I had a phone call yesterday from someone I respect suggesting that I was going a bit lightly on Simon Bridges over China. After my post last week, just prior to the Bridges trip to the PRC, I should generally have been immunised against that charge. But what my caller had in mind was a few tweets where I had suggested that bad – even despicable – as Bridges was, especially this week in his interview with the Communist Party-controlled CGTN, actually there was little or no functional difference between Bridges and Labour (in particular) when it came to the PRC. Tweets like this were what my caller seemed to have in mind
Anyone who hasn’t watched the interview really should do so. From a PRC/CCP perspective, it must have seemed almost too good to be true. It came across like one of those staged interviews normal political parties sometimes do with a sympathetic “interviewer” designed to put leader and party in a good light, except that this was the leader of New Zealand’s National Party – a party that purports to espouse values (freedom, democracy, limited government etc) that mostly look quite good on paper, that once had a clear moral sense of the evils of Communism – being interviewed by a CCP interviewer who feeds up soft questions (“hasn’t the Party done a wonderful job?”, “isn’t Xi Jinping a great leader?” sort of thing), and Bridges gives back pandering answers better (from the CCP perspective) than even she must have hoped (even recognising the typically obsequious and deferential – craven really – form of NZ political leaders on the PRC).
One could unpick it line by line: for example, where he seemed even keener than the interviewer to celebrate even the first 30 years of the PRC (perhaps Jian Yang never told him about the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and all the other horrors), his treatment of the CCP as a normal political party, or (only noticed on a second viewing) the sickening way he invoked Winston Churchill – who actually led the fight against tyranny, and called people to recognise it for what it was – to pander to his hosts. But I don’t think any serious observer disagrees that it was extraordinarily bad – the only competition is how best to describe the spectacle.
The rest of the visit doesn’t seem to have been much better. He looks to have been desperate to impress his hosts (but they probably already had him marked as a “useful idiot”, after his pandering to Yikun Zhang, protection and promotion of Jian Yang, and his part in signing the previous government up to the vision of a “fusion of civilisations”) and perhaps to look as if he was taken seriously abroad. How else to explain him agreeing to meet, in the Great Hall of the People, with Guo Shengkun, the member of the Politburo responsible for all PRC law enforcement activities (that includes Xinjiang), former Minister of Public Security?
He must have been briefed on Guo Shengkun’s background – even if Jian Yang thought not to mention it, MFAT surely would have. But if it bothered anyone around him at all, clearly not enough to say no. Perhaps the choice of Politburo member was carefully planned by the PRC to see whether Bridges had any limits, any scruples, at all. They seem to have got their answer.
That all should be good for a few more donations, large and small, to National – which has shown no interest in higher standards or tighter laws in this area. Perhaps another dinner at Yikun Zhang’s house?
Bridges has, rightly, been on the receiving end of a fair amount of flak over the interview in particular. Grant Robertson has been reported as suggesting that in the interview comes across as more devoted than most paid-up members of the Communist Party itself. Perhaps he too has spent many hours studying Xi Jinping Thought to get his lines right, or perhaps that was just Jian Yang? It isn’t quite clear how much he is sold-out, value-free vs being simply out of his depth, and not fully realising the significance of what he was doing, who he was talking to, and what he was saying.
And from some academics there was quite a lot of surprised pearl-clutching too. The director of Victoria University’s Centre of Strategic Studies, David Capie, gasped that it was
Alarming to have such a big gap between govt & opposition views/language concerning such a critical relationship.
And Jason Young – director of the taxpayer-funded Contemporary China Research Centre – was among those critical of Bridges for his talking up the CCP when the New Zealand practice has typically been to talk about the state (PRC) – as if the Party didn’t control the state, which works to Party supremacy ends. Another local academic, never himself otherwise on the record as critical of the regime was moved to observe that “Bridges’ comments re Xi’s China are bonkers”.
(The China Council – funded by the taxpayer, with eminent former senior Nats (and Jian Yang) on their councils – ever pretty obsequious themselves, but ever so smoothly, has been uncharacteristically silent.)
I don’t buy it. And you’ll note that – search as you like – none of these academics has been critical of National for its general policy stance towards the PRC, none has criticised Bridges for not speaking up on Xinjiang, on Hong Kong, on the increasingly repression of religion (doesn’t Bridges claim to have a Christian faith?), on the abduction of Canadians, on state-sponsored intellectual property theft, on the South China Sea. Near-complete silence on the continued presence of Jian Yang – 15 years in Chinese military intelligence, misrepresenting his past on Beijing’s instructions – in the caucus, and at the right hand of the leader on his PRC tributary mission.
No, what really seems to bother them is that Bridges seems to have let the side down by his over-enthusiastic gush. Not the done thing old boy. Created uncomfortable headlines. Really Simon, don’t you know better by now? They are embarrassed by this rather amateurish schoolboy effort to pander, rather than having any problem with the underlying policy approach. That is as true of most of these academic commentators – Anne-Marie Brady excepted of course – as it is of the rest of political spectrum, as it is (apparently) of most of the media. It should count as extraordinary that neither of our main daily newspapers – Herald or Dominion-Post – has given the story any coverage at all, despite all the questions it should be raising about national security, foreign policy, the place of values in New Zealand policy, and fitness to govern of the leader of the main opposition political party. Should. But this is New Zealand. And we don’t want the peasants getting uneasy about the way the establishment – all of it – panders to the PRC now do we.
If there are differences between National and Labour on the PRC they are so tiny, and largely opportunistic, as to be barely discernible to anyone else. Perhaps National is “better” at tapping the money-tree, but that probably only makes those who run the Labour organisation a bit envious – after all, there no sign of any leadership from the Prime Minister on the electoral donations issue, whether reforming the law or taking National to task over large donations from PRC/CCP affiliated donors, whether citizens or not.
Both sides like to run the ridiculous line about the great transformation managed in the PRC over the last 70 years – never once pausing to recognise how poor the PRC economic performance is relative to east Asian peers (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore). Both sides like to pander, suggesting that somehow New Zealand’s prosperity depends on the PRC – whether cyclically (“saved by China in the GFC”) or structurally. Both sides like to treat the PRC as a normal state. Both sides happily hobnob with CCP figures – only last year, the PM was meeting a senior CCP figure here and talking up better “party to party exchanges”). National and Labour figures got together to honour Yikun Zhang, for what were really services to Beijing. Neither side will say a word in public about any concerns about PRC gross human rights abuses – a term which really diminishes the outrages perpetrated daily in Xinjiang – or an expansionist unilateralist foreign policy. Neither side seems to have a problem with NZ Police having friendship and exchange agreements with the Guangzhou police, or with an Assistant Commissioner of Police serving as a visiting professor at the Ministry of Public Security training university.
Is it even imaginable that either side would willingly meet Joshua Wong – one of the leading faces of the Hong Kong protest movement – as German Foreign Minister did earlier this week? Will either side call out the excess dependence our universities have come to have on the politically-vulnerable PRC market (of course not – both sides encourage it)? Such is the party discipline that not even a single backbencher on either side will ever speak up on anything to do with the PRC. Both sides are happy to have Chinese language teaching in our schools subsidised by the PRC, through Confucius Institutes which vet for political and religious soundness (toe the Party line or else). Both sides turn up to PRC Embassy and consulate functions as honoured guests, and both sides apparently support the propaganda efforts of the China Council. Watch and see if you put a tissue’s difference between them when in a couple of weeks the CCP celebrates the 70th anniversary of taking power in China. Tens of millions of dead Chinese – and decades, right through to today, of extreme repression – will be quietly ignored as the champagne glasses clink.
And, of course, was there a difference in the – embarrassed, please go away – way both sides tried to ignore that attempts to physically intimidate Anne-Marie Brady?
Meanwhile Jian Yang remains an, apparently valued (recently promoted) member of National’s caucus. It is two years tomorrow since the FT and Newsroom broke the story of Jian Yang’s past. And nothing has happened. The National Party defends and protects him, never even insists that he front the English language media (all National Party voters elected him, not just some minority of CCP-affiliates). And the Labour Party leadership has never once expressed even a word of concern. That makes them just as complicit in having this close-to-the-PRC-Embassy, CCP members, former PLA military intelligence official, who accepts he misrepresented his past on Beijing’s instructions, not just sitting in our Parliament, but advising and accompanying the Leader of the Opposition to the PRC.
But you won’t hear any concerns from Labour (or the Greens or – these days – NZ First) about that. Nor, as far as I can see, words from Messrs Capie, Young, or Noakes, the academics quoted earlier. There has been quite a furore this week in Australia about the new Liberal backbencher, Gladys Liu, and her past ties to CCP-affiliated bodies, and reluctance to express any criticism of the regime. Bad as her case might be, it seems mild by comparison with that of Jian Yang, where both National and Labour really really just want the issue to go away, and people to keep quiet.
In my first tweet on the Bridges interview, I noted that if he’d had a gun at his head, or the CCP were holding his wife and children hostage, he could hardly have given a more appalling interview. It really was bad. But all it really did was lift the lid on the way in which so much of the New Zealand political, business, and media establishment treat the PRC – ever-deferential, and quite value-free (other, that is, than those “values” of deals, donations, and meetings in Beijing). Bad as the interview and visit was, in a sense it did us a service, briefly highlighting just how sold-out the establishment (all sides) really are. But with little media coverage and lots of rugby in the next few weeks, they probably needn’t worry: the Bridges embarrassment will soon be tidied away and forgotten. And that will suit Labour – and the business community – quite as much as it will National.