Week in Review

Bridges opens up foreign policy divide on China

National leader Simon Bridges’ enthusiastic praise of the Chinese regime during a recent visit, and subsequent irritable defence of them, sits uneasily with growing concern about the Asian superpower, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Praise for the role of the communist regime in China’s “amazing story” would seem an unlikely line for a right-wing leader to take in an interview, let alone with a state-run television network in the country.

Yet National leader Simon Bridges’ glowing remarks at the tailend of a visit to the Asian superpower were not the most puzzling thing about his interview with a CGTV journalist.

Bridges offered up a paraphrase of an alleged Xi Jinping quote that New Zealand was the cherry to China’s watermelon but that both were delicious - a line he shamelessly reused about the relationship with India, the other country he visited during his week-long tour.

Some watchers suggested an answer to a question regarding the unrest in Hong Kong appeared to have been altered; a spokeswoman for Bridges confirmed only half of his response had been used, but denied there had been any tampering and equated the editing with standard practice in New Zealand media.

Of greater concern to some was Bridges’ meeting with Guo Shengkun, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 25-man Politburo.

Bridges snapped at the suggestion Guo was the man “in charge of China’s secret police,'' as University of Canterbury academic and China expert Anne-Marie Brady suggested on social media.

Simon Bridges dismissed China expert Anne-Marie Brady's suggestion he had met the head of China's secret police - but the facts seem clear. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

“You’re coming in about this guy, ‘Ooh he’s the secret police guy’ - what he is is one of the leaders of China in the top 25 who is their justice and law and order spokesperson. I’d say to you with the greatest of respect, be responsible,” he told media.

But with the greatest of respect in return, the facts are clear.

Guo was appointed as party secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Central Committee in late 2017, a role which as the South China Morning Post noted at the time put him “in charge of China’s massive security and intelligence systems, which have been ramped up in recent years as the government tries to prevent social unrest and what it sees as a threat from violent extremism – especially in the far western Xinjiang region”.

Reports on the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, at what the Chinese government euphemistically refers to as “vocational education” facilities, has led New Zealand to join 21 other countries in writing to the United Nations about their concerns.

Yet Bridges flubbed his answer to a question about whether he had discussed the detention camps.

Asked whether he had raised Xinjiang during his visit, he responded in the negative, only to later confirm there had been brief discussions about Uighurs, saying when asked about the conflicting statements: “Well, I’m sorry, I don’t know the exact details of what you’re talking about.”

The confusion over Xinjiang, mixed with the fact he had sat down with the man overseeing the mass surveillance of a religious minority in the province, is an uneasy combination.

A striking contrast

Of course, the Government has been guilty at times of shying away from detailed criticism of China’s human rights record.

But its harder line in recent months is a striking contrast with the Opposition leader’s glowing praise for the CCP regime.

It was little wonder that Finance Minister Grant Robertson took a jab at Bridges during Question Time, describing the CGTN broadcast as “the most extraordinary interview I think I’ve ever seen the leader of a National Party give”.

“His praise for the Chinese Communist Party went to a level that even the most loyal members of that party would struggle with.”

Few people, apart from the most hawkish of China watchers, are suggesting that we should cut ties entirely - but many foreign policy experts and politicians see cause for caution in how we interact with the Asian superpower, and striking a balance between economic gain and our national values.

That is taking it a bit far, but Bridges’ comments were certainly questionable in their own right, and doubly so given National’s recent donation scandals involving Chinese donors Lang Lin and Zhang Yikun.

His argument to media, that New Zealand’s disagreements with China on human rights and the rule of law did not equate with “the sort of woke line...that somehow means we shouldn’t be visiting and we shouldn’t be having a relationship with a superpower that we trade more with than any other country in the world”, seems a strawman.

Nobody is suggesting that we should cut ties entirely - but many foreign policy experts and politicians see cause for caution in how we interact with the Asian superpower, and striking a balance between economic gain and our national values.

Whether out of naivety or deliberate strategy, National under Bridges appears to be taking a markedly different approach - and it is little wonder a foreign policy academic is expressing alarm at the chasm between the Government and the Opposition on how to handle China.

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