Following on from her speech last week, and the (rather overblown) controversy her subsequent remarks about the use of the Five Eyes grouping gave rise to, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta fronted up for extended interviews with the two weekend TV currrent affairs shows.
I wrote about the speech in a post last Tuesday. Rereading the speech itself, and the post, I’d stand by what I said then. It was dreadful – whether the bizarre folk religion stuff, the absence of any evidence of any serious framework for thinking about the growing threat the PRC poses, and just for being more of the same old approach of being very very reluctant to ever openly name the evil done in the name of the CCP and its PRC. It is not that what was said was new: it wasn’t, it was just another example of the craven approach adopted by both sides of New Zealand politics, as evidenced by the support offered for the Minister’s speech by senior National Party figures.
I have read alternative perspectives, but don’t find them persuasive. Professor Anne-Marie Brady, for example, seemed to bend over backwards to defend the Minister and the government’s approach, suggesting of the contents of the speech
For New Zealand this was strong stuff.
Count me unpersuaded because even if were true that the contents of the speech represented any movement by the government (and I think the evidence doesn’t really support that claim), starting points matter. The New Zealand government, backed by the Opposition, remains scared of its own shadow when it comes to the PRC, and simply fails to engage with the New Zealand public about the nature of the issue and risks. It won’t even engage in serious reform of our electoral donations law, even as investigations and criminal charges proceed about donations from CCP-linked figures. Neither party appears willing to state simply that it will not take donations from CCP-linked figures, let alone refuse to welcome such people as MPs.
Even on Anzac Day weekend, New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs chooses not to make a simple clear statement that she regards the PRC’s attempted economic coercion of Australia as unacceptable (or the regime’s hostage-taking of Australian and Canadian citizens). It is like a morals-free zone, presumably backed by the Prime Minister.
But it was interesting to listen to the Minister’s two interviews. I thought the Newshub interview was much superior – somewhat more searching (although there was a lot left unaddressed), but also more revealing (in a good way as well). Mahuta was put under some pressure both by the previous interview (a New Zealand citizen of Uighur origins) and by the House of Commons vote last week declaring the PRC approach to the Uighurs as a “genocide”. I didn’t think she emerged well from the interview, but (to her credit) she was finally willing to (more than once) use the word “atrocities” to describe what the PRC has done in Xinjiang – so different from the neutral “treatment of the Uighurs” in her (so we are told) carefully-drafted speech, or to the smart-alecky way she answered a journalist’s question after her speech. There must have been some rethink in the Beehive as the week went on, but only time will tell whether she is willing to use the line again.
But it was still mostly a line that consisted of playing for time, minimising things, avoid hard questions about New Zealand government choices, and so on. Challenged on the “genocide” issue she said she would be “willing to receive advice on that”, but gave no sign that (for example) she had already, or was now, actively seeking such advice. In other words it was clever line to fend off a journalist on the day, not a statement of substance. She says she is all for an independent UN observer to visit Xinjiang, but refuses to engage with the extensive published research of private scholars, or the judgements that various other governments or legislatures have reached.
She was asked about whether New Zealand should impose sanctions on, for example, imports from Xinjiang. She responded that New Zealand did not have an autonomous sanctions regime, without even addressing the point Prof Robert Ayson has made that New Zealand could impose travel bans (as it has in respect of Myanmar officials). Sadly, she was not grilled on why her government chose to scrap the Autonomous Sanctions Bill that had sat for some years on Parliament’s order paper. The thing about having an absolute majority in Parliament is that what does, or doesn’t, happen in Parliament is entirely your responsibility – and if Mahuta is not a top-ranked minister, she does sit in Cabinet and must have the confidence of the Prime Minister.
Oh, and we heard again several times from the MInister – unprompted – the claim that we – well, her government I suppose – wants to be “respectful” of the PRC. This is the same regime that she’d just said was committing repeated atrocities……
And one really had it confirmed that she was squirming and pandering when she was asked whether she thought she was on the “right side of history” as regards the PRC and Xinjiang in particular, and all the interviewer got in response was waffle. Surely there is only one answer any politician of decency and integrity should give to a question of that sort?
As with her speech, in her interviews she repeatedly gave the impression that the government was a trading body. It is a language and mindset that tends to suffuse bureaucracies and politicians, but there is an important distinction to be drawn. China – the PRC – is not “our largest trade partner”. Rather, individual New Zealand firms choose to buy and sell from/to firms in the PRC. Firms in the PRC may be more or less under the thumb of the Party/state, but here it is wholly a matter of private choice. And those choices – protecting them – are not a matter for the government. In fairness, to the Minister we did get a few repetitions of the old (many decades old) line about diversification and resilience, but never once a suggestion (even in muted language) that if you – your firm – chooses to sup with the devil you should bring a long spoon. More specifically, if you trade in a country that attempts economic coercion, that is really your choice, your problem, not that of the government or the rest of us. Governments are supposed to represent the wider interests and values of New Zealanders, not the business interests of a few firms and universities.
The New Zealand government’s approach to the PRC seems craven, fearful, and almost entirely mercenary (sure they make a few comments, and the PRC presumably lets them get away with it because (a) they rightly interpret the spirit (do and say as little as possible as feebly as possible, and (b) it suits them to drive wedges between New Zealand and other democratic countries. But the media scrutiny really isn’t much better. I’m pretty sure that in the course of those two extended interviews we heard and saw:
- no challenge to the Minister to state simply that attempted economic coercion of Australia is unacceptable and that we stand with Australia (and no attempt to contrast New Zealand’s silence with the recent Biden-Suga communique)
- no challenge to the Minister to state whether hostage-taking by the PRC is acceptable,
- extraordinarily, no mention at all of Taiwan,
- no questions about the PRC activities in the South and East China Sea (including the current standoff involving the Philippines),
- no grilling of the Minister on the fate of the Autonomous Sanctions bill, why the government seems opposed to having one, and the past lines from the Minister that she wants UN-led responses (when she knows the PRC has a veto),
- nothing on Hong Kong and the recent prison sentences handed out to leading respected figures in the democracy movement,
- nothing on forced organ transplants,
- nothing on intensifying religious and political repression,
- nothing on the WInter Olympics in Beijing (will government officials or ministers or diplomats attend), will government money help fund New Zealand teams’ participation, should athletes go (to a place where “atrocities” are being committed on an ongoing basis as a matter of Party/state policy),
- nothing on the sluggish and weak New Zealand response to the WHO Covid report.
The issue last week was never really about the Five Eyes intelligence and signals grouping, but about what everyone knows, that New Zealand governments (and most of the Opposition) simply lack any moral fibre when it comes to the PRC. The issue isn’t which platform New Zealand speaks on, but the extreme reluctance of its government – Prime Minister and Foreign Minister in particular – to say anything much. The PRC is one of the most heinous regimes on the planet – probably the most heinous consequential one – and our elected leaders simply refuse to name the evil.
(Which is not to suggest that I think any other government of any other democratic country does all it could. A few – notably Germany – seem quite as bad as New Zealand. But the New Zealand stance is shameful and unworthy, reflect of politicians who seem to see only dollars. But the only values that really count as such are those one is willing to pay a price for.)
For those interested in the economic coercion issue, the ABC had a nice treatment of Australia’s experience in a programme that screened last night.