GCSB, China, and a craven government

It wasn’t until I’d read my way through two-thirds of this morning’s Dominion-Post that I realised what wasn’t in the paper (and I assume not in other Stuff mastheads elsewhere in the country).   On the foreign news page there was a little sidebar piece informing readers of the actions of the US Justice Department targeting People’s Republic of China state-sponsored commercial cyber-espionage, noting that this “coincided with an announcement by Britain blaming China’s Ministry of State Security for trade-secret pilfering affecting Western nations”.   But not a mention of the many other nations who had made similar announcements or (more importantly for these purposes) of New Zealand, or of the GCSB’s pretty blunt announcement yesterday morning.

The Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) has established links between the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) and a global campaign of cyber-enabled commercial intellectual property theft.

“This long-running campaign targeted the intellectual property and commercial data of a number of global managed service providers, some operating in New Zealand,” Director-General of the GCSB Andrew Hampton said.

“This activity is counter to the commitment all APEC economies, including China, made in November 2016. APEC economies agreed they should not conduct or support ICT-enabled theft of intellectual property or other confidential business information, for commercial advantage.

I turned back tothe  start of the paper, went through page by page, and even had a look online.  There was simply nothing at all in the Dominion-Post –  paper to the capital’s policy wonks and political people.      Domestic news isn’t so thick on the ground at this time of year that you’d suppose the Stuff editors ran out of room, about a story about New Zealand official agencies reacting to the hostile actions of a major foreign power.

(By contrast, Radio New Zealand covered the story extensively yesterday, TVNZ has a story, Newsroom has it, and the Herald has two substantial pieces in its business section this morning –  even if its journalistic standards remain so low that Fran O’Sullivan is able to write repeated columns about China issue without any disclosure of her membership of the Advisory Board of the government-funded pro-Beijing propaganda operation the China Council, or her role as co-chair of the China Business Summit.)

I guess the complete silence saved Stuff reporting the odd way the powers-that-be handled the whole affair.   The official statement was released by a low-key career public servant, the head of the GCSB.   But there was no official statement from the government –  the people we actual elect and hold to account.  Contrast that with the situation in both Australia and the United Kingdom –  in the former the Home Affairs and Defence ministers issued an official statement, and in the latter, the Foreign Secretary.    At least one report I saw/heard here said that both our Prime Minister and our Minister of Foreign Affairs simply refused to comment at all.  Fran O’Sullivan –  worth reading mostly because influential people talk to her –  tells us that

According to senior sources there was some trepidation at Cabinet level before the decision to name China directly was agreed.

I’m glad the government was willing to go that far, but if they have any backbone at all, it seems like a pretty limp one.  They seem almost embarrassed, and distinctly uncomfortable, having gone even that far.

Later in the day, the Minister responsible for the GCSB –  Andrew Little – finally fronted up.   Little has form as something of an arch-appeaser and apologist for the regime in Beijing.    There was an interview with him last year (which I wrote about here), shortly after taking office, in which he refused to express any concern about the Jian Yang situation, about political donations or, in fact, about anything.

One thing that Little is not concerned about is any perceived growing influence of China in New Zealand.

In his interview with Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint late yesterday, he was at pains to stress how good our (well, his government’s) relationship with the People’s Republic of China was.  He couldn’t exactly ignore the state-sponsored hacking his own officials had publicly identified that morning, but the language was as weak as he thought he could get away, and (so it seemed) it wasn’t as if such things should be allowed to get in the way of such a good relationships with (we were left to assume) such fundamentally decent people.   Never mind that it involved the PRC going directly against commitments they themselves had given at APEC (and in places like the G20 and in bilateral statements to the Australia, US, and British governments).   Never mind that it is another example of the PRC’s pattern of behaviour on so many fronts (including, for example, around the militarisation of the South China Sea).  It didn’t seem to greatly bother the only senior minister willing to comment at all.

Media accounts suggest that the PRC was informed in advance that the GCSB statement was coming.  That might be courteous and reasonable, but there was no hint of any follow up: of, for example, the government calling in the PRC’s Ambassador in New Zealand and lodging an official statement of protest.  And not a word at all from the Prime Minister –  or, it appears, from the Leader of Opposition, or the Opposition’s foreign affairs spokesmand Todd (“vocational training centres”) McClay.   No doubt, they all just hope the issue goes away as quickly and quietly as possible.

You are left wondering what sort of people –  people who purport to be leaders –  want the sort of good relationship (that our Minister of Justice and minister responsible for the GCSB spoke of) with the Chinese Communist Party rulers of the PRC.    They are, for now, a fact of life, but they perpetrate one evil after another –  and have done for almost 70 years now.  Even close to home, they intimidate members of the ethnic Chinese community in New Zealand, they exert control over most of the Chinese language media in New Zealand, and they physically intimidate a rare local academic willing to stand up and speak out.  All stuff the government and Opposition just don’t seem to want to know about, and wish it would just go away.   They, after all, have donations to collect, PRC-affiliated people to honour.  As for the nature of the PRC regime at home in China, or abroad elsewhere, there is almost nothing to their credit –  they are, to all intents and purposes, at least as evil in our day (and with a longer track record) than the Nazi rulers of Germany in the late 1930s.  Tens of millions have died already, a million Uighurs are today in concentration camps, the surveillance state grows ever more intrusive, churches are suppressed, (Canadians are abducted – the only word for it) and political liberty is non-existent.  And yet Jacinda Ardern, Andrew Little, Simon Bridges, Todd McClay and the rest value their relationship.  MPs and official turn up in numbers to their functions (eg this recent celebration of Belt and Road).  Decent people should be ashamed to associate with the regime on anything but the most distant and formal terms.  But not, it appears, our officeholders.

In fact, they have the bare-faced cheek to use our taxes to run a propaganda outfit promoting the Beijing relationship, and constantly minimising any questionable stuff Beijing does.     The China Council –  with its galaxy of prominent names, including former leading politicians, current senior officials, and business people who sup with the devil (without, it appears, a long spoon) –  only a few weeks ago was out lamenting the GCSB’s Hauwei decision.  It regularly laments any real debate about the PRC and openly states its role as shaping public opinion to see the world their way.     Perhaps not surprisingly there was not a word from them yesterday about the commercial cyber-espionage assessment.   (But there was a newsletter reminding readers of the gala dinner (their description) they had hosted for the new PRC Ambassador earlier in the year: she might be the representative of this hostile power, this rogue state –  that is effectively what the GCSB statement says –  but they put themselves –  at our expense –   in tributary mode.)  Isn’t it past time that the China Council was defunded?    If the people involved still want to champion Beijing, defend its excesses, and trample across New Zealand values and traditions, surely they can stump up their own money to do so.

The Herald’s coverage in the last 24 hours did include some rather interesting comments from Charles Finny.     Finny is a former diplomat and is now a lobbyist

a partner in Wellington lobbying firm Saunders Unsworth, which has represented Huawei in New Zealand. He is also chair of Education New Zealand, the government agency responsible for international education and marketing, with China the largest single catchment for foreign students studying in New Zealand.

He is also on the Board of the supine academic Contemporary China Research Centre.

But he does from time to time come out with interesting, and honest, comments.  Readers may recall last year that when the establishment was closing ranks behind Jian Yang –  perhaps the easiest to relate to concrete measure of how they shame us, and pay deference to Beijing –  Charles Finny went on TVNZ’s Q&A programme, and noted that while he both knew and liked Jian Yang, had no problem with him being in Parliament but that he knew he was close to the PRC Embassy and was always careful what he said around him (or Labour MP Raymond Huo).  Out of his own mouth….

Yesterday’s comments were to suggest that

New Zealand’s relationship with China is rapidly deteriorating as the country is swept up in what long-time trade and foreign policy adviser Charles Finny describes as a “new Cold War”

If it is indeed “rapidly deteriorating” that is not necessarily a bad thing (although it could be consequential), but whether it is or not, Finny’s comment seem a lot more honest an assessment than anything we ever get from the propaganda shop –  the China Council – itself.  In the article, Finny comes across as suggesting that it is the fault of the West if relationships are deteriorating, but it wasn’t clear to me whether he was really attempting to assign blame, or just recognising that when governments –  including ours –  make even a modicum of an effort to push back against PRC abuses (and our government is so feeble it won’t even speak up about Xinjiang –  far away –  or in support of Anne-Marie Brady, close to home), the bully boys in Beijing will take it amiss.  As bullies do, in the school yard or wherever.  Craven subservience is fine, anything else threatening.    In what sort of world does anyone  –  with anything other than dollars in mind –  think we should ignore the endless overstepping by the regime?

(Finny also pushes back against the government narrative that everything is just fine about (a) the Prime Minister’s desired visit to Beijing, and (b) the fact the PM had not seen in advance the Winston Peters speech last weekend.)

Do our politicians stand for anything, other than deals and donations?  It isn’t clear that they do.   They walk by evil and seem to want to pretend they have no realistic choice.  In the process, they dishonour us, and the values that underpin this society.  And they give aid and comfort to the CCP agenda.

Standing back a bit, for anyone interested in a nice piece of analysis of the PRC influence activities globally, but with many references to New Zealand, I’d encourage you to read the latest article and analysis by the independent China researcher who writes under the pseudonym Jichang Lulu and a co-author.   They conclude writing about the recent open letter from 300 overseas academics and others, addressed to the Prime Minister (and which she has not addressed, or done anything to allay the concerns that motivated it) in support of Anne-Marie Brady.

The CCP’s effort to coerce analysts into silence greatly concerns the China specialist community, judging by the unexpected number of signatures the letter attracted. These concerns are hardly conjectural. A signatory, Feng Chongyi of the University of Technology Sydney, was detained and interrogated for ten days in Guangzhou in 2017. The Swedish NGO worker Peter Dahlin, who also signed, was detained in China 2016 and only released after a staged confession. Colleagues who expressed support for the contents of the letter chose not to sign, fearing, in one case, being refused a visa and, in another, being taken hostage in retaliation for the recent arrest in Canada of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟).

Beyond solidarity with a fellow researcher and interest in New Zealand’s democracy, the extent to which the appeal has resonated within the Chinese studies community points to global concerns over Xi’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the cooptive and coercive modes of its projection abroad.

But Andrew Little values his very good relationship with these thugs.