Fearful or values-free?

In many respects one doesn’t even need to read the speeches of government ministers on the PRC to know the stance they are taking; one need only look at the audiences they choose to speak to.

Nanaia Mahuta’s speech a couple of weeks ago was to the New Zealand China Council, the heavily government-funded body set up to help out the China-focused bits of the business community, champion ties with the PRC, and never ever say anything critical of the regime. And yesterday the Prime Minister chose to share a platform with the PRC Ambassador – host last week of the egregious propaganda event in defence of the regime’s record in Xinjiang – in speaking to the China Business Summit – a commercial event organised by one of the council members of the China Council, and heavily oriented to trying to do lots (and lots) of business with PRC entities. Invited speakers tend not to set out to upset their hosts, and in this case both lots of hosts would clearly prefer business above all, and a government operating in the service of those specific business interests. And that is, largely, what they get. From accounts of yesterday’s event, only the visiting Australian speaker (former senior DFAT official) appeared to offer a discouraging word, a dose of geopolitical realism on the nature of the regime. From our political “elite”. leaders past and present, more or less crass (more in John Key’s case) opportunism and spin.

There were, perhaps, a couple of things to be said in favour of the Prime Minister’s speech, at least relative to Mahuta’s. There was no invocation of assorted deities or suggestion that she herself was one (“I bestow a life-force upon this gathering“), and the weird taniwha stuff was nowhere to be seen. More substantively, whereas Mahuta talked several times about the government’s plans to “respect” the PRC, that word appeared not once in the Prime Minister’s speech. At the margin, her framing seemed slightly less gruesome, even if – like some abused wife unable or unwilling to break free – she keeps talking, of one of the most heinous regimes on the planet, of how “areas of difference need not define a relationship”.

We are told that the Labour caucus is this morning going to discuss its approach to the ACT notice of motion to declare the situation in Xinjiang a genocide. Perhaps they will surprise us by allowing a debate, perhaps they will really surprise us and vote for it, or some substantively similar preferred government wording. But there was not the slightest hint of a change of tone or stance in yesterday’s speech. Here is the whole of what the Prime Minister said on the Xinjiang situation

We have commented publicly about our grave concerns regarding the human rights situation of Uyhgurs in Xinjiang. 

I have raised these concerns with senior Chinese leaders on a number of occasions, including with the Guandong Party Secretary in September 2018, and then with China’s leaders when I visited in 2019. 

Note first that all of these references are in the past tense. But more importantly, not how she describes the situation. Like Mahuta ( “the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang”) it is depressingly neutral language (“the human rights situation”), and “grave” is only used to qualify the extent of her concerns. It isn’t much better on Hong Kong where she will only go as far as to refer to “negative developments with regard to the rights, freedoms and autonomy of the people of Hong Kong”. It is the sort of language bureaucrats and MFAT diplomats love.

Oh, and do note the observations about when the Prime Minister has allegedly raised these concerns previously. It is a bit of a stretch to take seriously the 2018 episode, when after that same meeting we were told that the Prime Minister and the Guangdong Party Secretary had agreed to strengthen “party to party exchanges”, and we know how effusive her own party president (and the National’s) was being about Xi and the regime at the time. It must have been a fearsome telling off….or not.

The contrast is striking with the stance taken by a growing number of legislators around the world. From the Prime Minister’s own side of politics, for example, take this recent statement from US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi

“The Biden Administration’s coordinated sanctions on China are a strong and resounding step to hold China accountable for its barbaric atrocities against the Uyghur people.  These sanctions make absolutely clear that America and the international community stand as one to defend the rights and dignity of the Uyghur people from China’s abuse.

“China’s persecution of the Uyghur people – including its imprisonment of more than one million people in labor camps and the torture and extrajudicial killings of many more – is an outrage that challenges the conscience of the world and that demands action. 

I’m pretty sure that not once has Ardern ever uttered those sorts of words.

One could go on. The media like to report the line – also in Mahuta’s speech – that

As a significant power, the way China treats its partners is important to us.

Code, or so it is suggested, for “we don’t really like what the PRC is trying to do to Australia or Canada”. But what feeble words, so vague and general they aren’t going to bother the PRC, or given aid and comfort to anyone else.

Unlike, for example, President Biden and Prime Minister Suga, our so-called leaders are too feeble, scared of their own shadow, to even name economic coercion for what it is.

President Biden and Prime Minister Suga exchanged views on the impact of China’s actions on peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and the world, and shared their concerns over Chinese activities that are inconsistent with the international rules-based order, including the use of economic and other forms of coercion.

And so it went, No reference to the wider and brutal domestic repressions, nothing about the South or East China Seas, nothing about the threats to Taiwan, and nothing (of course) about the PRC’s influence and intimidation activities here.

But we did get a new line from the Prime Minister yesterday, although only in the question and answer session for which there is no transcript. I first saw it reported this way

finny 21

And a Reuters story reported it thus

When asked if New Zealand would risk trade punishment with China, as did Australia, to uphold values, Ardern said: “It would be a concern to anyone in New Zealand if the consideration was ‘Do we speak on this or are we too worried of economic impacts?'”

So we are left with a choice. Either the Prime Minister is speaking the truth, and she is shocked, nay scandalised, that anyone could even think that economic considerations played a part in her government’s choice to say little. In which case we would have to conclude that she and her government really have no values and principles when it comes to anything to do with China. I’m not an Ardern fan at all, but I simply don’t believe that. But the alternative interpretation is that yesterday’s comment was just an outright lie, made up to get round an awkward question. There really isn’t a middle ground I can see. And no serious observer is going to believe that she was telling the truth.

Her government’s stance is craven and cowardly, and all too many people – especially in the business community – commend her for it, even if they’d use different words to describe the policy (perhaps “realistic” or invoking that vapid cover for opting out of the world, “an independent foreign policy”).

Foremost among those champions of turning a blind eye, or just trading eyes wide open, were the former Prime Ministers John Key and Helen Clark, who also spoke at yesterday’s event. Both have a record of cosying up to the PRC regime, in Key’s case more recently as a lobbyist for the US company Comcast in advancing its business interests in China – not a role you get if you are known to be a robust defender of human rights, the rule of law and so on. Now perhaps in fairness to both, when they were in office (perhaps especially Clark) the regime was perhaps a little less egregious (and less evidently so) than it is now. But if times have changed, their approaches do not appear to have. Indeed, in his Politik newsletter this morning, Richard Harman – who has previously provided a platform for the PRC Ambassador’s propaganda – described Key and Clark as “taking direct aim” at the government and calling it back from a concern about the PRC and to a true “independent foreign policy”,

The weirdest of the comments from the former PMs came from Key. He was quoted as suggesting that heightened concern about the PRC was really all Trump’s doing (this was a bad thing) and not something New Zealand should get caught up with. What isn’t clear is whether he believed this nonsense (see Biden or Pelosi, for example) or was also just making things up on the day (or which interpretation reflects more poorly on him). He went on to suggest that really we are much more likely to have an influence on the PRC if we are good friends with them and only ever raise concerns privately. This time, not even he can believe that, but it is a good line to use to sway those who want to be swayed, and don’t want the government doing or saying anything. No one supposes that anything any democratic country – least of all tiny New Zealand – says is going to deflect Xi from the regime’s approach to Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Falun Gong, religious and political freedom, the South China Sea, or whatever. It isn’t as if these are little misunderstandings and a good friend can helpfully get them back on the right course. It is that not speaking – playing along and acting as if the PRC is some normal country run by decent people – directly serves the regime’s interest.

These New Zealand political figures really are despicable, and never worse than when chanting the mantra of the “independent foreign policy”, an empty phrase that at present just seems an excuse for moral abdication, burying the values and principles most New Zealanders champion in some hobbit hole in the south seas, free-riding in the hope that the trade, the trade, can be kept up a little longer, and life not made tougher for firms that voluntarily choose to sup with the devil.

In many ways, I thought the best piece on yesterday’s attempt at circling the wagons was one that appeared on the Guardian Australia website by Bryce Edwards.


It was pretty much the line I’ve run here, that both speeches were carefully crafted efforts to look and sound – to the general New Zealand market -a bit tougher than usual (and ministers have even found one or two erstwhile sceptics to suggest a real shift in tone), while actually saying little or nothing that would disconcert Beijing, and not being remotely in line with the global shift in opinion on the threat the PRC increasingly poses. Edwards – from the left – appears to think this a good approach, going so far as to note that “[Beijing] will be very happy with today’s speech”

He ends with an observation that seems, sadly, mostly accurate about New Zealand domestic opinion

What foreign observers might see as Ardern kowtowing to Beijing, will be seen domestically as her successfully swimming in turbulent global waters between China and the west.

Helped along, of course. by a National Party that at its upper levels is quite as dreadful on the PRC as Ardern and Mahuta.

(On the National Party, Monday’s Politik newsletter reported that at the National Party’s northern regional conference at the weekend party members “voted overwhelmingly” to call for an inquiry into CCP/PRC interference in New Zealand”. Assuming this is true – I’ve not seen it reported anywhere else – it seems quite significant, in a party led by Judith Collins and Peter Goodfellow, both with a record of being all-in with Beijing, And yet, welcome as the call might be, one couldn’t help thinking that any such inquiry might start with – or be preceded by – full disclosure by the National Party about, for example, what it knew about Jian Yang when they put him into Parliament and why they kept him on and promoted him after his past became known, about ties with CCP figure Yikun Zhang, and so on.)