There hasn’t been much about the PRC/New Zealand issues here recently. That isn’t because I’ve lost interest, or because the issues have become less pressing, but just because my health has been mediocre enough that I’ve only had the energy for the bare minimum of writing. There is an interesting piece on New Zealand firms’ trade with entities in the PRC that has been sitting on my desk for almost two months, although I hope to write about that in more detail before long.
But the election is now almost upon us, and what is really striking about the campaign – and the media coverage of the campaign – is the complete absence of discussion of any aspects of the CCP/PRC issues, domestic or international. There are lots to choose from. all of which should matter, and on which the parties should be challenged and scrutinised.
There is, for example, the overt pressure the PRC is putting on fellow democracies, India and Taiwan, right now (one could add Japan, in the East China Sea). New Zealand media don’t seem to give much coverage to the China-led tensions on the Line of Actual Control in North India that has already led to fatalities, let alone to the (apparently) much greater threat associated with the repeated incursions of PRC military aircraft into or near Taiwanese air space, and the apparent – really more than “apparent”, quite openly stated – PRC determination to take Taiwan one way or the other. And no New Zealand media appear to have made any effort to gauge the competency (around foreign affairs), or moral core, of those vying for political leadership, by asking them for their perspective on these disputes or how they would think about framing possible New Zealand responses to more overt aggression. Both main parties have been more interested in talking up their “friends” in Beijing – a line they might also reasonably be asked about – than about articulating a clear stance opposed to resolution of political disputes by force.
Then there are developments in Hong Kong, where one might – perhaps – give the main parties a grudging near-pass mark, with the government having suspended (and National supported them doing so) the extradition agreement with Hong Kong. But it has hardly been a full-throated condemnation of the rapid erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong or (say) offers of asylum to dissidents fleeing the territory.
But far worse than what is happening in Hong Kong – and clearly convergence to the PRC model was inevitable at some point, though we all might have hoped for a less-bad PRC by then – is the growing evidence of systematic and intensifying repression across multiple fronts in the PRC in the last few years, including in the period since our last election. Xinjiang has had the most attention – the concentration camps, the extreme surveillance and control, the apparent forced sterilisations, and so on. But it isn’t just about one region, or one minority religion/belief. On a regional basis, Tibet is back in the news, as is the intensifying pressure in Southern Mongolia. The evidence of use of political or religious prisoners for forced organ transplants is even better documented now than it was. The repression of Christians, Muslims, and other sects is intensifying, and any scope for freedom of expression – always limited – seems to be now much more limited. And yet what do we hear from Ardern or Collins (or the other small parties) on any of this? From National, a while ago we had senior Todd McClay touting PRC propaganda around Xinjiang and suggesting it was really none of anyone else’s business. Perhaps he knows better now – though surely he always did – but there has been no retraction, and no willingness to criticise his parties “friends” and donors. And Labour really isn’t any better. Defenders of the PM will suggest that “human rights issues” are raised in private but (a) why should we believe this? and (b) it is unlikely that what is said in private, in apologetic diplomatic language, bothers anyone (in the PRC).
You get the sense that both parties are more interested in keeping in with the dreadful regime in Beijing – that really combines much of the worst of Nazi Germany and the USSR – than in articulating the values of New Zealanders. You certainly get the sense that both parties are more interested in serving the economic interests of a few big corporates (including university ones) than in representing the values and interests of New Zealanders. There is no open criticism, there is no talk of trade sanctions (eg on products using concentration camp labour from Xinjiang), there is no talk of putting in place a system of Magnitsky-type sanctions. And no media seem to ask any of the party leaders of their foreign affairs spokespeople about any of this. What, for example, does “kindness” mean as regards the abuses of the PRC.
One little encouraging development in recent months has been the formation of IPAC, the interparliamentary alliance on China, with significant representation from members of Parliament in a range of countries, including many quite senior figures. Somewhat belatedly, two New Zealand MPs joined: National’s Simon O’Connor and Labour’s Louisa Wall. That’s good – and one can’t imagine the National whips etc can have been entirely happy about O’Connor who has been chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee. But I’ve not seen a single media piece on this development – no attempt to interview O’Connor or Wall on their views, including of what our main parties or governments should be doing about the PRC, or to talk to the party leaders about their stance on IPAC and its calls for the West to take a stronger stand.
And nearer to home, there is no continuing media coverage of the fact that we go into an election with both main parties still embroiled in controversy – and legal investigations – around donations from CCP/PRC-linked figures. This is most stark as regards the charges facing Jami-Lee Ross (who was a senior National MP at the time of the relevant developments), and several ethnic Chinese New Zealand citizens – including Yikun Zhang, who the parties got together to honour for, in effect, services to Beijing – around donations to the National Party. National has not been straight with the public about anything to do with this affair, and no other party seems bothered. Meanwhile Labour has its own issues – former leader Phil Goff, as regards donations to his mayoral campaign, former Cabinet minister Lianne Dalziel over donation to her campaign, and the obscure SFO investigation into some aspect of donations to Labour in 2017. And yet we hear almost nothing of this – not, I’m sure, out of respect for fair trial rights, but because it suits all the big parties to keep quiet. But why does the media let them get away with it? Are they too unbothered about the corruption of our political system, and the suborning of the process by parties linked to the PRC?
Last year we had the political theatre in which the government – with National’s support – rushed through under urgency (keep debate and scrutiny to a minimum) a largely-cosmetic change slightly further reducing the (already severely limited scope) of foreign citizens to donate to directly to New Zealand political parties. It wasn’t a bad change per se, but it consciously and deliberately avoided confronting the much bigger issues: the ability of closely-held New Zealand registered companies owned by foreign citizens to donate (where there have been real and actual issues around PRC-related donations), and around a political culture that has seemed to regard as quite acceptable to take donations – large donations – from New Zealand citizens or residents who are themselves closely connected to the CCP/PRC. Nothing serious has been done about the law, and no party has apparently been willing to take a self-denying vow re PRC-linked donations. And no interviewer or journalist puts pressure on them to do so.
As it happened, I asked about this issue at our local candidates meeting last week. With a bit of a preamble, including noting what last year’s reform had/hadn’t done, I asked National, Labour, Greens and New Zealand First (the parties in Parliament) if they thought their parties should/would take donations from people or companies, NZ citizens or not, with close connections to the Chinese Communist Party (which the PRC operates at the behest, and in the interest, of).
I got no clear and straightforward answer, of the sort one might have expected if, for example, candidates/parties had been asked about people with strong neo-Nazi associations or (one imagines) in days gone by about the USSR or Nazi Germany or the like. It isn’t some obscure party/country I was asking about, but the dominant force in the largest country on earth, a country with a track record of ties – good and ill – to New Zealand.
The young New Zealand First candidate – a researcher in their parliamentary offices – was almost funny. He was desperate not to say the wrong thing and ended up noting that it was a foreign policy question – about NZ political parties taking donations from NZ citizens? – and the question would have to be put to “Winston”.
The Greens and National candidate both get some positive marks. The (very able) Greens candidate noted that her party did not have a specific policy re the CCP and she wasn’t about to make one up on the spot, but noted that she did think New Zealand should be louder in calling out human rights abuses (re the PRC, the Greens this term have been about as silent as the rest). The National candidate suggested – not entirely accurately – that the party is very transparent about all donations, and while he avoided the direct question did suggest we might benefit from some system of registering and disclosing those working for/lobbying for foreign governments (he mentioned the US system, which attracted guffaws from the Green-supporting Newtown crowd). But it was a step up on his National predecessor’s approach at the 2017 candidates meeting.
Labour’s candidate was the only sitting MP, Paul Eagle. His response was that Labour adheres to the law – well, probably mostly – but as he well knew that was not the question. He then went on to suggest that he didn’t know Labour approach to the sort of donations I was asking about and that he would have to check and come back to me. I emailed him the next morning (last Friday) to repeat the question, but – perhaps much as expected – have heard nothing back.
I don’t want to be too hard on individual candidates – all rather junior in their own parties – and it was more telling about the refusal of all the main parties to take this issue seriously, and be quite clear that – no matter how much was on offer – they would not take donations from people with close CCP ties. That said, most of them had little or nothing to lose….and not one was willing to say “but, speaking personally, I think it would be quite inappropriate to take such donations – or those from anyone with close ties with a foreign political party or government”. Not one. It was establishment New Zealand’s indifference, perhaps desperation for dollars, on display. And, of course, no interviewer or debate moderator asks the people with clout – the party leaders – about this, even though it is no hypothetical, and there is a clear track record of such donations in the past. Those donations were, it appears, legal. They were not right (and as Anne-Marie Brady has noted, many forms of PRC influence in other countries, including New Zealand, are legal and yet quite concerning).
The final item on my list of things of which we hear almost nothing in this campaign is the efforts by both main parties (in particular) to ensure that they keep ties in to the PRC’s United Front efforts in New Zealand by recruiting candidates, often to safe list positions, that Beijing will smile on. The grossest example of course was Jian Yang – whose past was finally exposed just before the last election, and who eventually acknowledged misrepresenting his past, at the behest of his then PLA/CCP masters, to get into New Zealand in the first place. National seemed unbothered – Jian Yang claimed they had always known his past, even if the voters weren’t so lucky – and, worse, neither were any of the other parties. On the Labour side, there was Raymond Huo, perhaps not with a past as egregiously awful with Jian Yang’s, but with a present stance arguably worse (the man, who chairing the foreign interference inquiry – extraordinary in itself for Labour – actively tried to prevent Professor Brady for testifying). Rather belatedly this year, both men have decided to move on and spend more time with their families – Yang after having been talked up by National during the year and promised a high list place. But both sides have replaced them. I presume the National replacement for Jian Yang is likely to miss out, but Labour Naisi Chen seems sure to enter Parliament, coming off the back of a past as president of the (PRC-consulate controlled) Chinese students association in Auckland, and who at a recent candidates meeting was reported as also engaging in minimising the Xinjiang abuses. And yet no other party seems bothered, and the media gives the matter almost no coverage.
One could, perhaps, explain away any one of the items on this list. Not all are perhaps quite as important as the others, the economy is not in great shape, the virus lurks etc. But it really isn’t adequate as an excuse – whether from the political parties, who would clearly just prefer the issue didn’t come up – or the media which seems to do nothing to raise it. Those companies trading with firms in China must be delighted. They certainly don’t want any risk that they might fall foul of PRC displeasure – as some industries in Australia have, where the government has taken a somewhat more forthright stand – and simply expect that the rest of us should pay the price while they sup with the devil without even the precaution of carrying a long spoon.
And perhaps it is fair to note that foreign affairs often aren’t central in New Zealand elections but (a) many of these issues aren’t about foreign affairs, but about how we govern ourselves, and (b) that isn’t always so (think of our past whether around nuclear ships, Springbok tours), and (c) on most reckonings the PRC is now a big and threatening presence on the world stage, and in many individual countries. Troubled as the US political system is, it is notable how different the tone of the comment – fact of the comment – is there, whether from Democrats or Republicans.
Our so-called leaders really are a shameful bunch, apparently more interested in keeping their heads in the sand (or those of the public) and keeping the deals and donations flowing, rather than evincing any interest in leading conversations about either emerging geopolitical risks, the nature and character of the PRC, and/or the PRC’s activities here. It should be sobering to recall the break-ins to Professor Brady’s home and office that happened during this parliamentary term. Both National and Labour set out to minimise the potential issue – other parties as bad – and now it seems to suit them for such events to be brushed over and forgotten.
If the politicians are bad – and they are the ones who really matter, who vie to lead and who would like us to believe they have our long-term best interests at heart – the media is (with rare occasional exceptions) little better. It is pretty shameful all round. Beliefs and values that are worth their salt are worth paying a price for, but it isn’t clear that National or Labour (or, as far as I can tell, the rest) have any values worth the name when it comes to the most consequential evil regime now on the planet and its activities here and abroad. That is sad commentary on what New Zealand – once quite clear about its opposition to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, under parties of either stripe – has become.
For those with access, there was a good article in the Financial Times last week about coercive economic “diplomacy” by the PRC. The article was by New Zealander Jamil Anderlini, the FT’s Asia editor. He made the case for countries to stand, and work, together to resist the PRC’s attempts to use trade pressure countries – calling for a new and better United Front of democracies with common long-term interests in this area. Our politicians seem to think it is just to cower and defer to the regime, and do as little as possible to ever upset them (which only ever encourages thugs), rather than standing with other countries that share something rather closer to our values than National’s and Labour’s CCP friends do.