In his Herald column last week Matthew Hooton offered some thoughts on what sort of Prime Minister Simon Bridges might be. It seemed optimistic to me. For example, according to Hooton.
Like Bolger, Bridges’ ambition is not just joining the prime ministerial club for its own sake, but to be one of the few to achieve genuine intergenerational change.
I racked my brains, dredging the recesses of my memory, and still struggled to think of anything – whether in what he said as a minister in the previous government, or as Opposition leader in the last 18 months – that would offer even a hint of such ambition, or of policy proposals that might bring about such change. What sort of “intergenerational change” does Hooton have in mind I wonder? Judging by the economics discussion document last week – which had some good, but not very ambitious, bits – not something about reversing our decades of disappointing economic performance.
But one thing we have every reason to be “confident” of is that Simon Bridges as Prime Minister would be every bit as deferential to Beijing and its interests as Jacinda Ardern or John Key and Bill English before her. All while, no doubt, trying to tell himself and us that somehow this shameful pandering is for our own good, in our interests. The only interests it actually serves are (a) those of the PRC, (b) those of the political party fundraisers, and (c) a few exporting companies, including our universities, that made themselves (conscious choice to sup with the devil) too dependent on the PRC market, and thus exposed to the threats and pressures of the regime and Party. Selling out the values of your people for a mess of potage never ends well.
It is only quite recently that Simon Bridges has been directly accountable for most of the National Party’s choices in this area. Even in John Key’s final ministry, Bridges was only the 9th ranked minister, with internally-focused portfolios. But by 2017, he’d climbed further up the Cabinet rankings and was Minister of Economic Development. In that capacity, he was the minister who signed, on behalf of the New Zealand government, the memorandum of arrangement on the Belt and Road Initiative of the PRC.
I wrote about that document here. I’m going to do Bridges the courtesy assuming that he (a) read, and (b) believed what he was signing. Among those commitments was that the participants (Bridges’ government and the PRC) would promote a ‘fusion among civilisations”, and “coordinated economic, social and cultural development”. There was also the commitment to advance “regional peace and development”, as if the PRC had any interest in such peace, except on its own terms (‘submit and you’ll be fine”).
Perhaps Bridges didn’t really mean it. Perhaps the boss just told him to sign. But there has never been any suggestion he didn’t mean it. If he’d objected to this unsubtle attempt to suggest that the PRC system and our own are somehow equally valid options, I’m sure they could have found another minister to sign. But Simon Bridges did.
Since then, of course, he has been elevated to the leadership. Perhaps, as Hooton claims, the Bridges leadership style is a consensus one. But things leaders care about tend to happen, and things leaders don’t care about don’t. Perhaps as a mere minister, Bridges had known little or nothing about Jian Yang’s background in the Communist Party and in the PLA military intelligence system – perhaps not even why he’d been moved out of the foreign affairs committee of Parliament – but next week it will be two years since all that went public. I’m sure Bridges back then didn’t know what Jian Yang has subsequently told us: that he misrepresented his past to get into New Zealand, and did so on the instructions of the PRC authorities. But he has known it all for the entire time he has been leader. Perhaps he didn’t know that serious figures – not flame-thrower types – would take the view that because of Jian Yang’s closeness to the PRC embassy it was important to be careful what was said in front of Jian Yang. But he has now known that for a long time too. Jian Yang sits in caucus meetings every week, and presumably Bridges is not particularly careful what he says.
Bridges didn’t control the National Party list in the 2017 election. But he controls caucus rankings and responsibilities now. And not only has he never expressed any public unease about the Jian Yang situation, only recently Jian Yang received a promotion (chair of Parliament’s Governance and Administration Committee) from Bridges, and this very week we learn that Jian Yang is part of the Simon Bridges/Gerry Brownlee official visit to the PRC. No one really doubts that if Bridges had any serious concerns at all, not only would Jian Yang not be receiving these signs of favour, he wouldn’t even be in the caucus any longer. (Of course, it is shameful that the other parties do nothing to call out the Jian Yang situation, but he is primarily the responsibility of the National Party, and of Simon Bridges in particular.) Far too valuable as a fundraiser I guess, and if Bridges had said or done anything other regime-affiliated people and institutions might have looked on him with disfavour. And he wouldn’t have wanted that would he? Yikun Zhang, for example, mightn’t have invited him and Jami-Lee Ross to dinner.
Of course, the indications of how far gone Simon Bridges is in his deference to Beijing aren’t just about the Jian Yang situation. No one heard him express any concern either about the ridiculous situation earlier in the year when regime-affiliated Labour MP Raymond Huo was going to chair the inquiry into foreign interference in our electoral processes etc.
And when a defence policy document uttered some mild, and pretty factual, statements about the PRC, what did we hear from Simon Bridges? Not some support for a robust defence of New Zealand interests, values, and historical alliances, but rather complaints that the PRC might be upset. There is no sign that he has reined in party president Peter Goodfellow’s enthusiasm for singing the praises of the PRC/CCP. And when he senior MP, and close ally apparently, Todd McClay was defending the concentration camps in Xinjiang as “vocational training centres” and really nobody else’s concern, was there any apology, any distancing himself from McClay’s stance. Not a bit of it.
When there were doubts about how ready the PRC were to invite the Prime Minister to visit, Simon Bridges was early into the fray to criticise – not the PRC but – the Prime Minister. Can’t have Beijing being upset at all, ever, can we? Not like a normal relationship. For Bridges it appeared to be all about abasing ourselves (well, himself) and asking only “how high” when Beijing says jump.
Or, when the current government quietly (and embarrassedly) signed up the recent multi-country letter of protest about the Xinjiang concentration camps, did you see words in support from Simon Bridges or his senior spokespeople? No, it was all quiet on the National Party front. Nothing about supporting a robust stance on Huawei either.
Has anyone ever heard Simon Bridges utter a critical word about the regime in Beijing, even as ever-more evidence of its excesses (whether political, religious, civil, economic, or whatever) comes to light? I haven’t. And I’ve searched and found nothing. And that despite the values of the regime being antithetical to what used to be the stated values of the National Party. When something more than deals and donations mattered. I still recall as a university student in 1980 Don McKinnon coming up to a lunchtime meeting on campus to defend the then National government’s stance discouraging New Zealand participation in the Moscow Olympics. I think we can imagine how Bridges (and McKinnon) would react to any suggestion that a New Zealand government might discourage participation in the next Winter Olympics, to be held in the PRC. Are there any limits to National’s deference to Beijing? None have been apparent under Bridges.
Oh, and then there are the donations. There was the Yikun Zhang business last year, where Bridges was not exactly rushing to suggest that donations from a donor with strong regime-affiliations might “buy” another place on the National list (recall too Jian Ynag’s involvement in getting Yikun Zhang an official honour for – in effect – services to Beijing). All Bridges was reduced to was the claim that any donation wasn’t illegal. Lots of things aren’t illegal, but it doesn’t make them right. It was much the same story when the Todd McClay donation story came out just recently – our foreign trade minister had been actively involved in securing a very large donation from a PRC billionaire, routed through a New Zealand registered company. “It wasn’t illegal” was again the only Bridges line. As if large donations from known donors don’t create expectations of future relationships etc – nothing so crass as a specific policy purchase, but cast of mind and all that.
We’ve had no leadership at all from Bridges on the foreign donations issue more generally. No suggestion that if you can’t vote here you shouldn’t be able to donate. No suggestion – proactively – that the National Party would not seek, and would not accept, significant donations from anyone with close ties to a foreign government (although, of course, the PRC is the main issue). Bridges seems quite happy to keep the current compromised regime, and the flow of tainted money to the party.
And then, of course, there is the current trip to the PRC. The timing is pretty extraordinary, and perhaps telling of the National Party’s utter lack of interest in expressing any sort of moral dimension to our foreign policy. 1 October is the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party takeover. The tyrants of the Party will no doubt be making great play of their accomplishment – holding onto near-absolute power for that long – but why would anyone else, anyone of decency, associate themselves with the regime right now. Do you forget the tens of millions who died in the Great Leap Forward, do they forget the Cultural Revolution, do they forget Tiananmen Square, do they prefer to ignore completely Xinjiang, do they prefer to pretend that the renewed suppression of any domestic dissent, the heightened persecution of religions of whatever stripe just isn’t happening, are they unbothered about the renewed threats to Taiwan, or in the East and South China Seas, or the state-sponsored intellectual property theft (called out by GCSB last year, with not a word from Bridges) just aren’t happening? Or are no concern of ours, things we can simply walk by on the other side, and trade merrily with the repressors.
Perhaps we will be told quietly that in their meetings Bridges, Brownlee, and Jian Yang will have raised “human rights concerns”. It is the standard official defence. But it should be no defence at all. Embarrassed shufflings and pro forma private comments count for nothing if you aren’t willing to say anything in public. National doesn’t, and won’t (neither of course does the government, but this post is about the Opposition – who are freer to talk, freer not to travel etc but who chose the path of deference and submission. Not so different from vassaldom. It is all the more extraordinary that they proceed with the trip just after the Todd McClay revelations. Bridges has been blathering about seeking spiritual blessings on the India leg of the trip, but you can’t help thinking that making obeisance before Beijing and receiving their words of approbation isn’t more the point.
And then, not least, there is Hong Kong. Freedom is dying by the day in Hong Kong, and there is no doubt that the PRC itself is calling the shots (see, for example, the Carrie Lam tape). Police brutality is rampant, and protestors – who see only the prospect of complete absorption by the totalitarian PRC (whether now, in 2047, or some point in-between) – have courageously taken to the streets week after week to stand up against the threat to the sort of freedoms we take for granted, that National once claimed to stand for. A decent and courageous political leader – a man of faith, or morals, of a belief that freedom matters even when it costs – would have recognised the climate and chosen to call off his trip to Beijing. The PRC wouldn’t have liked it one bit. Nor would MFAT. Nor would Goodfellow and the party fundraisers. But it is just an idle fantasy anyway, the idea of some leading political figure in New Zealand ever making a stand, be it ever so modest – from the position of Opposition even. And never more so, it seems, when Simon Bridges leads the National Party. And Jian Yang – CCP membership, misrepresented past and all – remains at his right hand.
Are there any limits?
(And, to repeat, Jacinda Ardern is quite as bad, but this post is about National.)