I’ve been quite critical of the New Zealand China Council, which uses taxpayer money to champion an emollient, in effect subservient, relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Doing so, of course, serves the business interests of the other corporate and academic members of the Council. Whatever the intent, I’ve argued that their approach serves the interests of the PRC, one of the most awful regimes on the planet.
As part of that I’ve noted that it has been hard to find any examples of a case where the China Council has ever said anything critical of the PRC. They will benignly note, in principle, that our systems differ, our interests differ, but will never articulate specific areas where they are critical of the PRC stance on anything, whether directly affecting New Zealand or otherwise.
And so it is only fair for me to draw attention to a welcome, if somewhat surprising, exception.
A couple of days ago a group of US foreign policy experts issued a joint statement calling for the immediate release by the PRC of Michael Kovrig.
You may recall that Kovrig is the Canadian former diplomat who was detained in China just before Christmas, apparently as “retaliation” over the detention and extradition proceeedings against the Huawei CFO in Canada. No charges have been laid, and Kovrig is being held without access to a lawyer and with little consular access either. It looks a lot like a state-sponsored abduction, presumably intended both to intimidate foreigners more generally, and perhaps as some sort of “bargaining chip”.
Late yesterday, I noticed that that tweet (above) had been retweeted by Stephen Jacobi, the Executive Director of the New Zealand China Council, with this comment added.
Not only does he associate himself with the call by the US foreign policy experts, but he goes further, adding an unequivocal call also for the release of Michael Spavor, the second abducted Canadian.
Sure, this message isn’t being sent out on the China Council’s own Twitter account, but when you are the chief executive of a body, writing about areas closely related to your employer’s interests, no one is going perceive very much difference. The Executive Director of the China Council, their high profile public spokesman, has made a public statement that can only be read as unequivocally critical of actions of the PRC. There might be some price to pay – perhaps a certain barely-detectible frostiness when next he encounters the PRC Consul-General? – but he did it anyway.
For a picture of what sort of detention Kovrig and Spavor are undergoing, you might want to read this article from someone who was subjected to the same treatment:
The law in China allows for these disappearances. Yes, as reported, Michael’s whereabouts are being kept secret. Yes, he will not be given access to a lawyer. But more so, even China’s prosecutor, who is supposed to monitor these secret detentions, will be denied the right to visit him. In a database that the NGO Safeguard Defenders keep, for which I’m the director, we have never come across a single case where the prosecutor has visited, even though it’s prescribed in law that they should.
Mr. Kovrig, and Mr. Spavor, and future American and European victims can, without any court order, be kept incommunicado, in solitary confinement, for six months. Actually, solitary confinement is only half true – he will have two guards sitting inside his cell 24/7, working in six-hour shifts. These guards, most of whom are civilian-dressed trainees for the Ministry of State Security, will not be allowed to speak to him, but will take notes on his every single movement. They will also stare him down as he uses the toilet, or when he is (rarely) allowed to shower.
Numerous foreign governments (including all our Five Eyes partners) have weighed in in support of Canada and the detained Canadians. But not New Zealand.
I wrote about the contemptible silence of our government a couple of months ago
Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters head the New Zealand roll of shame on this issue, since they are the most senior figures in the current government. But the shame isn’t just theirs. There is no sign of anything from Simon Bridges, Paula Bennett (perhaps both rather keen on those donations Yikun Zhang was arranging?), or Todd (“vocational training centres in Xinjiang) McClay. Nothing from the Green Party or ACT leaders. Nothing from the Minister of Justice (rule of law and all that). And of course nothing from our PRC-born and educated MPs. In a decent society, they’d be at the forefront of condemning the abuses in the land of their birth. In our society, it seems to be just fine that they keep very very quiet – a silence that suits Beijing – and help ensure that the donations keep flowing. Perhaps a journalist might consider asking Raymond Huo his opinion on the abduction of the Canadians. He was, after all, formerly a lawyer with a leading local law firm, and now he chairs the Justice select committee in Parliament. You’d hope the rule of law meant a lot to him. But, like his bosses, deferrring to Beijing, and never ever upsetting the murderous rogue state, appears to matter more than the rule of law, or standing by our friends and allies when they (almost inadvertently in Canada’s case) incur the wrath of a tyrant.
By their utter silence, on this as on so many other PRC issues, our MPs and ministers dishonour this country and its people. Cowering in a corner, deferring to Beijing, is simply unbecoming people who purport to lead a free and independent country.
But credit where it is due. Well done Stephen Jacobi. On this, an example to others.