I’m sure many, perhaps even most, of those who purport to be “leaders” in New Zealand are at some level decent people. Mostly, they probably love their spouses, hope for the best for their kids, and at some private level many probably conduct themselves according to some sort of values and morality the rest of us might recognise.
But I’ve increasingly come to doubt that many (if any) in their public roles care for anything much at all beyond deals, donations, keeping their job, and perhaps the sugar-high of costlessly cheering on popular causes. If the only true measure of the values of a (purported) leader is what they are willing to pay a price, or incur a cost, for, there aren’t many other values on display at all.
There is a myriad of issues which could be used to illustrate my point: in the economic sphere one could point to the utter failure to deal with the regulatory disaster that puts home-ownership out of the reach of so many (at a time when it should – global low real and nominal interest rates – be more readily achievable than ever), or the indifference and lets-pretend approach taken to the decades-long disaster that is the New Zealand productivity performance. How does almost anyone who has been in elected government over the last 25 years not hang their head in shame?
But the issue that finally crystallised my own total disillusionment with “leaders” in New Zealand is the obsequious, deferential, cowardly, values-free approach taken to the People’s Republic of China, which continues to deepen even as the regime’s excesses, including attempts to exert influence in New Zealand, become more apparent and better known. Perhaps – not really though, these were the butchers of Tiananmen – there were excuses 15 years ago (all those somewhat-deluded dreams of the PRC evolving towards (semi-free) Singapore). But even if there were excuses then, there are none now. It is hard to think of a single dimension on which the CCP-controlled PRC operates according to the sorts of values, practices and precepts which New Zealanders have typically sought to live by, and which New Zealand has been willing to fight for. No rule of law, no freedom of speech, no political freedom, no religious freedom, mass incarceration of minorities who fall foul of the regime, kidnapping of law-abiding foreigners, sustained and intensifying threats to a free and democratic neighbour, claims to the loyalties of ethnic Chinese in other countries (regardless of citizenship), wholesale state-sponsored intellectual property theft, attempts to shutdown critics in other countries, and so on. There is mounting evidence of the aggressive activities of the regime in New Zealand and countries like ours.
And yet our leaders – political, business, religious or whatever – almost without exception say nothing, ever. And do nothing either, other than continue to pander, to ask only “how high?” when the regime suggests that jumping might be a good idea. Deals, donations, customers I guess. Never mind any sort of morality, any sort of decency. Any meaningful values.
We’ve seen it on display this week, in two cases that directly involve the activities of the PRC embassy and its consulates in New Zealand. First, there was the AUT case, in which the Vice-Chancellor and his senior management rushed around madly trying to assuage the hurt feelings of the PRC, ensuring that a booking for a meeting to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tainanmen Square massacre (“incident” as the AUT senior managers descrived it) was cancelled. They can play diversion all they want, talking of how the building wouldn’t have been open on a public holiday anyway, but everyone recognises how thin that excuse is, when we see the Vice-Chancellor of a New Zealand university writing to the consulate
“Happily, on this instance your concerns and ours coincided, and the event did not proceed at the university,”
“Happily”? The man seems to have no decency at all when dollars might be at stake. It reads and sounds a lot like the only value left in his university – well, our university actually – is the dollars. Not truth, not freedom of expression, nothing of the sort (those reminders occasionally of a statutory role of universities to be “critic and conscience of society” – not something I’d look to overwhelmingly left-wing institutions for, but let that be for now), just dollars.
There has been some blowback against McCormack and his managers. I was left wondering how different any other New Zealand university Vice-Chancellor would have been – perhaps some would have phrased things a bit more neutrally, or even avoided writing things down (the OIA and all that), but they seem as bad as each other. Have you heard a senior New Zealand academic figure ever criticise the PRC, including for the intensifying restrictions on the “freedoms” of academics in the PRC. I haven’t. None of them came out this week and distanced themselves from AUT.
But what was really striking was how feeble the political response was. Only David Seymour seemed to care enough to speak. Not a single National Party MP was heard to comment. And the Minister of Education was reduced to mouthing a few cliched points and then spluttering about how important the relationship with the PRC was. We didn’t see the China Council – who often tells us how important New Zealand values are to them (but never tell us which ones) – saying that this sort of conduct – from the Consulate, but particularly from the university – stepped over the mark, or suggesting that – in the face of the PRC refusal to acknowledge what went on in 1989, and to offer any contrition – in a free society we should encourage efforts to remember and draw attention to what Beijing did. “Friends” and “partners” in Beijing seem more important to all of them: “friends” was what National called the CCP/PRC in their international affairs document just a few months ago, “partners” seems to be what successive governments call these tyrants (just last month the current government signed up to a defence cooperation agreement with them).
That episode was bad. But the real low point of the week was the open effort by the PRC embassy/consulate to laud those students who sought to disrupt a peaceful protest at the University of Auckland – a foreign embassy cheering on lawlessness in New Zealand. As the Herald reported the initial events
The university launched a formal investigation after three Chinese men were filmed clashing on campus with protesters who were against a controversial extradition bill.
A woman was pushed to the ground by one of the men, and the police are now seeking the identities of those involved in the incident.
The PRC consulate statement is here.
The Consulate General expresses its appreciation to the students for their spontaneous patriotism, and opposes any form of secessionism. We strongly condemn those engaged in activities of demonizing the images of China and HKSAR government, inciting anti-China sentiment and confrontation between mainland and Hong Kong students, through distorting the factual situation in Hong Kong under the pretext of so-called freedom of expression.
As far as I can tell, of our entire Parliament and our entire “establishment” more generally, again only David Seymour was moved to comment. About a flagrant intervention by a foreign embassy into the internal affairs of New Zealanders, encouraging and celebrating lawlessness. Even for the China Council, or the National Party, or the budding National Party candidate currently running Air New Zealand, perhaps this might have been a step too far. Or what about the group of university vice-chancellors collectively? The best proof that you actually have limits – values, self-respect etc – is when you demonstrate it, by calling out an egregious breach of acceptable standards. This was surely one of those, to anyone of any decency. Does Don McKinnon – chair of the China Council – really regard this as acceptable conduct? And if not – and surely he doesn’t really – why won’t he say so? China Council Executive Director Stephen Jacobi seems to be a decent chap personally – occasionally, he even gets let off the leash and has made the odd mildly critical comment on his personal Twitter account. He objected strongly a couple of weeks ago when I suggested that the China Council functioned to provide cover for the CCP, writing to (cc’ed to one of his Advisory Board members) in a Twitter exchange
“Say what you like but associating the NZ China Council with the CPC is really rather silly.”
Wouldn’t this episode have been an ideal opportunity for him and the China Council to have demonstrated that there are limits, that there is such a thing as unacceptable activities by the PRC Embassy in New Zealand (who they mostly champion and celebrate). But not a word. I guess Beijing prefers it that way.
And, which is really the point, probably Wellington too. I imagine that there was a collective intake of breath at MFAT when they saw the Consulate statement; an “oh not”, a “they really shouldn’t have said that”. But what does that amount to. even if so? Precisely nothing. There has been not a word from the Prime Minister (and leader of the Labour Party), not a word from the Foreign Minister (and leader of New Zealand First), not a word from the Greens (for whom I once had a sneaking regard on some of these sorts of issues), not a word from a single government minister or backbencher. None. Not a word.
One of my readers – from the tone, someone who knows of what he speaks – left a comment here
Promoting violence and disorder in the receiving State is a transgression that would normally result in any diplomat’s expulsion as persona non grata. But the New Zealand government obviously has no self-respect so these people can get away with whatever they choose to do.
There haven’t been expulsions, but there haven’t even been public statements. Not a word. I guess it is always possible that someone from MFAT had a word with the consulate, but when the PRC Embassy is openly cheering on lawlessness in New Zealand, there needs to be an open, public, response and rebuke. At least if our government, our establishment, stand for anything other than deals and dollars. And if they want us to believe they take these things at all seriously.
In a very similar situation last week in Australia, Marise Payne Australia’s Foreign Minister put out a pretty forceful statement making it clear that such behaviour from foreign diplomats in Australia was not acceptable. It was still milder than it should have been – no naming specific names, no calling in of the Ambassador – but it was a great deal better than the shameful supine silence of our Prime Minister, Foreign Minister (and Leader of the Opposition). It looks a lot as though, when it comes to the PRC, all our purported leaders care about is party donations and the sales prospects of a few export businesses (public – universities – and private). And our backbench MPs – just keeping their seats I supposed (both main party presidents have been cheerleaders for the PRC regime) – not a single one, on either side, broke ranks. Values, decency, morality just didn’t seem to come into it. Neither it appears does any sense of prudence – if we don’t draw the line somewhere, the PRC is likely to simply keep on pushing. I don’t suppose they see themselves as pursuing Beijing’s interests, but in substance that is exactly what they are doing.
(These three – Ardern, Peters, Bridges – were also all notable for their silence, apparent utter indifference, to the attempts to intimidate Anne-Marie Brady, and have given no leadership to the meandering foreign interference select committee inquiry.)
It is sickening. No doubt each individual compromise and choice to stay silent doesn’t amount to very much, but they add up to something shameful: “leaders” who have simply abandoned any sense of the things New Zealand once represented and stood for, seemingly just to keep the next dollar flowing and keep a quiet life.
Are there rare, and puzzling, exceptions? There are, and the New Zealand government’s recent choice to join 21 other countries in signing a letter of protest at what the PRC is up to in Xinjiang, is one of those. It was, of course, better that they signed than not but it is almost as if the New Zealand government was embarrassed to have done so, perhaps “coerced” into doing so from other free and democratic countries. Little or nothing has been heard from the government on the letter, nothing (in support) from the Opposition. There is no sign they represent any decent values at all.
In an exchange earlier this week, someone suggested that the tide was turning. “Look how much progress has been made since 2017” I was told. I wasn’t persuaded. 2017 was when the background of Jian Yang, the National Party MP who had been a Communist Party member and part of the PRC military intelligence system, and who was never ever heard to say a critical word about the PRC (not even about Tiananmen Square), was revealed to the public. It was when Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons paper was published. There was a bit of debate, some controversy – including when Jian Yang acknowledged that he has actively misrepresented his past, on Beijing’s instruction, when applying for citizenship/residency.
But where are we now, almost two years on? Jian Yang still sits in Parliament, in the National Party caucus – in fact, he got a promotion this week and now (almost incredibly, but this is New Zealand) chairs a parliamentary select committee. No one else in politics makes a fuss, there are no media calls for him to be de-selected. In the intervening period, he and Phil Goff got together to get a royal honour awarded to another person with close CCP ties, whom National had been soliciting for donations. No electoral laws have changed. Phil Goff is still free to fund his campaign with anonymous bids for the works of Xi Jinping. The government is signing defence agreements with the (increasingly aggressive) PRC, and the Prime Minister rushed off to Beijing to placate the PRC. And now, when the PRC consulate grossly oversteps and attempts to directly interfere in free expression (“so-called”) in New Zealand no one in authority says or does anything.
Optimists tell me there is a groundswell of discontent among the public. Perhaps. But people don’t much like high house prices, and nothing serious gets done about that either. Selective elite interests, and a comtemptible fear of a distant foreign power, seem to drive our political “‘leaders”, who seem now to inhabit a values-free zone when it comes to attitudes to one of the worst regimes (that matter much) on the planet today. Their predecessors – National and Labour, who resisted Nazism and Soviet Communism – would be ashamed of them. We should too. On this issue in particular they have become contemptible.