John McKinnon is a quintessential New Zealand establishment figure. He fairly recently returned from a second stint as New Zealand’s Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, and between those two stints he was first Secretary of Defence for several years and then head of another of those taxpayer-funded influence organisations, the Asia New Zealand Foundation. And that is not to speak of the extensive family connections, including his brother, the former Deputy Prime Mininster, former Commonwealth Secretary-General, and current chair of the (largely) taxpayer-funded New Zealand China Council.
Having relatively recently retired, McKinnon is now free to speak more openly than during his official career.
On Saturday, McKinnon was interviewed on Newshub Nation about the relationship between the New Zealand government and the authorities of the People’s Republic of China. It was fairly soft interview – so he was never put on the defensive – and the former ambassador was fluent and endlessly emollient. In many ways, it was quite impressive. MFAT will have appreciated it, as will senior figures in both government and opposition. He did far better in spinning a quasi-official line than either the Prime Minister or the Minister of Foreign Affairs could have done. The Executive Director of the China Council was particularly impressed
And to many, what McKinnon had to say probably sounded quite plausible. He has an impressive way with words, sounding very calming without actually saying much. Thus, we shouldn’t read “too much” into the long-delayed visit for the Prime Minister to Beijing, but presumably it is okay to read something into it. “It will happen” we were told, but “not necessarily soon”.
The relationship was not, in his words, “in trouble” but “changes are afoot, in China, in New Zealand and in the world”. “Navigating the relationship” has become “more difficult, more complex”. There was the occasional reference to our “very different” political and social systems, but it wasn’t clear that Mr McKinnon thought these differences should make any difference to the relationship. There had been, we were told, lots of conversations in private about things like the South China Sea and it was, on his telling, “helpful” (to whom, for what) to have these “private diplomatic exchanges”. Treating the PRC – arch-abuser of human rights, military expansionists of this century – as some sort of normal country, we were told that New Zealand ‘respects’ PRC concerns, even if we don’t always agree. Which sounds good I suppose until one remembers what sort of concerns they have – taking Taiwan, imprisoning a million people in Xinjiang, systematic denial of political or religious freedom, claims that overseas ethnic Chinese have obligations to Beijing, state-sponsored intellectual property theft, and so on. (Why, if they were serious about an open and reciprocal relationship, the PRC might even have condemned their former national and former intelligence official, Jian Yang, for bringing the good name of the PRC into disrepute by misrepresenting his past on his immigration/citizenship forms.)
And so the emollience went on. It was good that David Parker had been invited to, and would attend, next month’s Belt and Road Forum – this PRC geostrategic initiative, that seems to have contributed to the intensified repression in Xinjiang. Good for what one could wonder, except perhaps to reinforce the message last month when the Prime Minister made obeisance to Madame Wu. Don’t worry, we’ll come quietly.
What of the sought-after upgrade to the preferential trade agreeement with the PRC? It was not, the former ambassador thought, “at risk” but was “challenging” – which does have the feel of reframing and re-expressing much the same thought. It was, he accepted, harder than in 2008.
And the interview ended on an upbeat note. We might have a very different background and history but the PRC could quite reasonably claim to have (the old line) lifted more people out of poverty than any other society in history. Which isn’t much claim to fame when (a) you are the biggest country (population) in world history, (b) you immiserated your people (indifferently allowing tens of millions to die) for the first thirty years of your regime, and (c) even now, the material living standards of your people languish far behind the leading east Asian economies (including the one facing a constant military threat from you). McKinnon did note that, of course, human rights matter. In what sense – given the rest of the interview – wasn’t clear.
Between interviewer and interviewee it was in many ways an impressive performance. Had many people been watching, who were not familiar with the story beyond recent headlines, it would probably have served the cause of emollience – go back to sleep, nothing to worry about here. As it is, I suspect it mostly had value for making those who’ve already thrown in their lot with the “never ever upset Beijing” line feel a bit better on a Saturday morning. Thus Jacobi’s praise.
In a sense, you can’t blame McKinnon too much. He’s been a career diplomat, and if he had some hand in shaping the New Zealand government’s approach to the PRC over the years, mostly he has been sent abroad to do the bidding of successive governments. MFAT might be a problem, but responsibility ultimately rests with successive governments. McKinnon on Saturday was about as on-message as he no doubt was throughout his stellar career. And you can’t really expect him to answer questions he wasn’t asked: not only was there nothing about Taiwan or Xinjiang (“don’t you find shaming, Mr McKinnon, to serve governments that keep quiet in face of such evil?), let alone the PRC activities closer to home, or Messrs Jian Yang and Raymond Huo. That will have suited the government and officialdom. But McKinnon is still evidently very much with the programme. I don’t suppose political party donations are his focus, but trade will have been….and other stuff only to the extent it couldn’t be avoided. Perhaps when his older brother retires he’ll be considered as next chair of the China Council?
The bottom line for now is that there doesn’t seen to be any material disruption to trade or related matters. If PRC student numbers and residence visa numbers are down, that has been underway for some time, and most likely not related at all to the recent heightened “complexities” in navigating the relationship. That’s mostly good of course, and yet the great flurry of concern last month – led from the craven National Party side – was a reminder of how readily New Zealand governments seem able to be brought to heel, at the merest hint of a fluttering of the feathers. That is more concerning.
The interview with McKinnon reminded me of a speech he had given late last year, after he had retired, to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs. I meant to write about it at the time, but one thing succeeded another and I’d never got round to it.
The speech is worth reading. It is interesting, and much the most impressive example of its genre (New Zealand establishment re the PRC) I’ve read. Rereading it today over lunch I was struck by that same effortless emollience we’d seen in Saturday’s interview. He is very skilled, and still very much the bureaucrat – he’s retired now, but it was hard to see anything in the speech that he might not have said as Ambassador in Beijing. And so much skill was devoted to minimising, time after time, the evil of the regime in Beijing and its representatives and champions.
Predictably, the New Zealander Rewi Alley who lived in Beijing for decades under the PRC and wrote propaganda defending its evil gets a positive mention. Any possible “unfair exploitation of the multilaterial trading system” is “beside the point”. If there is any worry in New Zealand about what Beijing gets up to here, well that seems to be of concern mostly for making life tougher for bureaucrats and politicians (“making for a more complex China policy making environment than we have had hitherto in this country”). Endlessly understanding too, passing on the message that Beijing “would be troubled” if any measures singled it out – that suggestion again, that the PRC is just another normal state. The elevation of Xi Jinping Thought wasn’t a concern, but a sign that “China can evolve”, and while he couldn’t exactly bring himself to praise the decision to remove the term limits for the PRC presidency, he wouldn’t criticise it either, and noted that it did have the upside of aligning the state rules with those for the Party. He’s good is McKinnon.
He goes on to note that the PRC is now “an internationalised society, where information abounds”. Just so far as that is information the Party wants people to have, but a shame that the blocks on various social media platforms, major foreign media websites, let alone the re-intensified censorship of domestic opinion didn’t get a mention. “Arbitrary actions by the state” might look odd to New Zealanders but, he tells us, we have to understand what China has gone through. The other side of the civil war eventually turned itself into a robust prosperous democracy, but even in retirement McKinnon couldn’t acknowledge the relevance of that.
What of suggestions of PRC interference (“a very contentious debate”) in other countries, and with ethnic Chinese abroad? Well, none of this should be at all surprising we are told (apparently because a few overseas resident Chinese many decades ago had previously played a role in developments back in China), and shouldn’t (it seems) be troubling to us (or, presumably, the ethnic Chinese, citizens of other countries, on whom the pressure is put). On that sort of logic, presumably it would be just fine for New Zealand to be seeking to interfere in the domestic politics of the UK – look at the difference those Brits made here.
As for New Zealand
I have more confidence than some that in New Zealand [I don’t presume to speak for other countries] we have the wherewithal in terms of our law, practices and values to respond if we need to, and to deal constructively with both allegations and facts of interference, whatever country they come from, and so far as China is concerned, in a manner which is in accord with the mutual respect that subsists between us.
But Jian Yang is still in our Parliament, not (at least in public) something that seems to bother either main political party. Raymond Huo does still chair the Justice Committee and the electoral inquiry. Wealthy business people, with close ties to Beijing, secure royal honours, in effect for services to Beijing. The Chinese language media is largely controlled from Beijing. Ethnic Chinese here comment on the climate of fear many face if they speak up at all. But the former Ambassador is confidence there is nothing to worry about. After all, their government respects us (yeah right) and our governments respect them (well, do the kowtow).
And still it goes on. There is a recognition that New Zealand and China disagree on the South China Sea (although has our current PM ever stated a substantive view on that?) but then the construction and militarisation of artificial island is itself relativised with the totally irrelevant observation that (good guys like) “the Dutch are past masters at it”. Antarctica? Anne-Marie Brady has written extensively about PRC interests in polar regions, and some of the threats that poses. For the former Ambassador, just a case of “China is now more present in …Antarctica than it was 10 or 20 years ago”.
New Zealand apparently has little interest in such issues as theft of intellectual property, subsidisation of SOEs, access to the Chinese market for services exporters – someone else’s problem apparently. Meanwhile, in perhaps the most obeisant quote in the speech there was this
New Zealand, as a country which invests in and benefits from the international rule of law, has expectations of China, as it does of other great powers. That they will comport themselves appropriately, especially towards those who have less power than themselves. That is the true mark of greatness. It is pleasing to see how China has responded to these expectations
Unbelievable. The same state that only two months later our own intelligence services would accuse, in a joint effort with other countries, of state-sponsored intellectual property theft. Most observers believe the recent cyber attacks on Australian political parties and the Parliament was directed from, and for, Beijing. One could go on of course. Some “marks of greatness”.
Relativising to the end, we are told it is important to realise how different we are
China is of course very different from New Zealand… It is important to realise this, as without this understanding we can be blindsided by aspects of China, especially in areas such as the definition and protection of human rights and the like, where our values are very far apart, and where we see or hear of developments in China which are at odds with those of our own.
It isn’t as if Chinese people want repression, abhor democracy, regard the rule of law of law as some irrelevant concept, and have no interest in speaking up and speaking out. The big differences that count aren’t those between New Zealanders and Chinese citizens, but between New Zealanders, decent people of all races and ethnicities, and the PRC Party/state. It is as if the retired Ambassador is invoking some quaint trope about the inscrutable oriential, rather than just playing defence for a near-totalitarian evil regime, lest any concerns threaten the flow of dollars (deals and donations).
McKinnon ends noting it doesn’t matter how much we agree (actually, it usually does – decent enduring relationships, between individuals and states, are usually based on a set of shared values) but on how much “mutual respect” and “mutual benefit” there is. Ambassador McKinnon can respect the butchers of Beijing – this 60th anniversary year of the suppression of the Tibet rebellion, 40th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, 70th anniversary of the regime itself – but I suspect few New Zealanders would choose to do so.
I’m a retired bureaucrat myself, so I can admire the technical skill of a well-honed, nicely rounded, piece of bureaucrat-speech: it is fluent, apparently thoughtful, and emollient. And yet in a cause that decent people really shouldn’t be championing and defending. You can – as McKinnon does – seek to relativise and minimise almost anything, but to what end? Other than keeping the deals and donations going.
Late last year, I ran this extract from a speech by the (soon to be former) Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison
Our foreign policy defines what we believe about the world and our place in it.
It must speak of our character, our values. What we stand for. What we believe in and, if need be, what we’ll defend. This is what guides our national interest.
I fear foreign policy these days is too often being assessed through a narrow transactional lens. Taking an overly transactional approach to foreign policy and how we define our national interests sells us short.
If we allow such an approach to compromise our beliefs, we let ourselves down, and we stop speaking with an Australian voice.
We are more than the sum of our deals. We are better than that.
Wouldn’t it be great if our politicians really acted as if they believe that, especially in their dealings with the PRC. And found a new crop of officials at MFAT who would effectively implement such a policy.