Pursuing Jian Yang, and the travesty that is NZ politics

TVNZ’s Q&A programme yesterday had a short segment (and article here) on their continuing, unsuccessful, attempt to get National list MP Jian Yang to talk to them.  It isn’t as if Jian Yang seems to have a particular thing against TVNZ –  I don’t have too much problem if an MP refuses to deal with one particular media outlet –  because for years now he has refused to talk to any English-language media, talking only to safe CCP influenced or controlled Chinese language outlets, who can be counted on to give him an easy and unchallenging time and not ask any awkward questions.

It is almost three years now since Newsroom and the Financial Times began to reveal Jian Yang’s past as a member of the Chinese Communist Party and long-serving member of the PRC’s military foreign intelligence system, where he’d been training spies.  Over subsequent weeks it emerged that, whether he or not he had been straight with the National Party when they’d recruited him in 2011, he’d lied about his past in his applications for New Zealand residency and citizenship.   In fact, challenged on the point he was quite open about it: he’d actively misrepresented his past because his CCP bosses had insisted on it when he first left the PRC.  And people with his sort of background didn’t get to leave the PRC to do foreign study without the regime and Party being able to rely him.  Jian Yang has claimed he isn’t a CCP member any longer –  as if this was just a matter of letting an annual subscription lapse –  but academic experts, including Canterbury University’s Anne-Marie Brady, have made the case that no one ever leaves the CCP voluntarily: you can be expelled, but once you’ve cast your lot in with them (and only a small minority of PRC citizens are CCP members, smaller than the proportion of Germans who were Nazi Party members) you are part of that movement for keeps.  Jian Yang could, of course, remove the scepticism by openly criticising the evil regime –  former Soviet spies who defected did that –  but never once, in all his years in Parliament has there been as much as a hint of disloyalty to the CCP/PRC.

It was good to see Q&A make a story of Jian Yang’s (now) 2.5 years of refusal to talk to any English language media –  not just about his past, but also about his present (eg his role last year in organising a meeting for Simon Bridges with Guo Shengkun, CCP Politburo member with responsibility for “domestic security” (think of those Uighur concentration camps, as just a start on intensifying CCP repression)).   Or the way Jian Yang continues to associate closely with the PRC Embassy and all sorts of CCP-affiliated or United Front groups, the sort of conduct that had the sober former diplomat Charles Finny declare on Q&A a couple of years ago that given Jian Yang’s associations with the Embassy he was always very careful what he said in front of Jian Yang (or Labour’s Raymond Huo).    Or perhaps it would be good if Jian Yang would answer questions around why several PRC migrants Q&A talked to about him refused to be identified on screen, explaining that they feared the reach of the CCP/PRC whether here or as regards family members back in China.    Perhaps these people have nothing at all to worry about. But they certainly believe the regime is running protection for Jian Yang –  a New Zealand MP.

Q&A also had a brief interview with Jamil Anderlini, the New Zealand who lived for a long time in Beijing and is now the Asian editor of the Financial Times, who claimed not just that our traditional allies look quite askance at the Jian Yang situation –  the man was on Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee for a time –  but that his contacts in the CCP suggested that the CCP itself treated the National Party as something of a laughing stock over this issue, the suggestion being something like “useful gullible idiots”.

Back when the Jian Yang story first broke, perhaps one could wonder if National themselves had been deceived by Jian Yang; not looking very hard, they’d not found anything, except someone to pull in the dollars for them.  The Newsroom/FT story broke on the eve of the election and by then there wasn’t much National could do about him (and his list place) even if they’d wanted to.  But that was three years ago.

Even then there was the despicable effort by a then senior Cabinet minister (Attorney General  and minister responsible for the SIS and GCSB) at a candidates’ meeting to tar as somehow “racist” any questions about Jian Yang’s CCP/PLA past, going on to claim that Anne-Marie Brady was a xenophobe (“doesn’t like any foreigners at all”).

But it wasn’t just  a second-tier figure, perhaps caught on the hop in a meeting he didn’t really want to be at.   In the last three years, National has had three leaders:  Bill English (who was then Prime Minister), Simon Bridges, and now Todd Muller.    They’ve each had plenty of time to think carefully and hard about Jian Yang and where their interests and loyalties lie.  And each of them  –  there is nothing to tell them apart on this issue –  has provided complete cover for Jian Yang.   In fact, Jian Yang has been promoted.  He clearly isn’t a caucus highflier, but he keeps rising a bit further up the caucus rankings, he now chairs a parliamentary select committee (perhaps not a very important one, but we have someone with his background chairing a government administration committee?) and the National Party Board has picked him out for a favoured position on National’s list for this year’s election (recall that Jian Yang has business interests with National’s president, the ever-obsequious (to Beijing) Peter Goodfellow).  One of National’s most senior MPs shares an office in Auckland with Jian Yang.

The real issue now isn’t about Jian Yang’s own choices, but about the rest of our political system (and much of our media for that matter).   It clearly suits Jian Yang to avoid any English-language media –  he is, after all, elected by all National Party voters, not just a few CCP-aligned ethnic Chinese one – but if the leadership of the National Party had even an ounce of decency on these issues it really wouldn’t be Jian Yang’s choice at all.  It would be as simple as “front up, honestly and fully, pretty whenever you are asked, and if not well forget about any caucus seniority, in fact forget about a list place at all at the next election”.   No one  doubts that if  any of that succession of leaders had wanted Jian Yang to be accountable to the public and to voters he’d do so, or he’d be gone.  So his silence is the silence of Bill English, Simon Bridges and now Todd Muller.   The same “leaders” who’ve been, for example, utterly unbothered by Todd McClay’s defence of the Uighur concentration camps, and who utter not a word about the activities of the PRC/CCP at home, abroad, or here.   Totally sold-out.

It is a marker of just how deep the decline of New Zealand has become.  As I noted in a post shortly after the first Jian Yang revelations,  at no time from the 1950s to the 1980s would it even be conceivable that we’d have (any of the mainstream parties would have) allowed a former KGB/GRU officer, still maintaining close ties to the Soviet Embassy, to have served in our Parliament.  There was some moral clarity back then about what we believed and stood for, and what that evil empire stood for. (Of course, Labour in particular tolerated Bill Sutch in top positions).

But now whatever values some individuals may perhaps still have, they seem to count for less than appeasing the CCP/PRC, and prioritising party funding and the interests of a small group of New Zealand corporates (and universities) over the values of most New Zealanders.  I’m particularly hard on National, both because Jian Yang is National MP and because I’m the sort of person who might normally be expected to mostly vote National.  But also because all three of those recent National leaders have suggested that, in one form or another, they are Christians –  English at least was known to be a practising Catholic.  The PRC regime ruthlessly persecutes the Christian churches, and yet that draws forth not a word from either the senior figures in the National Party or from the lesser lights among the Christian members of the caucus (let alone prominent incoming ones like Luxon, who ran a business that chose to pander to the regime).   The persecution of the churches has not yet reached the stage of the Uighur concentration camps, but then National members won’t stand up or speak out on that either –  not even junior MPs who might be plausibly deniable for the leadership.

But it isn’t just National.    Every other party in Parliament (and those out of Parliament) seem about as bad.  The biggest of those parties is, of course, Labour.  A Labour member has been Prime Minister almost ever since the first Jian Yang revelations.  And not a word of condemnation or complaint has come from her either, not one.  No Labour MP has ever been heard to deplore the fact that we had a CCP member closely linked to the PRC Embassy sitting on the National benches of Parliament, chairing a select committee no less.  It is as if the Prime Minister is more interested in being kind to Jian Yang, kind (subservient) to Madame Wu, and utterly interested in the integrity of New Zealand politics or the values and political traditions of New Zealand.  And again, not even any junior caucus members have broken ranks, not even once.   The strong suspicion has to be that Labour cares no more about decency and integrity than National, and is probably just a bit envious that National has been better at pulling CCP-linked donations (although is that changing now that Labour is in office?) And why be surprised? After all, Labour has Raymond Huo in its ranks, with well-documented United Front involvements, and they just put another United Front person in a winnable position on their list.  And all those corrupted corporates and universities, only interested in the next dollar, will be in the ear of ministers urging them always to appease, never to take a stand.  And of course, National and Labour together have shown no interest in any serious reform of the electoral finance laws to meaningfully prevent foreign political donations, let alone the sort of self-denying ordinance that recognises that some donations –  even from New Zealand citizens –  simply should not be taken, no matter how many dollars are on offer.  And Labour was principally responsible for the travesty of the select committee inquiry on foreign interference risks (even though the biggest issue is less about foreign interference, and more craven domestic subservience).

The big issue isn’t really Jian Yang.  National could have found a way of quietly getting him to retire and found some less obviously egregious replacement.  The bigger issue is that National had no interest in doing so, and Labour no interest in criticising them for not doing so.  They pay no price for acting as, in effect, the agents of the CCP in New Zealand (even as they all no doubt tell themselves that somehow what is in their best interests is also in ours).   It was good that Q&A did the clip they did, but it is hardly mainstream TV (the programme mainly for the handful of political junkies).  Other journalists have from time to time asked Jian Yang for an interview, and been equally unsuccessful, but there is almost never any follow through. The PM and the Leader of the Opposition front up for media interviews every week, perhaps even most days, and there is no pursuit of this issue, there is no campaign in the pages of the Herald or the Stuff outlets.  Nothing.  The evils of the CCP/PRC just isn’t one of those things that exercises or concerns establishment New Zealand.  It is disgraceful.

A few weeks ago the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China was launched, comprising legislators from a range of western countries with concerns about the PRC, and from a range of places on the usual left-right political compass.   This was from their website

Developing a coherent response to the rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as led by the Chinese Communist Party is a defining challenge for the world’s democratic states. This challenge will outlast individual governments and administrations; its scope transcends party politics and traditional divides between foreign and domestic policy.

The assumptions that once underpinned our engagement with Beijing no longer correspond to the reality. The Chinese Communist Party repeatedly and explicitly states its intention to expand its global influence. As a direct result, democratic values and practices have come under increasing pressure.

When countries have stood up to Beijing, they have done so alone. Rather than mounting a common defence of shared principles, countries have instead been mindful of their own national interests, which are increasingly dependent on the People’s Republic of China for crucial minerals, components, and products.

No country should have to bear the burden of standing up for fundamental liberties and the integrity of the international order by itself.

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China has been created to promote a coordinated response among democratic states to challenges posed by the present conduct and future ambitions of the People’s Republic of China. We believe that the natural home for this partnership is in the freely elected national legislatures of our peoples. Coordination at this level allows us to meet a challenge that will persist through changes in individual governments and administrations. We firmly believe that there is strength in unity and continuity. By developing a common set of principles and frameworks that transcend domestic party divisions and international borders, our democracies will be able to keep the rules based and human rights systems true to their founding purposes

It was sadly notable that at the launch there were no New Zealand MPs, even though (so Anne-Marie Brady reported) numerous of them had been approached.    It was interesting, and perhaps a little encouraging, that last week Simon O’Connor (from National) and Louisa Wall (from Labour) joined this initiative.  O’Connor is currently chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and Wall is a member.

But count me more than a little sceptical.   It has the feel of some sort of deal worked out between National and Labour, for a bare minimum degree of association, announced belatedly.   There is no statement from O’Connor or Wall about the nature of their concerns with the PRC –  at home, abroad, or here –  and, of course, no journalist appears to have asked them for comment (or reported a refusal to comment).   Is O’Connor really comfortable with having a CCP affiliated member, close to the PRC Embassy, who refuses to engage with voters or the media, and who has never ever said anything remotely critical of the PRC as a member of his caucus, someone who could be a junior minister if National is elected?  MPs are usually only too ready to criticise people on the other side.  How comfortable is Wall about Jian Yang or National’s extreme deference?  Or has the Labour Party hierarchy told her to simply sign up and then keep very quiet?  I’d like to be wrong on this  –  I was briefly encouraged by the O’Connnor/Wall news –  but so far there is nothing to suggest I am.

 

Jami-Lee Ross’s speech

A couple of weeks ago I wrote the National Party, Jami-Lee Ross, and the party’s funding from PRC-linked sources.  Of Jami-Lee Ross –  and the desire of some in the media (and, of course, the National Party) to pile on to him, or to gloat – I wrote

Whistleblowers have a wide variety of motives, and not all of them are noble –  and even those with elements of nobility are not infrequently tinged with more than a little of the less savoury side of things.   And yet we rely on whistleblowers to uncover lots of wrongdoing: in specific circumstances, we even have statutory protections for them  (but whistleblowing often comes with costs to the whistleblower, perhaps especially if they themselves have been directly involved in the alleged wrongdoing).

and

Perhaps he just generally was not a very nice or admirable person –  there are, for example, those reports of his flagrant, repeated, violations of his marriage vows etc.  But the fact remains that this wrongdoing (as alleged by the prosecutors for the SFO) would not be known had Ross simply stayed silent, whether that had involved continuing his efforts to climb National’s greasy pole, or just moving on quietly.     Either might have suited the National Party.   But it isn’t clear why such silence – about these specific donations, or about his involvement with others (Todd McClay and the PRC billionaire) that aren’t illegal but aren’t universally regarded as proper either – would have been in the wider public interest. 

and

And to Ross’s credit, since the story first broke (and all the drama of that time) Ross does seem to made some effort to contribute constructively to the public debate on some of the policy issues around donations to political parties.  He participated in the Justice committee’s (rather lame) inquiry into foreign interference, and spoke very forcefully in the House when the government was pushing through its travesty of a foreign donations law in December (the one that accomplished almost nothing useful,but perhaps looked/sounded to some like action).    Who knows quite what mix of motivations he has.  Perhaps some desire to bring down the existing National Party leadership (in Parliament and outside) with whom he previously worked so closely.   Perhaps some element of genuine remorse, or recognition of how far he himself had been part of the system degrading.    In a way, his motives don’t matter –  it is the facts and the merits (or otherwise) of his arguments. 

We heard from Ross again this week.  Or, strictly speaking, Parliament did.  Few of the general public will have heard of his speech or, more particularly, its contents.  From what I could see there was very little media coverage –  I should have been able to say “astonishing little” but, sadly, there wasn’t much astonishing about the relative silence of our media and the complete and utter silence of the rest of our politicians and political class.   All of them appear to prefer to look the other way, and wish the issue would simply go away, whether for fear of upsetting Madame Wu and the PRC, upsetting the CCP’s local associates, or of revealing to the public just how tawdry and sold-out to Beijing’s interests so much of our politics seems to have become.

I could just link to the speech, but not many people click through to links.   So here, as permitted by Parliament, is the whole thing.  It isn’t long. I encourage you to read and reflect on it

JAMI-LEE ROSS (Botany): Facebook memories reminded me this morning that today marks nine years since I was first elected to Parliament. I certainly never expected nine years ago that I would be the centre of a debate over foreign political donations, and I’m using that term deliberately. Foreign political donations and foreign interference is what I want to focus my time on here.

In the Prime Minister’s statement, that we are debating, the Prime Minister lists as one of her Government’s achievements the banning of foreign political donations. It’s true that the new $50 threshold for overseas donations is an improvement. But, as I’ve said previously in the House, I doubt it will do very little to deter those determined to find other ways around the ban, including—

SPEAKER: Order! Mr Jackson leave the House.

JAMI-LEE ROSS: —using the wide open gap we still have where foreign State actors can funnel funds through New Zealand registered companies.

The foreign donation ban is one of the few recommendations that has spun out of the Justice Committee’s inquiry into foreign interference activities in New Zealand elections. That has been picked up. Probably the most important submissions that we received through that inquiry were those from Professor Anne-Marie Brady of Canterbury University and what we heard from the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) director, Rebecca Kitteridge. It was all eye-watering and eye-opening stuff and sobering for us to hear and read their evidence. We have not, and I think we still do not, take seriously enough the risk of foreign interference activities that we’ve been subjected to as a country. Ms Kitteridge rightly pointed out in her evidence that the challenge of foreign interference to our democracy is not just about what occurs around the election itself. Motivated State actors will work assiduously over many years, including in New Zealand, to covertly garner influence, access, and leverage.

She also specifically pointed out the risks we face from foreign State actors through the exertion of pressure or control of diaspora communities and the building of covert influence and leverage, including through electoral financing. After Pansy Wong resigned from Parliament, I was selected as the National Party candidate for the 5 March by-election nine years ago. It was made very clear to me at the time that I had to put a big emphasis on getting to know the Chinese community. It was also pointed out to me very early on that I must make good connections with the Chinese consul-general. Madam Liao at the time was very influential with Chinese New Zealanders, and important to my own success as well. In hindsight, it was naive of me to not think carefully about the pull that a foreign diplomat had on a large section of the population in my electorate.

The consul-general in Auckland is treated like a God, more so than any New Zealand politician, except probably the Prime Minister of the day. Each successive consul-general seemed to be better and more effective at holding New Zealand residents and citizens of Chinese descent in their grasp. Consul-generals Niu Qingbao and Xu Erwen were also treating us, as MPs—not just myself, others—as long-lost friends. All this effort, if you read Professor Brady’s paper called Magic Weapons, is a core plank of the Chinese Communist Party’s deliberate and targeted efforts to expand political influence activities worldwide. It’s also the very risk that Rebecca Kitteridge warned the Justice Committee about. Professor Brady’s paper is a 50-page academic work. I can’t do it justice here, but I recommend all MPs read it.

The activities of the Chinese Communist Party here domestically, where Chinese New Zealanders have been targeted, should be concerning enough for all of us. But the efforts that Chinese Communist Party – connected individuals have been making over the years to target us as politicians, and New Zealand political parties, also needs to be taken seriously. Every time we as MPs are showered with praise or dinners or hospitality by Chinese diplomats, we’re being subjected to what Professor Brady calls “united front work”. Every time we see our constituents bow and scrape to foreign diplomats, it’s a result of their long-running efforts to exert influence and control over our fellow Kiwis.

Both Professor Brady and director Kitteridge have warned about the risk of foreign interference activity where funding of political parties is used as a tool. This isn’t necessarily unlawful provided the donations meet the requirements of the Electoral Act. In 2018, I very publicly made some allegations relating to donations. I have said publicly already that the donations I called out were offered directly to the leader of the National Party at an event I was not in attendance at. I did not know at the time that those donations were made that they were in any way unlawful. I never had any control over those donations and I have never been a signatory of any National Party bank account in the time that I’ve been an MP. I never benefited personally from those donations. I was never a part of any conspiracy to defeat the Electoral Act. And the point at which I blew the whistle on these donations—first internally, then very publicly—that point came after I learned new information that led me to question the legality of the donations.

After raising these issues publicly, they were duly investigated first by the police and then the Serious Fraud Office. The result of those allegations is already public and I can’t traverse much detail here, but I will say that I refuse to be silenced and I will keep speaking out about what I know, and have seen, goes on inside political parties. I refuse to be quiet about the corroding influence of money in New Zealand politics.

Last year, I learnt, off the back of concerns I myself took to the proper authorities, that the National Party had been the beneficiary of large amounts of foreign donations. These donations are linked back to China and linked to the Chinese Communist Party, and with ease entered New Zealand. I didn’t go searching for this information. I was asked if I knew anything of the origins of the donations. I didn’t know. It was all new information to me, and I was surprised by what I learnt.

What I learnt was that large sums of money adding up to around $150,000 coming directly out of China in Chinese yuan over successive years ended up as political party donations. Two individuals, _________, were used as conduits for the donations.

These funds eventually made their way to the New Zealand National Party. The New Zealand National Party still holds those funds. The National Party is still holding at least $150,000 of foreign donations received in two successive years. I call on the National Party to return those foreign donations that it holds or transfer the money to the Electoral Commission. I doubt the National Party knew at the time that the money was foreign—I certainly didn’t either—but now that they will have that information to hand, they need to show leadership and do the right thing.

To avoid doubt, this $150,000 dollars’ worth of foreign donations is not the same as the $150,000 from the Inner Mongolia Rider Horse Industry company that they raised last year.

The warnings sounded from academics and spy agencies are not without reason. These two examples I give are very real examples of foreign money that has entered New Zealand politics. Professor Brady, with reference to the list of overseas members of the overseas Chinese federation, which is part of the Communist Party’s infrastructure, listed three top united front representatives in New Zealand:

_____, _____, and Zhang Yikun. All three are well known to political parties.

In a recent press statement from a PR agency, representatives of Zhang Yikun highlighted the philanthropic approach that he takes in New Zealand. The press statement on 19 February specifically said that he has been “donating to many political parties and campaigns.”, except his name has never appeared in any political party return. When asked by the media if political parties had any record of donations from this individual, all said no. But a quick search online will find dozens and dozens of photos of Zhang Yikun dining with mayors and MPs over the time, inviting them to his home, and his recent 20th convention of Teochew International Federation had a who’s who list of politicians turning up, including a former Prime Minister.

The foreign donations I mentioned earlier all have connections to the Chao Shan General Association. The founder and chairman of Chao Shan General Association is Zhang Yikun. To summarise these two bits of information, the largest party in this Parliament has been the beneficiary of large sums of foreign money. That money is linked to an individual who was listed as one of the top three Chinese Communist Party united front representatives in New Zealand. That individual’s PR agents say he has donated to many political parties and campaigns, yet he’s never showing up in any donation returns in the past.

One of Professor Brady’s concluding remarks in her submission to the Justice Committee was that foreign interference activities can only thrive if public opinion in the affected nation tolerates or condones it. We must not tolerate or condone any foreign interference activities. We must also not stay silent when we see problems right under our nose. It’s time for the political parties in this Parliament to address seriously the political party donation regime that we have.

I realise that both the two main parties in this Parliament often have to agree, but perhaps it’s time to put that out to an independent body. It’s too important for us to ignore, and it’s not right that we should allow these things to go on under our nose.

I seek leave to table two charts that show a flow of money from China into New Zealand and to the New Zealand National Party.

SPEAKER: I seek an assurance from the member that these charts are not integral to any matter currently before the courts.

JAMI-LEE ROSS: These charts have been prepared by the Serious Fraud Office and I cannot give you that assurance.

SPEAKER: You cannot give me that assurance. Well, I’m not going to put the question.

Source: Office of the Clerk/Parliamentary Service. Licensed by the Clerk of the House of Representatives and/or the Parliamentary Corporation on behalf of Parliamentary Service for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence. Full licence available at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Anne-Marie Brady fills in the gaps –  names – Hansard chose to omit from Ross’s speech.

I thought three things were particular interesting in what Ross said:

  • the explicit guidance given to him as a new candidate/MP about currying favour with the PRC Consul-General et al,
  • the allegation about the new large, apparently disclosed, donation from people with very strong PRC/CCP ties
  • and the suggestion, not verified in what we have there (tho perhaps in that SFO schematic he tried to table) of the funds for these donations having come initially from the PRC  (whether or not National initially knew that).

Quite possibly, none of that activity was illegal.  But even if so, none of it is proper –  at least in a political party that cares anything about the values and interests of the vast mass of New Zealanders.  Then again, this is the same party that just re-selected the former PLA intelligence trainer, (former?) CCP member, clearly still in the very good graces of Beijing, Jian Yang for their list –  the same MP who refuses to face questions from the English langauge media in New Zealand, the same MP in business with the party president who himself has been free with his praise of tyrants of Beijing.

But just as bad is the apparent determination of ever other political party –  but most especially Labour, the alternative main party –  to simply ignore all this. In some cases, perhaps, to envy National’s ‘success’ (until now).   Where is the leader of the Labour Party on these issues (you know her, she happens to be the Prime Minister).   Where are the Greens, who once could have been counted on to deplore this sort of thing?   Where, even, are the tiddler parties trying to convince us they offer something different and better than National and Labour?  ACT?  TOP?  New Conservative?  Maori?  Not a word.

I’m sure there is some sensitivity about not jeopardising the prospects of a fair trial in the specific cases the SFO has taken against three donors and Ross himself.   But there is no way that is anything like the whole story.   After all, all those other parties have been very very quiet on the Jian Yang story, ever since the first of it broke 2.5 years ago.  Prominent National and Labour figures, including Jian Yang, got together to have the Crown honour Yikun Zhang for, in effect, services to Beijing only 18 months ago.  There has been no action on closing the legal window for donations through companies owned by foreigners, let alone the (im)moral window that has had NZ citizens who are CCP affiliates donating heavily.  I’m quite prepared to believe that National is deeper in all this stuff than the other parties, but those other parties lose any excuse, any sympathy, when –  most especially the Prime Minister –  simply sit quiet and walk on past. In doing so, they demonstrate their own standards –  or lack of them.

It certainly is important to ensure a fair trial. But voters are also entitled to a fair election, where the sorts of material Jami-Lee Ross has highlighted, allegations made, are properly scrutinised and the actions of parties and key individuals contesting the election are put under the spotlight before the election.  The trial isn’t going happen before then, Simon Bridges refuses to answer even basic factual questions, and the media and his political opponents seem happy to just let it pass.   That is little more than a betrayal of the public interest.

 

Preferring to look the other way

It was remarkable to pick up the Herald yesterday and find their coverage of the SFO prosecutions over the donations to the National Party given over to some “gotcha” attacks on Jami-Lee Ross.    The huge headline is “Own Goal” and the next level down is “Jami-Lee Ross’ spectacular political faux pas”.   Almost as if it were some sort of National Party newsletter.

Three things struck me about the Herald’s coverage (and, as far as I could see, other mainstream media were not that much different).

The first was that this jeering at Jami Lee-Ross’s comeuppance seems a weird approach for a major media outlet to take, when we’d not have known anything about the events now subject to prosecutions on serious charges without Jami-Lee Ross’s disclosures.  There was certainly no sign the Herald had been getting to the bottom of the issues.   Whistleblowers have a wide variety of motives, and not all of them are noble –  and even those with elements of nobility are not infrequently tinged with more than a little of the less savoury side of things.   And yet we rely on whistleblowers to uncover lots of wrongdoing: in specific circumstances, we even have statutory protections for them  (but whistleblowing often comes with costs to the whistleblower, perhaps especially if they themselves have been directly involved in the alleged wrongdoing).

I guess I could understand the attacks at Ross’s expense had he, prior to all this coming out, been a longstanding public campaigner for clean elections, transparent financing of political parties, keeping foreign influence out of politics etc etc.   The (apparent) hypocrisy would be stunning –  akin to, for example, the morals campaigner caught in an extra-marital affair.   But that wasn’t Ross.  Did anyone ever mistake him for the moral face of politics when he was rising rapidly up the ranks of the National Party?

Perhaps he just generally was not a very nice or admirable person –  there are, for example. those reports of his flagrant, repeated, violations of his marriage vows etc.  But the fact remains that this wrongdoing (as alleged by the prosecutors for the SFO) would not be known had Ross simply stayed silent, whether that had involved continuing his efforts to climb National’s greasy pole, or just moving on quietly.     Either might have suited the National Party.   But it isn’t clear why such silence – about these specific donations, or about his involvement with others (Todd McClay and the PRC billionaire) that aren’t illegal but aren’t universally regarded as proper either – would have been in the wider public interest.  Unless, somehow, all that now matters to the New Zealand elite (political, media or whoever) is maintaining that veneer of cleanness, even when they know the substance has become very different.

Perhaps some of the jeering might have seemed reasonable to some back in late 2018 when the story first broke.  But the SFO clearly seem to think there is enough evidence that makes it worth a severely resource-constrained organisation actually laying charges on points of substance.  It doesn’t have the feel any longer of something just relying one (motivated) individual’s words.

And to Ross’s credit, since the story first broke (and all the drama of that time) Ross does seem to made some effort to contribute constructively to the public debate on some of the policy issues around donations to political parties.  He participated in the Justice committee’s (rather lame) inquiry into foreign interference, and spoke very forcefully in the House when the government was pushing through its travesty of a foreign donations law in December (the one that accomplished almost nothing useful,but perhaps looked/sounded to some like action).    Who knows quite what mix of motivations he has.  Perhaps some desire to bring down the existing National Party leadership (in Parliament and outside) with whom he previously worked so closely.   Perhaps some element of genuine remorse, or recognition of how far he himself had been part of the system degrading.    In a way, his motives don’t matter –  it is the facts and the merits (or otherwise) of his arguments.  No one appears to have contested the facts around the Todd McClay/billionaire donation.  Few appear willing to openly champion the current law which allows tightly-held foreign-owned New Zealand registered companies to donate freely to our political parties (even as none of the parties is willing to end that provision).    Ross’s call –  having been a key figure in the alternative model in recent years –  that only those registered to vote in New Zealand should be able to donate is a constructive contribution to the debate on our future laws (one I happen to agree with, but that isn’t the main point here).

In many ways, Ross seems an unsympathetic character –  down to and including the claims about whether he had ever wanted his name suppressed  – but when alleged serious wrongdoing is only brought to light by the voluntary choices of one individual (however self-destructive some of those choices might also be for now), there is something a bit tawdry and desperate about media kicking the man when he is down.  Better, surely, to encourage Ross to tell us all he knows –  and then test and scrutinise such claims/records –  whether or not particular actions happen to skirt inside current law or pass to other side of the law.

Perhaps the second thing that struck me was how little all of the coverage tied back to the National Party.   Jami-Lee Ross was re-elected to Parliament at the 2017 election under National’s imprimatur, and he was hardly a peripheral figure.  In fact, he’d risen quite rapidly and might have seemed to be a face of the future.  He was Chief Whip, and then was moved further up into senior spokesman roles.  Most likely, he’d have been a Minister of the Crown had National remained in office after 2017.  The (alleged) donation splitting occurred both when National was in office (under Bill English) and while it was out of office (under Simon Bridges).   Not only had Bridges promoted him, but read the transcript of one of those calls between the two of them  –  only a few months before all this became public –  and this clearly wasn’t someone on the outer with the leadership, no matter how quickly they later jettisoned him (while still trying to pretend nothing was wrong).

Before the names of those being charged become public, National had sought to distance itself with a statement welcoming the fact that no one now involved in the National Party had been charged.  But it doesn’t really wash does it, when (mostly from that transcript)

  1. the donations involved were to the National Party,
  2. the recipient of the donation (the Botany National Party account), and liaison with the donors, was a front-bench National MP,
  3.  one of those charged had hosted Bridges and Ross to dinner at his house, and Bridges was planning to host him for dinner at his own house (with Ross also to be invited),
  4.  one of the others of those charged was quite openly being championed for a place on the National Party list, and –  we are told –  had put his name in to go through National’s “candidates’ college” –  which presumably would require either prior party membership or some high level support from somewhere in the party,
  5. one of those charged had been nominated not long previously for an honour by another National MP.

Very conveniently, National is now saying nothing further on the grounds that “the matter” is before the courts.   And isn’t it convenient for them, in an election year, that the justice system works so very slowly that the cases are unlikely to come to trial before the election (and then, of course, we’ll have excuses about rights of appeal etc).   The defendants are entitled to a fair trial, but the public –  voting just a few months from now –  is also entitled to some straight answers from National and its leaders.

I’m not here taking a view on whether Bill English or Simon Bridges (or perhaps John Key before them) knew about the specific transactions and conduct over which the four individuals have been charged, in ways that might render them liable themselves to prosecution.  Who knows  (perhaps Ross, but he has yet to produce firm proof).  And frankly, I’m less interested in prosecutions as such, than in the underlying culture and conduct.  And there it is very hard to believe that the party leaders (in Parliament and outside) were somehow oblivious to that, especially when a rising MP is involved.  Organisations are rarely like that, when something pretty central (for a political party these days, fundraising) is involved, even if key people sometimes deliberately refuse to inquire more deeply into methods, lest that knowledge prove awkward.

This is the bit from the transcript that struck me

JLR: [laughs] Hey um you know at Paul Goldsmith’s function you saw those two Chinese guys, Zhang Yikun and Colin? You had dinner at their home?

SB: Yes.

JLR: They talked to you about a hundred thousand dollar donation –

SB: Yep

JLR: That is now in.

SB: Fantastic

and, a little later,

JLR: Donations can only be raised two ways – party donation or candidate donation. Party donation has a different disclosure which is fine, and the way they’ve done it meets the disclosure requirements – sorry, it meets the requirements where it’s under the particular disclosure level because they’re a big association and there’s multiple people and multiple people make donations, so that’s all fine, but if it was a candidate donation it’s different. So making them party donations is the way to do it. Legally, though, if they’re party donations they’re kind of under Greg’s name as the party secretary, so –

Bridges doesn’t challenge, dispute, express surprise or anything here. The conversation just moves on.

It just beggars belief that Bridges did not know that what was being talked about here was, at very least, sailing extremely close to the legal line.   Note that “hundred thousnad dollar donation” and the description “it meets the requirements where it’s under the particular disclosure level because they’re a big association and there’s multiple people and multiple people make donations”.     No talk of 20 people independently chipping in and the total happening to come up to $100000, no talk of an aim that a group might look to raise something like $100000 –  but explicit prior talk (with a key figure being someone we are told does not speak English) about “a $100000 donation”  –  a description Bridges clearly recognised –  and then once the money is in talk about how “it” meets the requirements.   Bridges either knew/realised, or actively preferred not to.  Neither should be acceptable in someone who wants to be Prime Minister.

It is remarkable that Bridges is not facing more scrutiny, relentlessly, whether from the media (every time he faces the media), in Parliament, or from other political parties more generally.   Even just straightforward questions like were any of the other defendants (notably Colin Zheng) ever National Party members, for how long, when did that membership cease?   Have other caucus members dined privately with any of the other three defendants?  What exact role does the leader play in party fundraising?  And so on.

(For the record, and in case it has not long been clear, while this particular issue involves the National Party, I have no unusual animus towards them –  except perhaps as a party for whom a social conservative pro-market middle-aged person might more normally be inclined to vote for.)

The third aspect of the coverage that I find perhaps most troubling is the near-complete media silence on the connections of one of the defendants, the Auckland businessman Yikun Zhang. These are issues which have no direct bearing, it would appear, on the cases to come before the courts, and yet nothing.

It isn’t as if Yikun Zhang is some independent and private individual who just happened to one day invite the Leader of Opposition (and his senior offsider Ross) home to dinner and out of the goodness of his heart popped a modest donation into the National Party account.   Apart from anything, media reports of a statement issued on behalf of the defendants suggests they claim to have given to various different parties (a point which really should be verified).  But when you don’t speak English, you don’t invite senior politicans home for dinner –  let alone welcome an invitation to dinner at the Leader of the Opposition’s (no doubt much less fancy –  as Bridges says, less-good wine) house – for the quality of the sparkling intellectual debate around, policy, political philosophy or the mechanics of government.

This rather is someone who seems to assiduously cultivate associations –  how much substantive, how much photo-op isn’t clear –   with almost anyone in New Zealand political circles.   Before his background was widely known, he pops up in photos with Andrew Little, Jacinda Ardern, Raymond Huo, Phil Goff, Paula Bennett, Simon Bridges, Jami-Lee Ross, Jian Yang, Simeon Brown, Paul Goldsmith and more.     He was nominated for his 2018 Queen’s Birthday honour –  conferred under Labour, initiated (we are told) under National – with nominations from prominent National and Labour politicians.   Not the sort of thing that happens to your run-of-the-mill community-oriented private citizen.

Yikun Zhang’s net stretches more widely: there are the ties to the Gary Tong, Mayor of Southland, which came to light a couple of year ago.   Tong went to China with Yikun Zhang.  Not a typical connection for a businessman with an Auckland construction company. [UPDATE: Anne-Marie Brady reminds us of this interview with Gary Tong, acting as some sort of mouthpiece for, and defender of, Yikun Zhang in 2018.]

And what of Yikun Zhang’s associations back in the PRC?    Auckland ethnic Chinese writer Chen Weijian documented those a couple of a years ago.  I wrote about it here, where I observed

On my reading, the author’s key point is that the evidence of Zhang Yikun’s close association with the Chinese Communist Party, and the high regard in which he is held by the Party, is crystal clear.  Among that evidence is his very rapid ascent in various significant organisations that are part of the party-state’s overall United Front programme.

and there is a translation of the original article here.  None of this seems to have been disputed.  It looks a lot as though Yikun Zhang’s principal orientation –  despite now being a New Zealand citizen (how do we let people become citizens when can’t speak English – or, presumably, Maori?) is to the CCP/PRC.     Since then specialist China commentators have further highlighted the prominent position Yikun Zhang has in the regime’s United Front activities, advancing the interests of the CCP at home and abroad.  (There is no suggestion that any of this is illegal.)

All this became public knowledge more than a year ago.  You’d have hoped that political leaders would have done due diligence on people their leaders are regularly photographed with, but even if they’d chosen to keep their eyes wide shut before late 2018, they had no such excuse since.

And yet remarkably, even after the material about his background, even after the allegations re donations emerged, there is little or no sign that either side of politics has become warier of Yikun Zhang.   One of his big activities last year was the international conference for a grouping of people from the area he originally came from in China, which was held in Auckland.

He’d managed to get the National Party’s president –  known for his past praise of the PRC regime and of Xi Jinping – to serve as honorary chairman of this conference, and the turnout of prominent political people, from both sides, is striking.  There is an article from the PRC consulate here (open in Chrome for a translation), featuring (perhaps among others) John Key, Jian Yang, Anne Tolley, David Parker, Jenny Salesa, Willy Jackson, Peter Goodfellow, Raymond Huo, Nicky Kaye and Phil Goff.

This is one very well-connected person, across both sides of politics, with considerable pulling power, who was gifted a New Zealand honour essentially for services to Beijing……who is now facing serious charges around electoral donations.  Who was known for months to have been caught up in allegations around party donations.  And yet our politicians –  National and Labour –  just wouldn’t stay away.

I hope at least somewhere in our media one assiduous journalist, working with people who can navigate the Chinese language sources, is doing a serious investigative piece on Yikun Zhang and his connections –  local, and in Beijing.  Perhaps it wouldn’t sell many papers on the day –  all those confusing acronyms etc –  but it is the sort of scrutiny our tarnished democracy needs.

It all looks, from the outside, like that combined New Zealand “elite” determination to do all its possibly can to never ever upset Beijing, to pander in public and behind the scenes, to tap apparently generous sources of donations from people without regard to their ties to an alien regime with no regard for democracy, freedom of speech, and human rights.  Keep the deals flowing, keep the dollars flowing, make sure no one can ever drive a wedge between the CCP and the National and Labour parties.  It is why, to me, the big issue isn’t really whether or not Yikun Zhang, Jami-Lee Ross or the other split donations to get round the law –  courts can and eventually will rule on that –  but the value-free mentality that has taken over our political “leadership”.   What was Simon Bridges doing going to dinner at the house of someone with such close regime ties, discussing party donations with, and soliciting from, him –  he was hardly a personal friend (that English language gap is telling)?  Why were MPs, mayor, and the Cabinet getting together to honour him?   Why was such a galaxy of political figures turning up at his event, all of them surely realising the regime-affiliation and interests of all such events?   But then why was Jacinda Ardern posing alonside Xi Jinping in Beijing a few months ago, why was Simon Bridges meeting the Politburo person in charge of domestic security (Xinjiang and all that), and so on?   The pander continued as recently as this week, with the PM reportedly calling for a minute’s silence at the Lunar New Year function at Parliament for those who’ve died of the coronavirus –  nothing wrong with that perhaps in its own right but, of course,she’s never called out the deaths and mass imprisonments in Xinjiang, the imprisonments and persecutions that inhibit freedom of speech and worship and politics in the PRC, or the tens of millions of live that regime has claimed.

Then again, these are the parties that (in National’s case) keep Jian Yang in Parliament and (in the case of all the other parties) do and say nothing about it, the parties that administer a government adminstration that seems unbothered by Jian Yang’s acknowledgement that he had lied about his past to get into the country.  It is shameful, and it is mostly not covered by our media.

In ending, some kudos to David Seymour, the ACT MP, re Yikun Zhang.  On his telling

“I’m pretty happy I didn’t take the invitation to a private dinner at Yikun Zhang’s house right now,” Seymour, leader of the ACT Party, told reporters on Wednesday.

“Multiple times the guy invited me to have a private dinner at his house and I thought ‘that sounds dodgy’ and never went…I have no idea what his intentions were.”

Seymour said he received the invitation in 2018, adding: “I don’t normally go to their house for dinner if I don’t know them and we can’t speak the same language – very unusual.”

He said Zhang Yikun “made frequent appearances at various Chinese events on the calendar that a lot of MPs go to” and that he would usually have “several intermediaries standing around who would speak English”.

Seymour said, “On multiple occasions he tried to get me to have dinner at his house, I said I won’t do that, he said ‘I own a restaurant and we could meet there’, and I said that sounds worse.

“So, as a result I never had any kind of arranged meeting with the guy and I’m pleased about that.”

It can be done.

 

What a (revealing) travesty

Late yesterday morning, the government announced that it was going to ram through all its stages under urgency, the Electoral Amendment Bill (No. 2).  By the time you are reading this, the bill may already have been passed into law.

The goal of the legislation appears to be to suggest, at least to those who don’t follow politics closely, that the government is “doing something”.  The Minister’s press release announcing the bill is headed “Government to ban foreign donations”, but in fact it does nothing of the sort.

The Explanatory Note on the bill is more honest, that the law is more about signal than substance

The Bill makes several changes to the Electoral Act 1993 to send a clear signal that only those who are part of New Zealand’s democracy, and who live in, or have a strong connection to, this country, should participate in our electoral system.

But although the heading of very next section sound promising, again the substance outs

Ban on donations from overseas persons

The Bill amends the Electoral Act 1993 to restrict donations from overseas persons to political parties and candidates, to reduce the risk of foreign money influencing the election process.

The changes are being applied only to parliamentary elections, not local elections.

The Bill bans candidates and parties from accepting donations over $50 from an overseas person in any form.

The definition of an overseas person in the Electoral Act 1993 is not being changed. The ban applies to donations from—

  • an individual who resides outside New Zealand and is neither a New Zealand citizen nor registered as an elector:
  • a body corporate incorporated outside of New Zealand:

  • an unincorporated body that has its head office or principal place of business outside New Zealand.

So if there is any (serious) signal at all, it is that local body elections don’t matter (there are no still restrictions at all on foreign donations to local body campaigns, even though we know that, for example, prominent candidates in Auckland have been associating closely with PRC United Front individuals/entities, or that –  for example –  Southland mayor Gary Tong was being courted by close regime-affiliate Yikun Zhang).

The other “signals” are rather more implied:

  • first, since the foreign donations limit is being lowered from $1500 to $50, but the anonymous donations limit is being left at $1500, any foreigner who really wants to make a $500 donation should just do so anonymously.     This was an issue the Ministry of Justice highlighted in its (not very good) RIS, but the government chose not to act on, and
  • second, none of this intended to be serious at all, just theatre.

How do I justify that second point?  Well, check out this table from the RIS.

justice donationsThis just isn’t where the (foreign) money is.  All “foreign donations” –  as the law is drawn at present, and will be when the bill is passed –  averaged just under $5400 per annum across almost all our political parties.  Those are derisory sums of money, rightly tightly limited.  The new law will, almost certainly, reduce the derisory sums under this heading to almost zero.

So where is the foreign money?  First, and we know this from political party returns –  they aren’t really hiding it, even if they won’t engage on it –  is donations from foreign-controlled companies operating in New Zealand.  There have been two particularly prominent examples highlighted in recent years: donations to the National Party from Inner Mongolian Horse, and one from another Chinese billionaire’s company that was facilitated by Todd McClay and Jami-Lee Ross (the latter told us again all about the transaction in his Second Reading speech last night).   It isn’t a new discovery that this avenue is open.  Some call it a “loophole”, but it looks a lot more like a design feature –  ie even if not envisaged when the law was originally drafted, all parties in Parliament have been content to leave the definition of “overseas person” unchanged, in full knowledge of how the provision was being used.

That would have been easy to fix, if the government had been interested in doing so. It clearly wasn’t.  It is where a lot of money has been in the past, and if they argue things need to change before next year’s election, this is what they could –  quite readily-  have changed.

And the second, of course, much harder to deal with: funds donated by people who are now New Zealand citizens, but who have close associations with foreign regimes, notably the heinous CCP regime in the PRC.  I’ve seen people talk about the risk of foreign regimes directly channelling funds to such individuals and them passing the money on under their own (New Zealand citizen) name.  Perhaps, but things don’t need to be that direct to be highly troubling.  Reciprocity is a real thing, whether or not anything is ever written down.   I’m not sure what the law can do about this particular risk, but political parties can.  Political parties can choose to do the right thing, and declare –  and take seriously – a determination not to take money from, or solicit it from, people –  even registered electors –  who are known to have close associations with foreign regimes, perhaps especially with such troubling regimes as the PRC (or the Soviet Union in days gone by, for example).     But there is no sign of such a willingness to commit, to self-restrain, from any of the parties in Parliament.  None.

Thus, I heard National MP Nicola Willis give a decent speech last night in the second reading debate, that seemed to suggest she thought there were real issues and problems that needed addressing. But there was no sign from her –  or any of her colleagues – that they were willing to commit to a different model of behaviour.    Nothing from the Prime Minister either, even though she has previously been critical of some of donations that have flowed to National.  She’s the Prime Minister.  She could legislate, she could set an example.  Instead, we just have political theatre, while avoiding the real issues.

(The Opposition leader, of course, is quite as bad here –  albeit out of office.  Listen to his trainwreck interview with Kim Hill on Morning Report this morning, where he tries to avoid even acknowledging any sort of serious issue.)

And then, of course, there is the process –  ramming this law through under urgency, with no select committee submissions, hearings, or deliberation.   Things weren’t even done quite that badly with the gun control legislation earlier in the year.    Hardly any law should ever be passed that way, and certainly no electoral laws.  But what is also remarkable is that looking through the Minister’s press release, the Explanatory Note, the RIS, and Hansard records of the debate last night, I could see no substantive justification from anyone on the government side for this extreme urgency.  The bill won’t even come into effect until 1 January –  so they could readily have had even a week at a Select Committee, a week for people to think through the details carefully. It is a travesty of a process.

There have been various attempts to suggest that the problem here was really the Justice select committee, which has been dragging its feet on reporting back on its inquiry into foreign interference.    If only they’d reported, it is suggested, such a rushed and limited bill might not have been necessary.

But that sort of story doesn’t stack up at all.  First, even though the Committee is split equally between government and Opposition members, Labour provides the chair, and a good chair would be able to facilitate the process, and build coalitions.  In fact, we are now (so it is reported) onto the sixth chair for this particular inquiry, and many of the members now on the Committee weren’t members when much of the evidence was heard.  And it is only nine months or so since Labour was backing their chair (Raymond Huo) in his stated desired to prevent any public submissions at all, quite content that government departments could provide all that was needed.

More importantly, the government is supposed to govern and to lead.  All the issues around donations –  including foreign donations – have been known for a long time now. And it is not as if the Justice Committee (with its endlessly rotating membership) has any specialist expertise on these issues, or access to policy and operational advice not open to the government itself.  The government is far better equipped to act,  if it wanted to.  But it is chosen not to until now, and now it is just engaged in insubstantial trivia –  grabbing a few headlines, but not changing anything.    They could have had a bill in the House six months ago, with time for proper select committee consideration, outlawing donations (for central and local government campaigns) from anyone but registered New Zealand electors, and with full and near-immediate disclosure.  But they consciously chose not to.  And if, perchance, Labour wanted to act –  seems unlikely –  but didn’t think it could the numbers, it was a great opportunity for some Prime Ministerial leadership, to embarrass other parties into acting, and to set an example with the new and better limitations Labour would adopt for its own fundraising.

But we’ve had none of that.  Either the Prime Minister wasn’t capable of such leadership or wasn’t interested in displaying it.  Either should be a concern.  She runs the government.

There was a few good speeches in the debates last night, but in the end only one member –  ACT’s David Seymour –  was actually willing to oppose this piece of theatre.    Perhaps political parties were reluctant to be wedged – being seen to oppose a bill that (appears) to limit foreign influence – but I doubt that really explains much.  It probably suits National quite as much as Labour –   even allowing that they are serious about their process concerns around urgency –  to be seen to have “something done”, even as nothing much substantive changes.

Outside political parties, I guess views can differ.  I noticed Professor Anne-Marie Brady welcoming the bill (she was responding to my lament that Jami-Lee Ross had made a forceful speech about the bill avoiding all the real issues, yet voting for it)

I disagree with on that.  It is probably worse than nothing because (a) the donations it will actually restrict are derisory in total value (see above), and (b) because it tries to fob off the public with a sense of “something being done”, even as the real issue are almost entirely avoided.  The public typically has a limited attention span for such issues, and this will have people who’ve had only a half an ear to the issue nodding along with the “at last something is being done”).  But the CCP, the PRC Embassy, those regime-affilated business people –  resident here or abroad –  will know that nothing real has been done at all.  And in the entire parliamentary debate –  that I’ve read or heard – the elephant in the room, the CCP/PRC, is not even mentioned.  So at least one more election will pass with the ability to raise large amounts from PRC-affiliated sources will go on, even as the true character of the regime becomes more and more apparent. (Of course, any restrictions should apply to all foreign donations, but no serious observer supposes that the biggest issues at present are around the PRC).

Perhaps we will eventually see the Justice Committee’s report on foreign interference issues.  Simon Bridges implied this morning that it won’t be much longer delayed, although suggesting that there are likely to be two different reports.  But it seems highly unlikely we will be much further ahead.    The Committee has no personnel or expertise or analysis not already open to the government –  in fact, the RIS on today’s bill had the Ministry of Justice noting that they had paid attention to the submissions –  and there is no figure of any real stature (no Andrew Hastie, for example, in the Australian context) on the Committee, let alone chairing it.

Bu then there are no figures of any real stature leading our politics.    Today’s bill, today’s process, demonstrates that again.

My own submission to the select committee inquiry is here.   That submission included

There are some specific legislative initiatives that would be desirable to help (at the margin) safeguard the integrity of our political system:

• All donations of cash or materials to parties or campaigns, whether central or local, should be disclosed in near real-time (within a couple of days of the donation),

• Only natural persons should be able to donate to election campaigns or parties,

• The only people able to donate should be those eligible to be on the relevant electoral roll,

However, I summarised

But useful as such changes might be, they would be of second or third order importance in dealing with the biggest “foreign interference” issue New Zealand currently faces – the subservience and deference to the interests and preferences of the People’s Republic of China, a regime whose values, interests, and practices and inimical to most New Zealanders.  Legislation can’t fix that problem, which is one of attitudes, cast of minds, and priorities among members of Parliament and political parties.   Unless you –  members of Parliament and your party officials –  choose to change, legislative reform is likely to be little more than a distraction, designed to suggest to the public that the issue is being taken seriously, while the elephant in the room is simply ignored.    It is your choice.

Today’s legislation is just such a distraction.

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.)