lots of money is in play) and a recognition of the fundamentally evil, and corrosive, nature of the PRC regime – whose values are as antithetical to most ordinary Pacific people, just as much as they are to most ordinary New Zealanders. The short-sightedness (and greed?) of too many officeholders in Pacific countries is a formidable obstacle, their vanity flattered (for example) by invites to Beijing, even to meet Xi Jinping himself, whether or not their own pockets are lined. These are mostly Christian countries, and yet when the Foreign Minister talked about the Pacific the other day there was nothing about values, nothing (for example) about freedom of religion, at time when the Beijing regime is intensifying its repression and persecution of Muslims and of Christians. The sort of thing that would horrify most decent people (here or in the Pacific) if they knew – as, for example, Kristallnacht did 80 years ago. Values, not competitive aid bidding, drive societal choices in the longer term.
To the extent the speech had much attention at all locally – which is hardly at all (has there been any thoughtful commentary from international affairs or Pacific specialists?) – it has been on the extraordinary statement by the Prime Minister that she had not seen the speech before it was given. It looked a lot like a significant foreign policy initiative, and yet it appeared not to have been discussed by the Cabinet. If anyone wanted evidence for Chris Trotter’s suggestion that the Prime Minister was in office but not in power, more decorative than substantive, it was hard to imagine a better example. It looks like yet another example where there is a New Zealand First policy in some foreign affairs matter, but not necessarily a stance shared by the biggest party in government Labour. After all, in her post-Cabinet press conference (link above) the Prime Minister was hardly offering a ringing endorsement of her Foreign Minister’s stance. For practical purposes, they can probably both agree on flinging a bit of money around, with not much accountability, but perhaps not much beyond that.
And even if they happened to (more or less) agree on the Pacific – and what will it come to anyway, in a US led by an inconstant troubled President, and with increasingly serious fiscal problems of its own? – one area where Labour and New Zealand First must agree in practice is on doing and saying quite as little as possible about the PRC influence activities in New Zealand. Some months ago, Winston Peters did make some cryptic remarks about how “something would be done” about Jian Yang, but it wasn’t clear if he meant anything then and (of course) it has come to nothing since (the Minister of Foreign Affairs doesn’t have much say over an Opposition MP). Both seem more embarrassed by, than admiring of, Anne-Marie Brady – in her case, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the government (Parliament as a whole in fact) would much prefer that she went away and shut up, and stopped raising awkward questions. Neither has been willing to call out the PRC over the Xinjiang internment camps – not even joining with many of old friends when they got together to make representations. They wouldn’t even speak up when National’s Todd McClay was parroting Beijing’s talking points about “vocational training centres” or – in a country with still more self-identified Christians than any other faith – about the renewed persecutions of the Chinese churches. They seem quite unbothered about allowing such a heinous regime to put (safely vetted for political and religous “soundness”) agents of the PRC – nice and friendly as they may be individually – in our kids’ schools. And has a word been heard from the Prime Minister or the Minister of Foreign Affairs about the PRC’s abductions of Canadians in China? Do we stand with our friends, our values? Or do we just cower before the PRC? Peters and Ardern (and Bridges and Shaw) show all the signs of the latter approach.
So they fling all the money they like around the Pacific. Perhaps if they do so Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo will take them a bit more seriously. But unless they are willing to start taking seriously the issues here at home – and there is not a shred of evidence for any such change of heart – it isn’t clear why any of us should take them as seriously worthy of the offices they hold. Through some mix of fear, delusion, mendicancy (all those party donations) they’ve taken our values, our traditions, and prostituted them on some CCP altar. Egged on – if anything more enthusiastically – by the National Party.
If they were ever interested in beginning to get serious, political donations might be a place to start. And on that score, I was interested to listen to outgoing National MP Chris Finalyson’s valedictory address. I’ve never been a great fan of Finlayson – a classic example of what is wrong with MMP, never having had to actually win an election or persuade people to vote for him – but my view of him took a steep dive at the Rongotai candidates’ meeting last year (Finlayson was the token National Party candidate). From the floor I asked him
“Mr Finlayson, last week one of the world’s leading newspapers, the Financial Times gave considerable prominence to a story about a New Zealand MP. That MP had been a member of the Chinese communist party, and part of the Chinese intelligence services. He never disclosed that past to the public when he stood for Parliament, and has never taken the opportunity to denounce the evils of the Chinese regime. Can you comment on why it is appropriate for such a person to be in our Parliament? And could you also comment on the new paper by Professor Anne-Marie Brady raising concerns about the extent of China’s attempts to exert political influence in New Zealand, and about the close ties of various senior National Party figures with Chinese interests?”
The question was greeted not with embarrassed silence, but with pretty vigorous applause from the floor.
Finlayson – our Attorney-General, first law officer of the land, senior National Party minister – got up, briefly. His answer ran roughly as follows:
“That was a Newsroom article, timed to damage the man politically. I’m not going to respond to any of the allegations that have been made about/against him. I think it is disgraceful that a whole class of people have been singled out for racial abuse. As for Professor Brady, I don’t think she likes any foreigners at all.”
The man dishonoured the high offices he held. But, somewhat to my surprise, in his valedictory address, Finlayson included these remarks.
“That’s why I think both major parties need to work together to review the rules relating to funding. I have a personal view that it should be illegal for non-nationals to donate to our political parties. Our political system belongs to New Zealanders, and I don’t like the idea of foreigners funding it. Similar concerns are now starting to be raised in other jurisdictions, and we need to work together, without recrimination, to ensure that our democracy remains our democracy”.
It is, mostly, illegal for non-nationals to donate material sums to our political parties. I’d be happy to ban such donations completely, including those anonymous donations from abroad through the guise of charity auctions, of the sort Phil Goff funded his mayoral campaign with. But, of course, many of the concerns serious people have about political donations – in Australia, as well as in New Zealand – do not relate to donations by non-nationals, but to donations by people born abroad who have become citizens, and yet retain close associations with reprehensible regimes in their country of birth (bluntly, the PRC). I’m sceptical much can be done by law about that particular issue. It requires political party leaders – individually or together – to decide that there are some people they simply won’t take donations from at all. There was a considerable fuss some years ago about the Exclusive Brethren. No respectable party would take donations from known gang leaders or those strongly suspected of involvement in organised crime. It shouldn’t be hard – in a decent leader – to make the moral choice that your party will take no donations from people with known (or strongly suspected) United Front associations. It is what decent people would do, recognising the character of the PRC regime.
So, interesting as it was that Finlayson chose to raise the issue at all, his interjection barely scratched the surface of the issue. But it was a (small) start from a figure who has enjoyed credibility in many circles. Perhaps he could consider urging candidates in this year’s local body elections to commit to (a) take no donations (including through anonymous charity auctions) from non-New Zealand citizens, and (b) to take no donations even from citizens if those citizens have, or are strongly suspected to have, close ties with entities supporting highly repressive regimes in other countries. Would it make any difference? Probably not – money can still be channelled less directly – but it would be a signal to New Zealanders that their officeholders (and those bidding to take their place) took seriously the issue, the concern. At worst, it would be interesting to hear how Phil Goff would defend refusing to make such a commitment to voters.
On another aspect of the PRC influence issue, a few weeks ago I was sent a copy of a book called “In the Jaws of the Dragon: How China is Taking Over New Zealand and Australia”, by one Ron Asher. It is a 350 page book, apparently fairly well-documented and footnoted, now on its 5th edition (and so I’m told selling quite well) making a case that…….well, it is there in the title. From the author’s note
This book…seeks to expose the sinister goals of the Communist government of China, which has murdered tens of millions of Chinese people since it shot its way to power in 1949, denies them basic rights and is now threatening the peace of the Pacific – and the world – by its excessive armaments programme and its expansionist activities in the South China Sea. Through economic domination, aggressive immigration, bullying and other means it is trying to exert a control over Australia and New Zealand that is harmful to our sovereignty, democracy, heritage and economic prospects for the future.
There was plenty of interesting material in the book, and it was useful to have it gathered in one place. It was interesting to learn of (former National) MP Jami-Lee Ross’s paid trips to the PRC – which left me wondering (a) how many other MPs have had such trips, and (b) why we don’t just follow the US example and ban MPs taking any material hospitality from foreign governments, friendly or potentially hostile/threatening. There was plenty of material – including around Confucius Institutes (this week yet another US university decided to close theirs down), Huawei, and “aid” to various Pacific countries.
And yet much of the material had me pushing back to some extent at least. The author is much more wary of foreign investment from the PRC than I am. To be fair, the global tide of opinion on risks around PRC corporate investment abroad is shifting – reinforced by the PRC laws which make it clear that even private PRC companies must follow directions of the PRC authorities (party/State). And weak capital markets disciplines in China – especially around SOEs – have long left me a little nervous about any material expansion in the role of PRC banks. It would seem crazy – simply an unnecessary risk, given the character of the regime – to allow, for example, our electricity or telecoms network companies to be owned or controlled by PRC-friendly interest. I hope that when a stake in the Port of Napier is sold no one will even consider a sale to PRC interests – port acquisitions have been a significant aspect of PRC strategy abroad in recent years, perhaps benefiting the sellers but leave societies to repent at leisure.
But I’m still not persuaded the sale of dairy farms to PRC interests, or the establishment of PRC-owned milk processing plants in New Zealand represents any material sort of threat to New Zealand, or New Zealanders. The author notes that the (PRC) buyer will reap the profits in future, including from the ability to construct integrated supply and distribution chains. But in a land market that is even moderately competitive, much of those gains should be captured in the value of the land at the point of sale. Within limits, it makes sense for assets to be owned by parties best able to utilise them. That ability is likely to be reflected in a willingness to pay. Perhaps I’m a touch naive, but some arguments still seem to go too far for my comfort and conviction. The growing entanglement of our universities with PRC interests – consciously making themselves exposed to PRC political pressure – represents more of a risk, and pressure point – the more so when we once looked to universities to champion the sorts of values that underpinned our society (but not the PRC).
This isn’t an attempt at a full review. For those interested in the issue though, there is plenty to chew on, whether one ends up going quite as far as the author (or not). Perhaps the thing I came away with most was a sense of how careless of our values our political leaders have been, how indifferent to the character of the Beijing regime, and how utterly shortsighted their approach has been for decades – whether pursuing personal gain (which I suspect mostly isn’t the reason – it may be different for business and academic figures), party donations, or just lemming-like prioritising trade and short-term opportunities over all.
Whatever the motive, in many respects they’ve blithely, unconcernedly, sold out New Zealand and New Zealanders, dishonouring both our own freedoms and values, and those (denied) of hundreds of millions of Chinese. But even at this point, it isn’t clear that the PRC has clout in New Zealand beyond the deference our political officeholders – cowering – keep choosing (and it is wholly a matter of choice, especially at this physical distance) to pay them. Evil people – Xi Jinping and his party and regime – will do what they will do, as Hitler or Stalin before them did. We can’t do much about them – hoping against hope for regime change – but we can choose what responses we tolerate in our officeholders. If we care at all about PRC influence in the Pacific, our officeholders might start by demonstrating that they take the issue – the regime and its threat – seriously at home. What matters to someone is best demonstrated by the price they are willing to pay for it.