Unserious defenders of NZ national interests

Our government finally made sufficient obeisance and secured a modest upgrade to its preferential trade agreement with the People’s Republic of China.  That included New Zealand agreeing (page 4) to take twice as many PRC-funded ideologically pre-screened Mandarin Language Assistants in our schools (rather than, say, properly funding language learning in schools ourselves).   The values-free cheerleaders for New Zealand deference and subservience to Beijing were all out praising the deal, and if the shameless National Party trade spokesman Todd McClay –  the one who last year was defending the PRC brutality in Xinjiang as being no more than a few vocational training schools and really none of anyone’s business –  was a bit carping and critical, he and his party were probably only critical that the current government does not (quite) do the full kowtow (they did actually sign that 22 country letter on Xinjiang, even if not one of them –  not an official, not a Minister, certainly not the Prime Minister –  will say a word about it).

Remarkably, for a pretty secretive government, sometimes one gets more coverage from the PRC government side than from our own.  The PRC Embassy here often has interesting statement or commentaries on its website.  There was such a commentary this week about the Prime Minister’s meeting with Li Keqiang in Thailand, including the prefential trade agreeement update, although for some mysterious reason I couldn’t see it on the PRC New Zealand embassy website but only on the PRC US embassy website.

Two lines caught my eye. There was this from the Chinese side

The Chinese side is committed to creating a market-oriented, and law-based international business environment, and hopes that the New Zealand side will create a level playing field in New Zealand for Chinese companies to invest and start business.

(One might scoff at the first half of that, but my interest was the second half)

and this describing the New Zealand government’s response

The New Zealand side is willing to provide a non-discriminative environment for companies from all countries investing and starting business in New Zealand.

Others noticed it to.  Here was the Executive Director of the China Council, the government/business propaganda arm of the New Zealand/PRC relationship

Pretty predictable (anything for the PRC, if only we – they – can get some more deals in the short term, is pretty much the China Council stance), but pretty unfortunate too.

The government is, or at least says it is, reviewing the Overseas Investment Act.  It was September last year when they issued terms of reference for the review.    There was a consultation document released in April this year, with a very short period for submissions, because –  according to the Cabinet paper released under the OIA – they wanted to ensure they had legislation passed this parliamentary term.  And yet here we are, now getting on for mid-November and nothing more has been heard.  They don’t seem to have even published the submissions yet.

National security was one of the dimensions covered (albeit superficially) in the consultation document.    Now ‘national security’ is one of those catch-alls that can be grossly abused –  see Trump’s grounds for steel tariffs on Canadian imports –  but the fact that it can be abused does not change the other, rather more important fact, that national security is an important issue, there are real threats (actual/potential), and one of the key roles of any government is to protect national security.    And, on the other hand, business interests have no particular concern for national security, especially if it gets in the way of their activities.

The worry here –  as the Prime Minister’s commitments are reported by the PRC –  is that neither does the government.    We seem to have governments more interested in enabling New Zealand businesses abroad, than in protecting the security, values, and integrity of New Zealand.

I generally have a pretty open approach to foreign investment.  It is often economically helpful and generally mutually beneficial.  Among firms and individuals from free and open societies, sharing similar values, and where companies are free to pursue their interests not those of their governments that is a pretty strong starting proposition.  Perhaps even more so when it involves investment from companies in countries near the frontiers of economic performance and productivity.  Personally, I’d favour removing pretty much all restrictions on such investment from abroad (perhaps preferably reciprocally, but the benefits to New Zealand mostly arise from opening up ourselves –  rather like removing all New Zealand tariffs (something successive governments refuse to do) would benefit New Zealand consumers).

I wrote about this briefly some months ago when I was lodging my own submission to the Overseas Invesment Act review, including how we should think about investment from the People’s Republic of China  and why treating all countries similarly simply does not make much sense (since neither the opportunities nor the risks are the same).  Here is what I wrote then

These days, New Zealand does not get much foreign direct investment –  and especially not much in the way of greenfields new developments.  I don’t think the screening etc regime is the main reason –  mostly, I suspect, we don’t have that much foreign investment because (a) there are few opportunities here, and (b) for the same sorts of reasons business investment generally has been weak for decades (high cost of capital, high real exchange rate, high taxes on business profits –  in that case, especially for foreign investors).  But I’d generally favour a more liberal environment, for almost all industries and for investors of almost all countries.

It is also worth recognising that most of any benefit (to productivity in New Zealand for example) from foreign investment will come from investment by firms based in rich and advanced countries.  Of course, there might be rare exceptions –  a firm based in Zambia, Laos or El Salvador –  but they will be exceptionally rare (the best ideas, technologies, management systems etc) will be in the rich countries –  part of why they got, and stay, rich.  So I’d favour a pretty-much open slather approach to foreign investment –  existing assets or new –  for investors based in rich countries (the OECD membership might be a decent starting point, and one could add in places like Singapore and Taiwan.

For most of the poorer or smaller countries, I really don’t care much what the rules are.  Probabilistically, there is almost nothing at stake (at least in economic terms) in maintaining restrictions on Zambia, Laos, El Salvador (or 100 others) if that is what the political process demands.  But, equally, there isn’t much risk or downside to opening up to them either, especially if one is focused on the benefit of New Zealanders being (generally) able to sell to the highest bidder.

There are various odious regimes in the world.  Most them don’t matter much to New Zealand at all (thinking places like Equatorial Guinea).  But the PRC does and in my view we should –  while the regime remains as it is – be treating investment from there quite differently, for various reasons.    One is a straightforward economic one.  Almost any large PRC firm is either an SOE or has a significant element of state/Party control to it.  We spent years here trying to reduce the hand of the state in direct business operations in New Zealand.  State entities typically don’t run businesses well, don’t allocate investment efficiently, and so on.  There is no more likelihood (to put it mildly) that PRC state-controlled companies will do so than the New Zealand government ones will –  and at least the New Zealand government ones are ultimately answerable to New Zealanders.  Such investment is likely to be a net negative for New Zealand even if the price paid to the initial New Zealand vendor is higher than that vendor could have got from another –  private –  purchaser, whether from New Zealand or another country.

But the deeper reason is that the PRC is a big and powerful totalitarian state, that has repeatedly displayed aggressive intent, which has values antithetical to those of most New Zealanders.   Individual PRC buyers may well be perfectly decent well-intentioned people –  as plenty of 1930s Germans were too –  but a totalitarian state has, and repeatedly demonstrated, its leverage over its own people, by fair means and (too often) foul.  We would simply be ill-advised to allow PRC-associated interests to have significant investments in many sectors in New Zealand.  One could think of media or telecom companies, or tech firms.    The PRC banks operating here should be a matter of concern, especially if they get materially larger than they are now.   But the concern should range wider.  For example, the greater the control PRC interests have of elements of the dairy industry, the more difficult New Zealand might find it to be handle the sort of economic coercion the PRC has attempted to engage in re various countries in recent years.

And, of course, to circle back to my earlier point, it is not as if the PRC is one of the world’s advanced economies.  Productivity levels languish far behind even New Zealand’s modest levels, and everyone recognises the dependence the regime has had on industrial espionage.  Deep pockets aside –  with a mix of market and non-market motives –  how much genuine benefit to New Zealanders is there likely to be from PRC foreign investment over time?

It is possible that this sort of restrictive regime could come at some economic cost, in terms of lost productivity opportunities for New Zealand. My sense is that it would probably be quite a small cost, but we can’t be sure.  Perhaps more importantly, many precautions have a cost –  whether it be a national defence force, Police, anti-virus software, or a lock on your front door.  The PRC is a threat to New Zealand and countries like us, and we need to be willing to spend some resources (perhaps sacrifice some short-term opportunities) to establish some resilience to those threats.

But, of course, our elected “leaders” and business establishment figures have no interest in any of this.  For them, it seems, the character of the regime matters not a jot, it demonstrated track record at home, abroad, and in New Zealand matter not a jot.  There are deals to be done, donations to be collected, and  –  if there are any risks –  well that will be someone else’s problem another day.  And in the process they’ve allowed our political system to become corrupted, indifferent to the character of the regime, indifferent to the values of New Zealanders.  But their “friends in Beijing” are no doubt happy.

I didn’t post a link then to my short submission, but I will do so now.

Submission on. reform of Overseas Investment Act May 2019

Some excerpts.  First, the liberalising proposal

As a general proposition, I suggest that the government should look at a model which more clearly distinguishes between countries which, broadly share similar values, interests, legal systems and approaches to business and remove all (or almost all) restrictions on foreign investment originating from such countries. A starting point for such a list might be the OECD countries plus Singapore and Taiwan. If the beneficial owners of a potential investor are predominantly from these countries, it isn’t obvious that the net benefits from screening would outweigh the costs, including deterrence of investment, of such a regime. Much of world cross-border foreign investment originates from these countries (and the countries at or near productivity frontiers are included in this group), and to the extent that there are prospective economic gains from liberalising the regime, those gains are likely to arise in respect of these countries.

And on the other hand

And at the other end of the spectrum should be a small list of named countries from which we should simply not welcome foreign direct investment, and where the presumption should be against granting approval for any but the smallest and most innocuous of investments. Such a list might include countries subject to United Nations sanctions (notably North Korea), mostly for global good-citizen reasons, and membership of the list might change over time – Germany might have appeared in the late 1930s, the Soviet Union and its satellites during the Cold War – but the key country that should feature on any such list today would be the People’s Republic of China.

In other words, the issue is not specific countries for all time, but specific assessments of the character of regimes, their control over business, and the nature of any threat.

The consultation document makes every effort to be neutral as between countries. But that is a mistake. It is right to recognise that the source of potential threats can change over time, but unless the government is willing to openly confront the nature of specific potentially-threatening countries, it is difficult to build a regime that will serve well both the national security and economic interest imperatives, and provide a clear framework for potential investors (and potential vendors).

What of the PRC?

The issues around the PRC are twofold. First, many of the larger potential foreign investors are state-owned enterprises (or state-controlled ones). We moved to reduce the role of state-owned companies in our economy, for good sound efficiency reasons, and we should establish a presumption in our foreign investment regime that foreign state-owned enterprises (especially ones that cannot operate at a genuine arms-length from government ownership/control) are unlikely to offer potential efficiency gains for the New Zealand economy. And second, because the People’s Republic of China is a regime (a) in which no one can operate fully at arms-length from the authorities (Party or state), (b) has a demonstrated record of not operating as a market economy, (c) shares almost none of the values of New Zealanders, and (d) represents a clear potential threat to the integrity and security of other countries, including in any future period of conflict. The fact that there may be many good, well-intentioned, investors from the PRC should simply not be relevant here, any more than the presence of decent well-intentioned Germans in the late 1930s should have left countries relaxed about German foreign investment at the time. The issue isn’t the individuals, but the authorities to which they are subject.

The risks around foreign investment from the PRC are not restricted to more-obviously sensitive assets (eg major media outlets or telecommunications systems) but apply more generally, partly because of the importance of PRC state-sponsored industrial espionage, but also because of the pervasive use by the PRC system of all sorts of potential sources of influence or connection. For example, vertically-integrated production and supply chains (including in the dairy industry, or the tourism sector would more difficult to withstand PRC attempts at economic coercion of the sort seen in various other countries in the last decade Investment from PRC sources represents a different and, generally, much more severe set of risks than that from Singapore, South Korea, Ireland or Canada.

More generally

The issue can be thought of in terms of a 2×2 matrix: there are benign countries large and small, and more troubling countries large and small. It is the larger and more troubling countries our restrictions should be focused on, and with regard not just to the current situation and immediate threats, but to maintaining resilience over, say, a 10 or 20 year horizon.

And to revert to the PRC

It is possible that such a near-complete ban on PRC-sourced foreign investment could come at some – likely modest – economic cost, the character of any such cost should not be seen as much different in kind to the price we pay for national defence and security systems. Without that expenditure, private consumption could be higher now – and potentially for decades to come – but we choose not to take that option because the recognise that there are risks and threats.

In this, as in other areas of public life, we shouldn’t be afraid to name the potentially hostile state and act accordingly, even as we would welcome such a state back into the fold when if the character of the regime changes. Germany and Japan were once our greatest threat, and are now close allies. They changed their regimes, systems, and strategic intent. When and if the government of China does, we should welcome foreign investment from there, commensurate with the values and practices of the new system. For now, however, we allow our system and society to be corroded from within to the extent we open our economy to significant PRC foreign investment, whatever the apparent short-term gains to individual vendors might be. It isn’t, by any means, the only (or perhaps even most important) set of PRC risks and threats but it is the one that is the subject of this consultation.

Businesses won’t care.  Governments should.  Ours appears not to.  The focus always –  be it on defence, the political system itself, or whatever (foreign investment, Confucius Institutes) – seems to be to minimise the issues, do as little as possible, try to pretend to the public there really isn’t an issue or potential threat at all.  That is pretty shameful and inexcusable.  That is our Prime Minister (and, of course, her chief rival has form suggesting that if anything he’d be worse on this score).

Talking of long-delayed inquiries, the Justice Committee’s inquiry into foreign interference –  the one the government didn’t want to open for public submissions at all –  has still not reported, and no reform legislation has been presented to Parliament either.   The big issues here are less about legislation than about will and mindset.  But again all the evidence points in the direction of big political parties preferring to minimise the issues to the very greatest extent possible.  Jian Yang, and the National and Labour Party “friends in Beijing” will be happy.

On the anniversary of the CCP seizing power

It is 70 years today since one of the dark days of the 20th century, when the Communist Party seized power in China, and renamed the country the People’s Republic of China –  rather better surely would have been Party’s Republic of China?

Of course, there were a fair number of dark 20th century days, mostly associated with one or another of the totalitarian regimes.  But when thinks of the CCP one can combine (a) the number of people in China, (b) the length of time the regime has persisted, and (c) the very great evils the regime has visited on its own people (and others).  I’m not going to argue it was necessarily worse than when the Nazis came to power in Germany: tens of millions then lost their lives, but the regime was gone again in little more than 12 years.  Or than the Communist Party coming to power in Russia, which opened the way to all manner of Communist regimes, including in China, as well as the brutality and depraved indifference (mass starvation) and loss of freedom visited on its own people and others.   On a smaller (but still large) scale the Rape of Nanking and the Japanese invasion of China would be up there.  But as a marker of evil in our world, 20th century (and now 21st) style it is a low that is hard to beat.    Absolutely dreadful as Rwanda in the 90s, Cambodia in the 70s, various other ethnic cleansings, and even the dropping of the atomic bomb. were, those were all shortlived (mercifully) and affected a handful of people by comparison with the PRC and the Party that controls it.  After all, almost 20 per cent of the world’s population lives under this particular longrunning tyranny.

And yet among too many of the “elites” in our society – whether elected or not –  that doesn’t seem to be the take on the PRC at all.     The PRC model might not be the one they’d want for their own children, but the fact that hundreds of millions of others live under such a regime (tens of millions more either starved by the depraved indifference of the regime, or murdered by the forced abortion policies of the regime) bothers them not in the least.    It isn’t just New Zealand, of course, although all indications are that our “elites” have lost of any sort of moral or values-based perspective on the PRC regime to at least as great an extent, probably more so, than so-called leaders in many other Western countries.  After all –  and not the worst of it – they tolerate a Communist Party member and (former?) member of the PRC military intelligence system in our Parliament, not as some rogue independent, but as a (recently-promoted) member of our largest political party.  And worse, so we are told by a well-connected person, they are so lacking in any decency or moral seriousness, they make light of the fact.

spy

Meanwhile, other parties in Parliament make nothing of this, and so become complicit.

Around the world, all manner of well-known, powerful or influential people in recent weeks will have been invited to functions, hosted by PRC embassies, to mark the beginning of the CCP tyranny.  Others –  people in embassies in Beijing –  will no doubt have been invited to this afternoon’s lavish military parade.   You’d suppose that decent, honourable, people would simply say no.  I’m not suggesting our authorities should have no relations with the PRC but an invitation to such an event in New Zealand might have been met by sending along, for as short a period as decently possible, a mid-ranked MFAT official.

Somewhat to their credit, the PRC Embassy in New Zealand maintains quite a useful website, with speeches and articles that typically tell one more than would ever be secured from the New Zealand side of such exchanges.    Last week there was a big reception, hosted by the Ambassador, at Te Papa to mark the Communist takeover.   The “great and the good” (well, I’ll use the label, even if there is no substance to it) seem to have flocked to it.

On September 24th, the Chinese Embassy in New Zealand held a reception to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Over 500 people attended the reception, including the Acting Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Rt. Hon Winston Peters, the Minister for Ethnic Communities Hon Jenny Salesa, the Acting Secretary and Deputy Chief Executive of MFAT Bede Corry, the Deputy Secretary of the Americas and Asia Group of MFAT Ben King, heads of major government departments and members of parliament, well-known members of the wider community in New Zealand, members of Diplomatic Corps, overseas Chinese, representatives from Chinese institutions and international students.

I’m not holding it against resident PRC citizens that they would attend such an event –  it might not have gone well for them or their families had they declined.  But what of all those prominent New Zealanders, from the acting Prime Minister on down?  Not one of them had to attend.  Every one of them made a choice to do so, a choice that said that what the regime stands for – and has stood for over the decades – didn’t matter to them one bit.    Perhaps the PM herself would have gone if she hadn’t been extolling –  emptily, as this occasion demonstrates –  the idea of a values-driven approach to policy and international affairs?  The acting Prime Minister is photographed standing with the Ambassador, unbothered (apparently) that she represents the latter day manifestation of something like the Nazi Party ca 1938.

(There was another such function in Auckland, with only a slightly less ‘distinguished’ attendance list, including such people as the National Party president, the Mayor of Auckland, and Don McKinnon, all known for their deference to the regime in Beijing.)

We are told that a Deputy Secretary of MFAT gave a speech on behalf of the New Zealand government (less bad than the Minister I suppose).    According to the embassy

MFAT’s Deputy Secretary of the Americas and Asia Group Ben King delivered a speech on behalf of the New Zealand Government, extending warm congratulations on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

How many tens of millions of dead would it have taken for Mr King to have found a conscience and either refused to speak or spoken out (career-limiting of course) to regret the founding of any tyrannical regime and this one in particular?  King’s speech doesn’t appear on the MFAT website, but I have requested a copy. I’m sure it will have been cleverly drafted, but not in the way that will avoid the clear immoral choice successive New Zealand governments have made around the PRC in recent times.  Values are things that have a cost, and when it comes to the PRC it isn’t clear that our politicians or officials have any values at all.  There is no sign any price is worth paying ever.  Some, of course, are particular craven in their pandering, their praise, and their lack of interest in the character of the regime (Simon Bridges as just the most recent egregious example).

Communist Party regimes around the world have proved fairly economically disappointing.   In whatever precise form the regime takes, Communism hasn’t proved incompatible with improving material living standards.   The USSR in 1991 had substantially higher material living standards than Russia had had in 1917.   The same goes for the eastern-bloc countries the Soviet Union controlled for several decades –  wealthier at the end than at the start.   Data on Laos is scarce, but no doubt material living standards are higher than they were several decades ago.  Even Cuba, for all it failures, has GDP per capita higher than when Castro took power.      Quite possible, material living standards even in North Korea (which now eschews the Communist label) are better than in 1950.  But what of it?  Almost every country in the world is richer than it was, and yet useful idiots all round the West rush to use the CCP line about how somehow the regime has “lifted out of poverty” many hundreds of millions.

The best simple test of the economic value-add of Communist regime might be to compare the economic performance of Communist countries with non-Communist one with similar cultural backgrounds, similar geographies etc.   The simplest examples, of course, being East and West Germany, and North and South Korea (the north have once been the more advanced part of the peninsula).    But we could, say, compare Austria with Czechoslovakia (until 1918 they were all part of one polity): in 1937 GDP per capita in two countries was roughly similar  but after 40 years of Communism Czechoslovakia (richer than it was 1937) had about half the per capita GDP of Austria.   Or Cuba and Costa Rica –  with pretty similar levels of GDP per capita in the 1950s, Cuba at about 75 per cent of Spain’s GDP per capita, Cuba now lags badly behind.  Or contrast Laos with neighbouring Thailand.  Vietnam with Malaysia.

And, of course, the PRC with Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, South Korea…..well, even with today’s Russia.    Sure over 70 years the material lot of PRC citizens is generally better than it was, but the level of income now lags far behind those other countries.    China once led the world economically, but now –  even after decades of catch-up growth (and some doubts about their data), their average GDP per capita (in PPP terms) is still only just reaching the world average.  Almost certainly, the Communist Party has materially held back the economic development of China and thus the income prospects of the the citizens of the PRC.

Perhaps it would be a little different if Communist rule –  anywhere, let alone China –  had been some staggering economic success.  Then an honest representative of the CCP (is there such a thing?) might reasonably ask whether materially higher living standards than were on offer in comparable, but freer, societies was not a trade-off worth making.  That is, implicitly at least, the situation in Singapore –  not free (although not PRC unfree either) but really rather prosperous, almost up at the global productivity frontiers.  But this is the PRC we are talking about.  It might buy a lot of stuff, including from New Zealand, but it has crippled the economic prospects of its own people, and taken their freedoms in the process.

Yet this is the actual regime ministers, head of departments, and other “leading” citizens have been celebrating:

  •  one where citizens don’t have the vote,
  •  one where citizens have little or no effective freedom of expression,
  •  one where the surveillance state becomes more intrusive by the year,
  •  one that holds Canadian citizens hostage, not for any real crimes, but as leverage against the Canadian government,
  •  one that engages in forced organ transplants,
  •  one that has unilaterally seized and militarised much of the South China Sea, in defiance of international agreements to which the PRC was a party,
  •  one that holds a million or more Uighur people in concentration camps,
  •  one that remains openly determined to absorb free and democratic Taiwan into the PRC, if necessary by invading it,
  •  one that increasingly deprives citizens of any freedom of religion, which might be seen as a threat to the pre-eminence of the Party

and so we would go on, barely mentioning Tibet, state-sponsored intellectual property theft, the absence of the rule of law, or the activities abroad of the likes of Jian Yang, Yikun Zhang, and their counterparts in numerous countries around the world. And it is not as if the regime is getting less tyrannical, more willing to limit the Party’s pre-eminence.

But never mind, there are drinks and canapes to consume, deals to do, donations to secure…….against which the sort of traditional values of New Zealand citizens (including many ethnic Chinese who came here to escape the regime) are set at naught and dishonoured every day, but this day perhaps more than most.

How will history judge these people – our politicians, our prominent business leaders, our journalists who take trips to China and then write PRC-favourable stories, the government-funded propagandists at the China Council, and so on?  Not well, one hopes.  No doubt, they all manage to tell themselves that somehow they have the ‘best interests of New Zealand” at heart and perhaps they even believe it, but they are deluding themselves, and dishonouring all those who value freedom, whether here, in China, or anywhere else around the world.

They shame us:

Jacinda Ardern

Simon Bridges

Winston Peters

James Shaw

Todd McClay

Gerry Brownlee

David Parker

Don McKinnon

Stephen Jacobi

Peter Goodfellow

and so on, including the galaxy of MFAT officials, other senior officials, university vice-chancellors, private business people, much of the mainstream media.

But if it is 70 years today since the CCP tyranny was established, it is also 30 years next month since the Berlin Wall fell and way was opened decisively for the end of Communism in Europe.      Evil regimes don’t last forever.  For the sake of the world, and for the 1.4 billion people in China, we should hope this one ends soon, and give no aid and succour –  or simple encouragement by turning up to share celebratory drinks – to the evil regime and its leaders while they last.

Recalling Jian Yang’s past: questions for him and his leader

It was two years ago last Friday that Newsroom and the Financial Times jointly broke the story of National list MP Jian Yang’s past, as a Chinese Communist Party member and fifteen years spent as a trainer in the PLA military intelligence system.   There was a strong suggestion that he had been removed from Parliament’s foreign affairs committee after the New Zealand security services discovered his past and had drawn it to the attention of the then Prime Minister.    Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons working paper was released at about the same time, highlighting the extent of PRC attempts to influence, or interfere in, affairs in New Zealand.

A bit more of Jian Yang’s story seeped out over the following few months, including his residency application documents for New Zealand, in which –  so he later acknowledged –  he had actively chosen to misrepresent his past, (so he also told us) on the instructions of Beijing.      There was also rather more confirmation of just how close to the PRC Embassy in New Zealand Jian Yang is and was –  leading one serious government relations type, with a diplomatic background, to go on record stating that he was always very careful what he said around Jian Yang (and Raymond Huo, once again a Labour MP).   The implication –  never stated directly –  was that whatever was said around him might well end up in the hands of the PRC Embassy.  At the time, of course, Jian Yang was full member of the government caucus, and although Cabinets often keeps their own caucuses in the dark about some things, caucus members generally know more than you or I do about what the government is up to, or is thinking.

But after that brief flurry the issue died down.    Labour and the Greens showed no interest in questioning whether someone of that background, never once heard to utter a word of criticism of the PRC, should really be serving in our Parliament.  National closed ranks behind Jian Yang –  not once in the subsequent two years has a single past or present National MP expressed as much as an iota of concern.   And Jian Yang went quiet, simply refusing to talk at all to any English-language media (despite English being the first language of most of National’s voters), but only too happy to talk to quiescent regime-complicit Chinese language outlets.   If you can get away with it –  and have all the morals that must have accompanied CCP membership and service with PLA military intelligence –  I suppose why would you do anything else?  People –  all of us – respond to incentives and –  given his actual background –  simply going to ground and staying there must have looked quite the most attractive option.

Optimists –  naive ones perhaps –  wondered if perhaps National, embarrassed to have been caught out, would gradually sideline Jian Yang and he’d eventually quietly step aside by the next election, perhaps to be replaced with another regime-sympathetic,  well-connected, good-with-the-donors recent migrant, but one without such an uncomfortable back story.

Silly them (well, in my optimistic moments perhaps I was one of them).

For Jian Yang is still with us.  Still not talking to the English-language media (except a few comments in his rather ineffectual service as National’s spokesman on Statistics), still sharing an office in Auckland with fellow list MP (and now National’s Finance spokesman) Paul Goldsmith, recently promoted to chair the (not overly important) Governance and Administration Committee of Parliament, still in business with National Party president (and regime cheerleader) Peter Goodfellow), and……most recently, accompanying Simon Bridges on his trip to the PRC, including that gruesomely awful fawning interview with CGTN (saying what so much of the rest of the New Zealand establishment only support in practice by their silence) and his meeting with Guo Shengkun, the Politburo member responsible for the entire apparatus of repression (“law and order”) in the PRC, including the concentration camps in Xinjiang.   Yes, it was a big week for Jian Yang.  If Simon Bridges wasn’t just regurgitating briefing notes from Jian Yang, he might as well have been.  The Embassy will have been pleased.   Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jian Yang was out in the media (Chinese language only) praising his leader for his praise of the CCP  (Raymond Huo was also out praising Bridges, at least until he deleted the relevant tweet).

And not a peep out of any other political party expressing any concern about Jian Yang (or Bridges).

That tawdry episode –  Bridges abasing himself before the PRC, aided and abetted by their own (former) man now sitting in his caucus –  was a bit much for Daisy Lee, an independent researcher born and raised in the PRC, and now living in Auckland.  (There was some background on Daisy and her husband –  he’d been a Tiananmen Square protestor in 1989 –  in this Sunday Star-Times article.)  Daisy has written an article on Jian Yang and his place in the National Party, and asked if I would run it here.  I helped her with some of the English, but it is her text, her stories, and her challenges to Jian Yang (and, at least by implication) to the National Party.

Of his residency application, she reminds us

In this nine-page document, Jian Yang declared that the whole period from 1978 until 1993, the year he departed for Australia was spent solely at one school, Luoyang University.

But the facts reveal, and Jian Yang later acknowledged, that the relevant certificates are falsely made to cover up his total 15 years with the two military universities, the PLA Air Force Engineering Institute and Luoyang PLA University of Foreign Language. The notarised document in both Chinese and English declares that Jian Yang enrolled in Luoyang University in 1978. But a simple search – Wikipedia or the Chinese Baidu – indicates that that university wasn’t even founded until 1980.

Jian Yang eventually told us that Beijing instructed him to misrepresent his past, but never explained the notarised certificate. It won’t be just anyone who has the authority to instruct a state-owned university to issue a series of false documents just to satisfy a request from an ordinary Chinese citizen. Chinese intelligence authorities perhaps?

It is commonly understood among the Chinese community that an active serviceman in China is not allowed to emigrate overseas, and does not even have an ordinary citizen’s passport.

The sort of thing that should bother the National Party, you’d once have hoped.

Jian Yang seems to spend a great deal of time with regime-sympathetic Chinese in New Zealand.  Daisy asks about others from the PRC.

In the past two years I have seen Jian Yang’s smiling face on his sign displayed on Auckland’s Great South Road. The same smile I have seen in pictures of a number of occasions including him meeting Politburo member Guo Shengkun on his recent trip to China with Simon Bridges, and his visit to the new PRC consul general in Auckland with the National Party’s president Peter Goodfellow in July.

I hope that one day Jian Yang will smile on some other groups from China. Among the Chinese diaspora they include Falun Gong practitioners and human rights activists. They also include the Xinjiang Uyghurs, exiled Tibetans, and members of house churches in China. Most of them fled to New Zealand to escape persecution. Many don’t speak much English and so aren’t easily about to tell their stories to National’s leaders.

Meanwhile, these same people see Simon Bridges and Jian Yang meeting with Guo Shengkun. From a regime keen to suggest to Chinese diasporas that they are not beyond Beijing’s reach, what sort of chilling message must that send?

Even among those with less immediate reason to fear

I could have chosen not to write this article, but the embarrassment of Simon Bridges’ performance in the staged interview with CGTN, the CCP’s English-language mouthpiece, has led me to decide to give Jian Yang a chance.

A chance to stop encouraging and assisting New Zealand politicians like Simon Bridges to worship the brutal regime and people like its representative Guo Shengkun, one of the most powerful figures in the CCP who is responsible for all of the religious and political repression apparatus. To stop praising the CCP. And to stop hiding from the local English-language media, or anyone who might ask awkward questions.

Over the last two to three decades, there have been significantly increasing numbers of Chinese who have moved overseas and the majority of these immigrants are well educated middle class and business people. The main reason for them to leave China is that they hated the corruption, pollution, and suppression which are all the problems caused by the CCP’s 70 years in power.

It is naive to believe pro-CCP politicians can receive more votes from their Chinese constituents for praising Xi and Guo, or for being silent about a brutal regime that continues to corrupt and repress their families and relatives in China.

(Daisy might be right about that, although evidence to date suggests it is a rather good values-free fundraising strategy.)

She ends

The next election is approaching and the public deserve better answers from Jian Yang.

The full article is here.

One can only agree that there are hard questions that Jian Yang should answer.

But personally I reckon Peter Goodfellow and successive National Party leaders (Key, English, and Bridges) are now –  fixed with knowledge – just as culpable, if not more so and shouldn’t be allowed off the hook.  For the earlier leaders, the questions should be along the lines of “what did you know and when did you know it?” and “what steps did you take to ensure that as an MP Jian Yang is operating only in the interests of New Zealand, not those of the PRC?”   For Bridges, why do regard it as appropriate to have a (former?) CCP member, former longserving member of the PLA military intelligence system, who has never said a word of criticism of the PRC or the CCP, and who remains very close to the PRC Embassy as a serving member of your caucus?  Would you be willing to have Jian Yang serving as a minister in a future National government (and if not, why not)?  And so on.    The questions could usefully be extended to all current National MPs, every single one of whom was elected in 2017 (or came in on the list since) knowing they would serve with Jian Yang, and not one of whom has been willing to express even a scintilla of public concern or unease  (perhaps someone has had private concerns, but after this amount of time private concerns count for little or nothing –  as members of Parliament you have a higher duty than to mere “caucus discipline”).

And then, of course, we could extend the questions to the Prime Minister and to the leaders of the Green Party.  Why, for example, have you expressed precisely no concern about this individual –  with such a questionable background –  serving in New Zealand’s Parliament?  And, of course, Winston Peters who did once express some concern, but no longer does so.  Beijing probably wouldn’t like it if he did –  nor, probably, would the Prime Minister.

And, of course, there are the agencies –  MBIE and DIA –  that gave Jian Yang residency and citizenship on the basis of false documents.  Is anything ever going to be done.  If not, why not?

Are there any values that guide our political class around the PRC?   Fear and opportunism don’t count.

There has been a very robust debate in Australia over the last week or so about the regime affiliations of new Liberal backbencher Gladys Liu (lots of extracts from various perspectives here).     Seems to me that although there are legitimate and important questions to ask about Gladys Liu, what has emerged to date raises far fewer questions than Jian Yang’s position should.  And yet the media and the political classes passed over in silence the two-year anniversary of learning of Jian Yang’s background, serving one of the most dreadful regimes on the planet, none of it recanted, even as he himself chose to join his leader in print praising the Party.   They will be happy in Beijing.   Could they have imagined on 1 October 1949 having such a quiescent and compromised dependency in the South Pacific only 70 years later?

The rest of us –  ethnic Chinese and otherwise – should be alarmed, by Jian Yang himself and by those who continue to make space for him to serve in New Zealand’s Parliament consciously choosing to ignore (or even embrace) how compromised he appears to be.

 

Hush, don’t be so explicit

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.

 

China and Japan

I’ve been reading a wave of books in the last few weeks about modern Japan –  the rapid economic rise from the mid 19th century, the out of control militarism that led to the war from 1937 to 1945, and the post-war revival (rather than the last few decades).   And as I read, it left me pondering the relative economic fortunes of Japan and China.

According to the standard reference source for such things – Angus Maddison’s collection of estimates of GDP per capita since the year 1 AD –  in earlier centuries Japan and China were more or less level-pegging for centuries, with China a bit ahead of Japan (a thousand years ago, China is generally accepted as having the highest material living standards anywhere).  Here are the estimates (in 1990 international dollars) through to the 18th century.

maddison chjp

There was, of course, a great divergence between economic progress and living standards in the leading European (and offshoots) economies and those of east Asia, but today I’m more interested in the less-highlighted, but scarcely less dramatic, divergence between economic performance in Japan and that in China.

Maddison’s estimates report that –  despite having turned its back on the world –  Japan had moved ahead of China over the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century: for 1850 the reported estimates are Japan $679 and China $650.   There are only scattered estimates for China for the following few decades, but here is the reported estimate of average per capita real GDP per capita, China as a per cent of Japan.

China GDP pc as % of Japan
1850 88
1870 72
1890 53
1900 46
1913 40

A bit later, the annual estimates start –  with a break when Japan was attempting to conquer China.  Here is the chart to 2008 when Maddison’s estimates end.

chinajp

The Conference Board has estimates through to the present day, but they only start from 1950.   Here is the PRC’s real GDP per capita as a percentage of Japan’s.

chjp conf board

Productivity estimates are available only for even more recent periods, but on Conference Board numbers they show a pretty similar picture: as at last year, average productivity in the PRC just over 30 per cent of that in Japan.   And that is still probably worse than the situation at the turn of the last century (when –  see above –  China’s real GDP per capita was about 45 per cent of Japan’s).

Of course, it isn’t only Japan that China has fallen so far behind.  Taiwan was a Japanese territory for 50 years after the Sino-Japanese War in the 1890s, and Korea was a Japanese colony/conquest for 40 years.  On the Maddison estimates, 150 years ago both Korea and Taiwan had GDP per capita (estimated at) not much different from that of China.    These days, South Korea (historically less well-developed than the north) has real GDP per capita about 10 per cent less than that of Japan, while Taiwan has real GDP per capita about 15 per cent more than that of Japan.    Both, in other words, are far ahead of the PRC.

taichi conf bd

Relative to Taiwan, the PRC has just now managed to get back up to the relative living standards just prior to the Cultural Revolution.  (And yet this is the regime whose “successes” Simon Bridges lauds.)

There isn’t really much debate about why the PRC has over recent decades still been the disastrous laggard among the historically more advanced east Asian economies (North Korea of course marking out an even worse extreme) –  absence of the rule of law, absence of the sorts of incentives that make for the efficient allocation of capital, primacy of the Party etc etc will do that to a country (the Soviet Union in the 80s was closer in living standards to Japan then than the PRC is to Japan now).

But in some ways I’m more interested in how the gaps opened up in the first place –  before 1950, or even before the overthrow of the Manchu emperors in 1911.  It is easy to say that Japan embraced greater openness, Western technology etc –  initially under external pressure –  but what was it that meant Japan (having, if anything, been more isolated than China for the previous few centuries) made that choice and China did not?   In looking around, I’ve found a couple of relevant journal articles, but if any readers happen to have suggestions of good treatments of the issue (book or article) I would really welcome them.

The Bridges kowtow

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.)

 

Political donations, National, and Jami-Lee Ross

Jami-Lee Ross, MP for Botany, appears to be a somewhat odious character.  Between his repeated betrayals of his wife, on the one hand, and his apparently quite-central role in National Party’s large-scale fundraising from PRC-affiliated sources (New Zealand citizens and not), there seems to be little that is at all appealing.  And yet……for whatever reason (and since I’ve never heard an apology to the New Zealand public for his part in the process it is hard to believe it is totally public-spirited) he has been drip-feeding material to the media about the details of several such donations.    The first involved non-English-speaking Auckland businessman and close affiliate of various CCP/PRC groups, Yikun Zhang.  And this week we’ve had some details of the (previously disclosed) large donation from a New Zealand registered company owned and totally controlled by a PRC billionaire.  And, amid these disclosures, he is now calling for law changes, to prevent some of the practices he was formerly so adept at, and apparently untroubled by.   We should be thankful for small mercies, although it would be better if he –  and all those involved –  departed the political scene, and the swamp was drained.

On Twitter yesterday afternoon, Anne-Marie Brady drew her followers’ attention to the fact that Jami-Lee Ross was speaking on this issue in Parliament’s general debate –  presumably one of his rare speaking opportunities, and no doubt the Herald story was timed with this slot in mind.

Two things were striking about this event. The first is that no other MP speaking after Ross even mentioned these issues. Sure, each MP has his or her own barrow to push, but it goes to the apparently general desire among our political parties to avoid confronting what has been, and no doubt is still, going on.

And the second – prompt for this post – was realising that despite the coverage given to the Todd McClay story on Monday, there seemed to be no media coverage at all, anywhere, to Ross’s speech. Perhaps I missed something, but I searched myself, and I checked the Politics Daily email listing compiled by Bryce Edwards, and couldn’t see a single mention. Sure, probably no one has much time for Ross personally, but the issues he is raising aren’t imaginary.

And so, since Hansard is in the public domain, here is Jami-Lee Ross’s speech.

JAMI-LEE ROSS (MP—Botany): A regulation we do need in this country is greater restrictions around foreign donations to political parties. Yesterday, we saw in the New Zealand Herald a very good example of how the current rules around donations do not work for our democracy. I don’t need to go into depth around that particular donation, but what it does highlight is how our current laws around donations are wrong. It’s true—I was one of the sources for that story. It’s true—I was able to outline for the journalists my phone records and email records and contacts around that particular donation, because at the time I was asked by someone who held ministerial office to collect the donation. I did so because I wasn’t “OIA-able”; the person that asked me to do so was subject to the Official Information Act (OIA).

The issue that that donation highlights is that our current laws do not adequately restrict the ability for foreigners to make donations to political parties. It is true that that donation in the Herald yesterday was lawful. It is true no laws were broken, but we’re in the business of making laws and fixing laws where they are wrong. It is wrong, in my view, for a foreigner who has interests in New Zealand, who wants to donate to a political party, to be able to utilise a New Zealand-based company. It is wrong for an individual who has no other links to New Zealand other than business through a company to be able to make a donation, and have influence by making that donation to a political party.

Our laws are wrong. In my view, if you are unable to influence an election by voting, you should be unable to influence an election or our democracy by making a donation. It’s a fairly simple concept, and it’s one that we should be looking at in this House. Correct, the donation was not unlawful; our law is wrong and needs to be changed.

When we talk about foreign interference, it’s very easy to look at donations, and look at the way in which we interact with people that have connections to foreign States, and just dismiss what might be going on. But when we look at it very clearly and carefully, when we try and understand the connections and the influences that people from offshore are trying to have on our democracy, it can be very chilling. Does anyone really believe that a Mongolian oligarch wants to, out of the goodness of his heart, make six-figure donations to a political party after meeting the person who has responsibility for the very policy that he’s interested in, when it comes to the exporting of livestock? I don’t think he did so out of the goodness of his heart. I don’t think any laws were broken, but I think we need to fix the system. We need to ensure our democracy is safe from foreign influences, and ensure that we tighten up the rules.

I’ve heard that there is a lot of support in the House for banning foreign donations. That’s great, but simply lowering the threshold from $1,500 down to zero will do nothing, because any foreigner, at any point in time that they wish, can set up a New Zealand company or use an existing one to make a large donation. We have politicians in this House, and those seeking election, that have a lot of connections to people that have offshore influences and offshore interests. We should ensure our democracy and our electoral laws are much tighter.

There is a foreign interference inquiry under way, through the Justice Committee. Unfortunately, that inquiry is going very slow. Unfortunately, the committee that is looking at that inquiry may report back too late for us to make changes to our electoral law. It’s important we move now and we move swiftly because election year is very close. That same committee is also looking at the Electoral Amendment Bill right now. Unfortunately, that Electoral Amendment Bill is too tight and does not allow the committee to consider foreign donations or consider donation laws at all. The very same people sitting on the inquiry are also considering that bill. It’s my view that the House should give that committee the power to look at donations; give those same people doing the inquiry around foreign interference and around elections the power to make recommendations around amendments to the Electoral Act, with regards to donations. We need to move on this. Election year is not far away. There is a very good example out there, and there will be many others, that foreigners—and we heard directly from the spy agencies yesterday at the select committee, in both an open session and then in much more detail in a secret session—about—

SPEAKER: Order!

JAMI-LEE ROSS: —influences in our democracy, and we need to take them seriously.

I’m going to seek leave in a second to have a Supplementary Order Paper (SOP) in my name—SOP 324—which does seek to make some changes referred to the Justice Committee.

I seek leave for Supplementary Order Paper 324 in my name to be referred to the Justice Committee, and for the committee to, in its consideration of the Electoral Amendment Bill, have the power to consider, and if it thinks fit, adopt the amendment set out on SOP 324 or any other amendments relating to electoral donations.

SPEAKER: Is there any objection to that process? There is objection.

I thought the central line was this one

In my view, if you are unable to influence an election by voting, you should be unable to influence an election or our democracy by making a donation. It’s a fairly simple concept, and it’s one that we should be looking at in this House. Correct, the donation was not unlawful; our law is wrong and needs to be changed.

It isn’t clear how anyone could reasonably take a different view but –  based on their comments this week –  Simon Bridges (now heading off to Beijing) and Todd McClay do.

But the other key aspect was the Supplementary Order Paper Ross intends to introduce at the Committee stage of the Electoral Amendment Bill currently before the House.  The link is here.   As I understand it, the proposed amendments would prohibit anonymous donations and would allow donations only from registered electors in New Zealand (thus prohibiting donations to political parties from companies, unions, or any individual not eligible to vote in New Zealand).   All of those sorts of changes make a great deal of sense to me.  I hope Ross is able either to bring these amendments to a vote –  which would force individual MPs to make an on-the-record choice about what influences they regard as acceptable –  or perhaps up the pressure on the government – which has done precisely nothing about these issues, and was never keen on an open inquiry by the Justice Committee on foreign interference (government departments would tell the Committee all they needed  to know, or so the PM’s office told us) –  to propose serious reforms of its own.   As you’ll see in the record from Hansard there was objection –  apparently from National –  which blocked Ross’s SOP being referred to the Justice Committee.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, by I still am anyway, that none of this seems to have been covered by our media.   But I imagine that the PRC embassy will have taken note, and the welcome accorded to Bridges and Brownlee in Beijing will be a little warmer for knowing they are not willing to be pro-active and initiate or champion steps to fix these gaping holes in our electoral law.

And we are left wondering whether Todd McClay’s defence of the PRC’s conduct of Xinjiang was because of the large donations from regime-affiliated sources (including the Inner Mongolian one he was directly involved with) or because he genuinely believed it.  It isn’t clear which option would be worse.   Either way, the whole business reflects very poorly on McClay, his leaders, and his party.   (And not much better on Ross.)