China more like the USSR than some think

Some have dismissed Jian Yang’s history in Chinese military intelligence and his presence in our Parliament as being nothing like a former KGB member entering Parliament in the 1970s. I asked readers to imagine that scenario in a column last week, but some have questioned the similarity of China’s current system with that of the USSR in the 1970s. Surely, they suggest, modern China is much better and freer than the Soviet Union of the 1970s?

It’s true there are some significant economic differences between the two regimes. Chinese firms trade with and invest in the wider world, while the Soviet Union traded mostly (but not solely) with other communist countries. China allows the market considerable play in matters economic, and the Soviet Union didn’t. So long, that is, as a notionally private company concerned doesn’t step out of line (see Richard McGregor’s excellent The Party). And some of the key dimensions of a market economy are the rule of law, a market-led allocation of credit, and the ability to fail. On none of those does China score well.

And it isn’t as if China is some startling economic success story either. Here is a chart showing China’s continuing economic failure (relative to both the US – as representative of a leading advanced economy – and to other east Asian countries).

China today is richer (per capita GDP) than the Soviet Union was in the 1970s, but almost every country has got a lot richer since then. As a proportion of US (or New Zealand) GDP per capita, China’s current GDP per capita is estimated to be a bit lower today than the Soviet Union’s was in the 1970s.

Quite probably, China will close the gap to some extent over the next decade or two, even if they persist with the current credit-driven, absence of supply-side reforms, economic model. But embedded within the system are huge misallocations of credit, and thus of real resources. They can avoid a financial crisis, but they can’t avoid that waste.

To me, there are two aspects of China – and thus about Jian Yang’s past active service in that regime (and Party’s) cause – that should be of concern. There are the values the Chinese authorities apply internally, and the approach they adopt and encourage externally. Neither should be encouraging to anyone who values the free and liberal democracy – with all its faults – that countries like our own built and maintained over the last few hundred years.

It is a regime that murders protestors – what Jian Yang refers to just as “student demonstrations” – that imprisons dissenters, that denies freedom of worship, that bans internet access to sites critical of the regime (or indeed, to services that won’t act as agents of the regime in suppressing dissent). For decades, they forced abortions on couples who wanted more than one child. And today they are at the forefront of using surveillance technology – much more advanced than anything the Soviet Union could use 40 years ago – to keep the citizenry in check.

Classy handbags no indicator of character

The obscene inequalities of wealth, flowing in the direction of the political elite and those close to them, are just another aspect. Prada handbags and smartphones tell us nothing about the character of the regime. (And I don’t see anything in that character that marks it out from the Soviet Union.)

I’m not one who favours interfering in the internal governance of other countries, large or small, and no matter how unsavoury they are. But if someone who was an active part of such a regime – voluntarily a Party member – comes to New Zealand and wants to be part of governing our country, one might reasonably expect he would (a) acknowledge his part in, and (b) denounce the evils of, the system.   

As a member of the Chinese language media put it to me, the language Yang used in his maiden speech about Tianamen Square was the sort of language one would only use if one supported the brutual suppression of those demonstrations by the government and Communist Party of China – iin whose cause Yang had then been working.

But it is the foreign policy of China that should be even more disconcerting. In the 1970s, the West and the Soviet Union and its allies were fighting the odd proxy war (eg Angola –  with Cuba on one side and South Africa on the other), and there was the invasion of Afghanistan. I’m not about to trivialise the Soviet Union, but it was the also the era of great power detente. Both sides were suspicious of the other –  and the risks of misinterpretations leading to nuclear conflict –  but by the 1970s few people saw the Soviet Union’s intentions as primarily expansionist or aggressive.  And the UN apart, the Soviet Union wasn’t part of most international agencies (eg IMF, World Bank, WTO/GATT).

It would have been regarded as quite inconceivable in the 1970s to have had a former serving KGB officer (whatever his specific role in that establishment) as a member of the New Zealand Parliament.

And these days? China remains the leading protector of North Korea. China propounds values, and standards of international governance, through international organisations, that are inimical to those of the West. China is an actively expansionist power –  most visibly in the South China Sea, where it has been in flagrant breach of international law.  China is a key player in cyber-espionage. China is widely-recognised as attempting to suborn regional political leaders – apparently successful for now in the Philippines.  

And China’s strategy of attempting to exert influence in a wide range of countries through the deployment of its (current or former) citizens in other countries is well-documented.

China still lays claim over a democratic state (Taiwan) and has never renounced the possibility of using force to take Taiwan. In short, China represents a considerable threat to the sort of regional and world order that New Zealand has been a part of, and which (historically at least) its leaders were willing to champion.

China threatens us more than USSR

And then, frankly, there are two other differences: numbers and location. The Soviet Union in the 1970s had a population similar to that of the United States, and much smaller than that of all the NATO (and associated) countries. China –  still relatively poor in per capita income terms, as the Soviet Union was - now has (or shortly will) have the largest economy in the world. Such a large economy buys a lot of weapons systems, and potentially a lot of clout. And location? The Soviet Union’s prime focus wasn’t south and east Asia. China’s is. New Zealand is a long way from either country, but the threat to our values, and our systems, is real nonetheless –  and, compared with the 1970s, New Zealand stands more alone than it did then.

I don’t suppose China has any intention of invading New Zealand, any more than the Soviet Union did. Something akin to vassal status will do just fine –  countries that are reluctant to stick up for what they once believed, that are reluctant to stick up for countries with similar values in east Asia, that are reluctant to call out China’s territorial expansionism or its internal abuses. Yes, I’d say China is at least as serious a threat to us today as the Soviet Union once was –  perhaps more so, because the threat is less well-recognised, and more insidious. Better suits, and good hospitality. And our own ministers –  probably of either main party –  all too eager to please.

Why the strange silence?

And what of our media? Credit goes to Newsroom (and the Financial Times) for breaking the Jian Yang story.  But what of our mainstream media? They seem to have given the story some initial coverage, but it has tailed off since then. I hope that is an incorrect interpretation, but a week out from an election it was striking that there was nothing at all about the story in the Dominion Post on Thursday or Friday, or –  as far as I could see –  in the Herald on Saturday.  

And yet this is a story about a government MP, actively recruited by senior National Party figures to in some sense “represent” the Chinese community (identity politics rule, as Stephen Franks notes), who appears to have hidden –  from the public at very least –  his active membership in the Chinese Communist Party and his service in the Chinese intelligence services, and who appears to remain close to the Chinese Embassy.

At very least, there are allegations of SIS investigations –  paralleling similar investigations around Chinese-born politicians in Canada and Australia. And there also seem to be suggestions of incomplete, or misleading, disclosures when Yang sought New Zealand residency and/or citizenship. It seems as though it should be a major ongoing story –  with tough questions for the Prime Minister, the National Party, John Key, the Minister of Internal Affairs, and (for that matter) the leaders of other political parties.

As I noted the other day, perhaps he hid it from the National Party too, which would speak very poorly of their candidate vetting. Or he told them, and they didn’t care, (and perhaps even told him to keep his past quiet) which speaks even more poorly of them, their values, and their priorities. Either way, it should be unacceptable.

So it would have been regarded as quite inconceivable in the 1970s to have had a former serving KGB officer (whatever his specific role in that establishment) as a member of the New Zealand Parliament. If that person had grossly misrepresented their past, and continued to associate closely with the Soviet Embassy, the scandal would have been all the greater. It should be just as unacceptable today for a former serving member of the Chinese Communist Party, and the Chinese intelligence services, having consciously misrepresented his past and never denounced the system, to be in –  and put forward again as a candidate for –  our Parliament today.

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