National’s craven deference to China
I am probably the sort of person the National Party used to count on voting for them. National was the only party I was ever a member of, the only party I ever canvassed for.
There were family connections, and there were the founding principles, every one of which I identified with (and do still). Even in Wellington, middle-aged conservatives might reasonably have been assumed to support National, even if (at times) through gritted teeth. One of those founding principles talked, perhaps slightly quaintly, of "countering Communism", and it seemed to be something taken fairly seriously throughout the post-war decades. There was a suggestion of some values; a suggestion of things that mattered beyond just the next business deal. Friends and allies, people and countries with whom we shared those values, seemed to count too.
But over the past couple of decades, New Zealand political figures, and the National Party ones in particular, seem to have binned any sense of decency, integrity, or values when it comes to Chinese Communist Party-ruled China. I don't suppose individually most of them have much sympathy for PRC policies and practices, but they just show no sign of caring any longer. Deals, donations, and indifference seem to be the order of the day.
Over the past couple of years the depths the party, its leaders and MPs, have been plumbing have become more visible. In 2017, in government, they signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the PRC on the Belt and Road Initiative. In that document they - Simon Bridges as signatory - committed to "promote" the "fusion of civilisations". Plenty of people will probably dismiss such statements as "meaningless", the stuff of official communiques. But decent people - under no duress whatever - don't sign up to things suggesting that today's equivalent of Nazi-ruled Germany is a normal and decent regime. Of course, they would probably dispute the parallel, but that's just willed deliberate blindness.
Later that same year we learned the National Party had had a former People's Liberation Army (PLA) officer and Communist Party member, who has admitted to teaching spies at a PLA-run languages school, sitting in its parliamentary caucus. It seems to be generally accepted that Jian Yang, of such a questionable background, is one of the party's largest fundraisers. Presumably the leaders (John Key and Peter Goodfellow) were aware of his past, but let's be generous and assume that most of the caucus was as unaware as the public. But for the past 18 months, everyone has known. They also know - because Jian Yang acknowledged as much - that he deliberately misrepresented his past to get into New Zealand, telling us that Beijing had told him (and others in his position) to do so. Breathtakingly, there is no sign that official agencies in New Zealand have done anything about those admissions, but National is now out of office so I guess one can't blame them for that.
But what the National Party - leader, president, MPs, and all those holding office in the party - is responsible for is the fact that Jian Yang still sits in Parliament, still sits in the National caucus, is still National's spokesman (on a couple of minor portfolios), with the express support of successive leaders, and (apparently) in ongoing business relationships with the party president (he who trots off to Beijing to praise the regime and its leader). And not one MP, not one national councillor, no other officeholder - not one - has broken ranks, and been willing to openly question (or deplore) just what has gone on. Doing so might, I suppose, jeopardise their individual futures. But values are the things you are willing to risk, to pay some price for. Rumour hath it that some people within the party aren't entirely comfortable, but so what, if you aren't willing to do, or say, anything?
A few months ago we had the egregious former Minister of Trade, and foreign affairs spokesperson, Todd McClay plumbing new depths. In an interview with Stuff, he championed the PRC regime interpretation of the mass internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, noting that "the existence and purpose of vocational training centres is a domestic matter for the Chinese government."
If he'd just kept quiet at least there might have been some doubt about his decency, but he opened his mouth and left no doubt. He was spinning for the CCP regime in Beijing.
Since then even the regime in Beijing has more or less admitted that, of course, that line isn't true. But we've heard nothing more - and certainly no apology - from Mr McClay or his leaders.
And of course, every so often the National Party leader Simon Bridges pops up if there is ever the slightest sign that anyone in the current government is expressing even the mildest reservations about the regime in Beijing.
Never mind that the defence strategy document stated no more (considerably less) than was obvious to blind Freddy, it was too much for Mr Bridges. Never mind that reservations about Huawei seem to be increasingly widely shared by governments and intelligence agencies across the western world, it might lead to furrowed brows and discontent in Beijing, and we couldn't have that could we? Never mind too that, in government and in practice it is hard to conceive that things would have been any different on that particular score under National - I don't suppose even National is quite so far gone in Beijing's thrall that they would simply walk away from Australia, the United States, a growing number of other western countries, and what appears to be assessments of our own intelligence services.
No sense at all in anything Bridges - or any other National Party figure - says that the PRC itself has changed: bad as the regime always was, it has now become worse.
But it was comments the other day from National's third-ranked member and finance spokesperson, Amy Adams, that really left me open-mouthed in astonishment. Both at what she said - even if it wasn't far from what had seemed to be the National stance in practice - but also at the lack of any other coverage of, or follow-up to, those remarks. In an interview with NBR, (behind a paywall) we are told: "National’s finance spokeswoman Amy Adams has accused the government of putting the economy at risk by offending China.
“The first thing is you don’t p[...] off your major trading partner and, let’s be really clear about this, China is our single biggest trading partner.”
One could clear the small things out of the way first. For example, governments don't trade with China, firms in New Zealand trade with firms in the PRC. Sure, governments set some of the terms on which that trade occurs, but government isn't a business.
One might also note that if the PRC is the largest "trading partner" for New Zealand firms, it is very similar in size to Australia in terms of total New Zealand trade. Until about five years ago, the EU in total accounted for more of New Zealand's trade than the PRC. Australia remains by far the largest source of foreign investment in New Zealand. And these days exports to each of our largest "trading partners" - in an economy (New Zealand) that doesn't trade much with the rest of world by international standards - account for about 5 per cent of GDP, in total. For many decades, a much larger proportion of our GDP was accounted for by trade with the UK.
Oh, and a large proportion of New Zealand exports (not all of course) are commodities, and if not sold in one market they will be sold in some other part of the global market. PRC babies seem unlikely to stop drinking infant formula.
But what really staggered me was the bald sense in which National's finance spokesperson appears to think that the interests and priorities of foreign governments are what should matter most to our government. Not our values, not our people. On her telling, we'd never annoy Australia about anything (apple import cases to the WTO, illegal migrants on Nauru, New Zealand citizens being deported from Australia). We'd never have taken on France over nuclear-testing (at a time when the UK was entering the EU, and trade access to our largest market was substantially in danger). We'd never have fought for Imperial Preference for our exports to the UK in the 1930s. We'd never have banned nuclear ships (the US wasn't our largest trading partner, but the US and EU together were hugely important markets, and we relied on the UK government (Thatcher) to fight our corner for EU market access.
And more generally, Canada would never ever stand for itself on anything that involved the United States, or Ireland vis-a-vis the UK. I suspect Denmark and the Netherlands had had significant trade ties to Germany pre-1940, but they didn't exactly put out the welcome mat to Hitler. Southern African chose to limit trade with Rhodesia, because they considered they had a just cause. And so on. (Note that I'm not endorsing all these causes, just noting the willingness of governments to upset their closest "trading parter".)
Of course, this almost certainly isn't what Ms Adams believes at all. Presumably as a senior minister she had no problem at all with the fact that at times we had, and have, open differences with Australia. In any relationship, no matter how important, there are going to be differences from time to time, and in international relations governments (at least democratic ones) aren't supposed to act for themselves, or even for small favoured groups, but for the citizenry as a whole.
Instead the Adams approach - presumably endorsed by her leader - is about a particular thuggish regime. It seems to be that we should defer entirely to Beijing's prickly style and never ever do or say anything that might upset them, never display any self-respect, and simply engage in either anticipatory compliance or abject penitent submission. Worse, apparently we should even make excuses for them - or retail their propaganda lines, as per Todd McClay. It is classic domestic abuse situation, and yet championed by someone who aspires to be a senior minister of a free country, perhaps even aspires to be the Prime Minister. In fact, someone who was the Minister of Justice, who led legislative attempts to respond to the family violence problems. I'm quite sure it wasn't her advice to victims - "oh, don't upset him...ever". So why does she propose that our foreign policy towards the international abuser par excellence be essentially just that? Act that way and all you do is encourage the abuser, and lock yourself further into the cycle of abuse, humiliation and loss of any sort of self-respect.
Of course, the difference here is that Adams ask us (citizens) to bear the abuse and humiliation - leaders who remain silent in the face of evil, leaders who won't stand up for the integrity of the system, and even spend our money to run PR-front organisations to champion the pro-Beijing perspective - all to benefit a few specific businesses that have (consciously and knowingly) over-exposed themselves to a thuggish regime, and the substantial flow of donations to their own political parties.
Politicians like Adams simply encourage the over-exposure, and encourage the false subservience of victimhood. If our businesses were dealing with organised crime, or with shonky people who didn't pay their bills, we'd either insist or encourage them to cut their exposures. If you deal with the Mafia you are on your own - in fact, society will shun you, not tolerate you asking for us to pander to the leaders. But when it is the PRC - an organised coercive threat if ever there was such - our leaders simply want us to defer, and complain when their opponents show any sign of not being quite deferential enough to the bully. And they simply let evil pass by, and in so doing make themselves complicit with - and thus partly responsible themselves - for the evil.
In his Beijing-deferential interview on the Herald website the other day, David Mahon tried to frame the current PRC upset with New Zealand as "the Chinese see it as akin to infidelity". What a sickening image, but perhaps one that brings us right about to the abused-spouse situation. New Zealanders made no vows to Beijing - although perhaps our craven political leaders did - but when the merest squeaks are heard, the abuser - freshly drunk on newfound power - seems to feel free to attempt to squash and silence, while politicians, lobby groups and business interests cheer on not the abused-spouse but the abuser. New Zealand "leaders " have been the most sycophantic and compliant, perhaps there is a sense that China can't afford to let us get away with some renewed self-respect. That, after all, might encourage others to think and act for themselves, for the values of their peoples. Better to foster the illusion - assisted by local politicians and academics - that the PRC hold our prosperity in its hand.
It simply doesn't. It never did.
But that's New Zealand politics, that seems to be today's National Party. It is sickening.
This article has been amended to clarify Jian Yang's role with the PLA.