Interviewed on Radio New Zealand this morning, the Prime Minister conceded that there were “challenges and complexities” in the government’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Fearful, and seemingly out of her depth, she wouldn’t or couldn’t identify any of those “challenges and complexities”. And yet she is criticised for not doing enough to keep in Beijing’s good graces by the person in New Zealand politics with an even worse record on PRC issues – Simon Bridges, leader of the National Party.
I don’t have anything much to say about the Air New Zealand story, or any particular reason to doubt the slowly-emerging explanation (which itself seems to have a PRC-coercion dimension, dating back to last year’s PRC insistence that airlines not suggest that Taiwan – an independent democratic country – was in fact or in any way not part of the PRC). It is just that were the true story to have been more worrying, it isn’t clear that Air New Zealand would have much incentive to be straight with customers or the public: they have an ongoing business to run and Beijing relations to keep smooth (and, of course, the chief executive is the chair of the PM’s Business Advisory Council). But perhaps leaks from within Air New Zealand would mean the truth still got out?
Diplomatic links with China appear to have plummeted to a new low as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is given the cold shoulder by Beijing and a major tourism promotion is postponed by the superpower.
Of the visit to Beijing, we learned this yesterday
Ardern confirmed she had an invitation from the Chinese administration to meet President Xi Jinping, but the problem was finding a suitable date. She was meant to meet with the President at the end of last year.
She wouldn’t say whether or not she was confident the meeting would take place this year.
In other words, she isn’t confident it will happen at all. What is hard to understand is why any self-respecting person would put themselves through this rigmarole? Abasement before the emperor, and all for the sake of a few New Zealand businesses (often taxpayer subsidised ones) that have got themselves too exposed to a country with a noxious regime. She keeps telling us we are an independent sovereign state, not some tributary regime. Why can’t she just politely walk away (and get some aide to make her a note of how constructive and useful – enhancing to their reputations – foreign leaders meetings with Adolf Hitler were). Perhaps late last year the “scheduling” excuse – “we all have busy calendars” – might have washed with some. It clearly doesn’t now. And that shouldn’t worry New Zealanders. It shouldn’t be a cause for reproach from an Opposition leader who (a) has never distanced himself from his foreign affairs spokesperson’s defence of the PRC concentration camps in Xinjiang, and (b) who retains in his caucus, and expresses support for, a Chinese Communist Party member and former PLA intelligence official, and who (c) is understood to rely on that member as one of his largest party fundraisers. That is where the focus should be, not on selling our souls for a meeting with Xi Jinping.
And then there is the year of the Chinese tourist,
The 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism was meant to be launched with great fanfare at Wellington’s Te Papa museum next week, but that has been postponed by China.
Industry people and regime-sycophants had been very keen on this exercise. The Contemporary China Research Centre – funded partly MFAT, chaired by a New Zealander with a significant role in the global Confucius Institute movement – was even hosting a conference on it late last year. But this isn’t some sort of normal country. What Beijing giveth, Beijing can also take away. We are told
Richard Davies, manager of tourism policy at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, said: “China has advised that this event has had to be postponed due to changes of schedule on the Chinese side.”
Officials are now working with China to reschedule the opening.
Believe all that and you’ll believe anything. But the Prime Minister claimed to believe it, telling her RNZ interviewer that she could only go on what she’d been told, and she’d been told there was a scheduling problem. I’m sure she doesn’t really believe it, but why can’t she come straight with the New Zealand public? She is supposed to serve us, not a small group of business interests. Better to take explicit credit for a slightly more distant relationship with one of the most appalling regimes on the planet. Especially if all that talk about kindness and empathy means anything at all. But she won’t do that – won’t square with the public about the nature of the regime she (and his predecessors) have been pandering too, all no doubt on official advice.
You got a sense of the sort of business sector pressure she seems to be under in how she responded to the interviewer’s questions about Huawei. Much as the China-oriented bits of the business community – and the China Council – must hate it, almost everything that has emerged on Huawei in the last couple of months only confirms how unwise any decent and self-respecting country would be to allow Hauwei equipment to play a key role in 5G networks. And yet the Prime Minister seemed to interpret the question as a suggestion that we should back down and just let Hauwei – and the PRC state – do its thing. ‘If we did that could we really say we had an independent foreign policy?” was the gist of her response.
Barry Soper seems to be championing some of that sort of “never mind national security, never mind self-respect, never mind the advice of longstanding friends and allies, lets never ever upset Beijing” line. It was clear in his selection of people to quote from in his article. There was this, apparently on Huawei
Asset management and corporate adviser David Mahon, based in Beijing, said governments needed to get over thwarting Chinese economic aims in a way reminiscent of the Cold War struggle between capitalism and communism. “It’s unhelpful for politicians and a few anti-Chinese professors to feed uncorroborated McCarthyite conspiracies about Chinese spy networks in their countries and targeting anyone who doesn’t share their view,” Mahon said.
Just lie back and let Beijing have its way seems to be Mahon’s perspective. That isn’t how self-respecting people, or nations, act. But perhaps if you are just desperate for the next deal none of that stuff matters?
And then there was more melodramatic stuff from Philip Burdon, until recently chair of the taxpayer-funded PR outfit the Asia New Zealand Foundation, and of course a longserving senior National Party figure.
Philip Burdon,….said New Zealand couldn’t afford to take sides.
“We clearly need to commit ourselves to the cause of trade liberalisation and the integration of the global economy while respectfully and realistically acknowledging China’s entitlement to a comprehensive and responsible strategic and economic engagement in the region,” he said.
Sources in Beijing say China plans trade retaliation…..
Two-way trade with China trebled over the past decade to $27 billion. “The implications for New Zealand are dangerous at every level,” Burdon said.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the PRC seriously committed itself to the practice of liberalisation? Doesn’t seem likely. And “respectfully acknowledge their entitlement”? Like true vassals?
But what’s with this “can’t afford to take sides” business? It has been a convenient framing for some time, as if we are asked to choose between the US and the PRC. Even if that were the choice, the United States (for all its faults) remains much more in tune with the values and attitudes of New Zealanders than the lawless regime in Beijing does. But, of course, the choice isn’t really between the US and the PRC, but between the PRC and New Zealand, or even (charitably) the interests of a small number of New Zealand businesses (and parties reliant on donations) and New Zealand as a whole. Given that choice, we can’t afford our governments not to take sides, not to back New Zealand and its values and long-term interests. That includes defending the integrity of our political system, defending the freedoms of ethnic Chinese New Zealanders (whose media and community associations seem to have been largely taken over by Beijing-affiliated groups), and being the sort of nation that stands up internationally for the sort of behaviour – treatment of other people – we expect.
There is more from Philip Burdon in Barry Soper’s op-ed
We can’t afford to let this diplomatic tightrope slacken and that’s most certainly the view of a Peters confidante, former Trade Minister in the Bolger Government and recently the chair of Asia 2000 Phillip Burdon.
The mushroom magnate says China has constructively sought to engage with New Zealand for which we should be grateful.
It’s utterly ridiculous, Burdon contends, that China has sinister plans to subvert and interfere in our society or in our democratic institutions.
Ah, it is a debt of gratitude – perhaps serviced with periodic offerings of tribute – that we owe to Beijing, at least according to Burdon, for all that “constructive engagement”. What exactly was that?
As for Burdon’s final sentence, one presumes he is so far down the track of abandoning all sense of self-respect that the presence of a former PLA intelligence official, who hob-nobs with the embassy and never ever says anything critical of Beijing just doesn’t bother Philip Burdon. There are deals I guess, and never mind the integrity of our system. Perhaps it doesn’t bother him that Parliament’s justice committee is chaired by someone with close ties to various United Front institutions? It should. It isn’t necessarily that Beijing “has” sinister plans – as if this is something in the future. The very fact that Jian Yang in particular still sits in Parliament, challenged by no one in the entire political spectrum tells you that, by accident or design, those visions have already been coming to pass. Or when neither the Prime Minister nor the Opposition leader will make a clear stand in defence of Anne-Marie Brady and her work.
I’m sure Beijing has no interest in toppling our formal institutions. Why would they when those institutions have rotted from the inside. I guess he too wants us to believe that only a “few anti-Chinese professors” are at all bothered.
All of which brings us back to the opening line of Barry Soper’s op-ed
New Zealand is feeling the heat of the Chinese dragon’s breath and if we’re not careful it could incinerate us.
Which is simply nonsense. As an economy, we have much more to worry about from a sharp Chinese economic slowdown – which may be underway already – than from any sorts of specific attempts at economic coercion of New Zealand. The PRC is a big country, and in a world with few buffers a recession there could matter a lot everywhere. As for New Zealand, the PRC certainly has some capacity to harm some specific sectors, perhaps even quite severely. I wouldn’t want to be a university vice-chancellor if the PRC decides to attempt to bring the government to heel. Then again, I don’t have any sympathy with those people, who have put themselves at the mercy of a known thug, all backed by dodgy immigration provisions, rather than looking to manage their exposures (as prudent businesses, unable to twist governments to their purposes, would). I have some more sympathy for tourism operators – who mostly are operating in an open market. As for commodity exporters, well they are selling commodities and (to a first approximation) what isn’t sold in the PRC will be sold somewhere else. Sometimes values and interests cost – in many ways, the only true measure of what is valuable is the price one is willing to pay to defend it. Too many of these Beijing defenders don’t seem to have any particular interest in defending our system, our people – let alone standing against the sheer awfulness of the PRC regime at home and abroad.
We can’t fix the PRC gross human rights abuses. I’m not even suggesting we should be at the forefront of moves on those issues. But when other countries speak and our governments don’t, they shame us. Neither our Prime Minister nor our Opposition leader will utter a word about (for example) Xinjiang, or about the abducted Canadians, even when other countries have – otherwise reprehensible Turkey only this week in a strong statement on Xinjiang. Life – politics – has to be more than just deals and donations if it is to have any meaning, command any respect. Frankly, it is hard to tell at present which side of politics is worse on this issue, but on balance I’d have to give it to National – whose only interest in all of this, in anything they say in public, seems to be placating Beijing. In office there are hard choices and calls to make – even if that is still no excuse for not openly engaging on the “challenges and complexities”. In Opposition one might have hoped, just occasionally, for a slightly more principled position. But I guess their actions, their people, their words reveal what their “principles” really are in this area.