Forget the love trysts, our relationship with China is a much bigger affair

by Bevan Rapson / 13 November, 2018

A Chinese marine on the frigate Huangshan off Darwin during a large military exercise that included the New Zealand Navy. Photo / Getty Images

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Revelations about a big donation to the National Party feed unease over China’s growing influence.

Amid an extraordinary few October days of revelations about goings-on in the National Party, hints from its MP-gone-rogue Jami-Lee Ross that he might “lift the bed sheets” on parliamentary “bed-hopping” threatened to raise the ante.

Were lurid details of long-rumoured extramural parliamentary activities about to gush forth, destroying careers, wrecking marriages and further exposing the seat of our democracy as a sordid pit of hypocrisy and deceit?

The possibility sent another jolt through news and social-media networks already humming over Ross’s revolt and revelations about his own extra-marital and allegedly intimidating behaviour. Never mind the Prime Minister’s “nuclear-free moment” – Ross’s nuclear-option moment raised the prospect of unprecedented personal and political carnage.

Considering power’s supposed aphrodisiacal qualities, and the long hours and disrupted home lives endured by many of parliament’s occupants, it should be no surprise that it has its share of random trysts, flings and hook-ups, along with long-running affairs and old-fashioned romance. MPs and the others who work there are only human, even if some, like former Labour cabinet minister Steve Maharey, will claim to lead lives of “blameless excellence”.

The Ross rebellion lifted the lid on a few other things too. Through Ross’s surreptitiously recorded conversation with National leader Simon Bridges we found out, for example, that the National leader considered at least one of his backbenchers, Maureen Pugh, to be – to put it more kindly than he did – somewhat under par (he later apologised). We also learned that the allocation of list places to ethnic candidates can be an unseemly business in which “two Chinese would be nice” (Bridges) and “two Chinese would be more valuable than two Indians” (Ross).

Most important of all, we got a crystal-clear picture of how $100,000 from someone said to be closely associated with the Chinese Government can find its way into National Party coffers.

Ross’s tape didn’t stand up his allegations of electoral fraud, but it helpfully drew renewed attention to questions about Chinese influence in New Zealand politics.

Commentators could again canvas issues raised by University of Canterbury Professor Anne-Marie Brady, who has detailed the Chinese Government’s use of organisations such as the “United Front” to project and protect China’s influence in other countries.

And they could again note the astonishing ongoing presence in National’s caucus of list MP Jian Yang, who formerly taught at an elite Chinese spy school and did not disclose his links to Chinese military intelligence when applying for New Zealand residency.

One fresh perspective on the issue was provided in the New Zealand Herald by writer and social researcher Tze Ming Mok, who claimed the “wall of silence” about the extent of China’s influence here was harming Chinese people in New Zealand: “It’s endlessly irritating and insulting that both Labour and National have lazily assigned Chinese communities as the fiefdoms of politicians openly backed by the Chinese government.”

Sadly, it seems New Zealand probably shouldn’t these days be considered a particularly safe haven for anyone wanting to escape the grip of China’s one-party state. Can we honestly promise immigrants a fair go when the tentacles of their homeland’s regime are so wide-reaching within Chinese networks here? Those brave dissidents who choose to stand up against their government should probably look elsewhere for support, or an escape route.

The silence from our politicians over concerns about Chinese state influence here has been deafening. It would seem China now looms so large over our economic fortunes that doing anything to provoke the Panda is seen as wilfully counterproductive. This only confirms the impression that in this “Chinese century”, we are incrementally but inexorably being absorbed into a new empire.

It’s hardly surprising a small, remote country with limited security resources will play nice with the bigger kids in the geopolitical playground. We also remain an outpost of the American-led Five Eyes intelligence club, though our willingness to cosy up to the Chinese has reportedly disappointed its other members.

Having a bob each way can also be seen as sensible for a small player, even if President Donald Trump’s nationalistic and isolationist impulses add an unpredictable element, threatening to loosen our ties to our traditional allies and perhaps weaken our ability to withstand Beijing’s gravitational pull.

We’ve always had plenty of domestic critics of the post-World War II American “empire” on which our security strategies have relied. Even the National Party knew there was little appetite here for following the US into Vietnam in the 60s. Peace activists were delighted when our nuclear-ship policy all but scuppered the New Zealand-US relationship back in the 80s.

But it’s worth recalling now that most of the wrongs perpetrated by the US around the world – in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq and elsewhere – were exposed by American news organisations; its foreign-policy failures were debated, in public, by its politicians. As China begins to flex its muscles, don’t expect its state-controlled media to provide anything other than fawning approval, or its politicians to even just occasionally break ranks and contradict the party line.
Did someone say fawning? The recent visit by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex provoked a predictable splurge of shameless Royalmania, as Harry and Meghan, curious vestiges of that other now-defunct empire responsible for our nation’s very existence, braved the drizzle and downpours of a New Zealand spring.

The people interviewed about their encounters with the latest and coolest Royal iteration yabbered as excitedly as any One Direction fan. The interviewers weren’t much better in their unctuous live crosses. The Royals are so obviously a ratings winner, that no note of reflection on the meaning of it all could mar the coverage.

It fell to former cabinet minister and United Future leader Peter Dunne to mark the visit with a call for moves towards becoming a republic. And turning our governor-general into a president seems a simple enough way of symbolising our status as an independent nation, although it wouldn’t contribute much towards our autonomy under today’s superpowers.

That’s down to our political leaders, who admittedly have a fine line to tread, even if it’s hard to imagine them being any more cravenly in thrall to Beijing than governments of either political stripe have been in the past decade or two.

Decisions such as that faced by Communications Minister Kris Faafoi over whether to bar China’s Huawei from building our 5G network will eventually help determine how much we control our own destiny. Huawei is regarded by some of our allies as being linked to the Chinese military and therefore at risk of being used to compromise network infrastructure in foreign countries. The Australian government has blocked it and another Chinese firm, ZTE, from providing components for next-generation networks across the Tasman, and Faafoi says a similar approach could be an option here. If serious concerns are raised – and why wouldn’t they be? – he says he’ll be consulting our security services before making a decision, so watch this space.

Our long-term interests mean we have to jealously guard our independence. Along with a principled, staunchly independent approach by cabinet ministers faced with Huawei-type decisions, we could do with one or two more lowly-ranked MPs – a different breed of rebel to Jami-Lee Ross – defying the cosy consensus over China’s influence and using parliament to ventilate concerns.

Leaders and frontbenchers are constrained by diplomatic requirements, but a backbencher could put on a tin hat, and take the chance to be something more than lobby fodder for once. Whether such an MP is otherwise considered expletively “useless”, is among parliament’s party animals and has reason to feel nervous about talk of lifting the sheets, or has lived a life of blameless excellence, their country needs some of its elected representatives to step up and speak out. On the downside, they probably couldn’t count on too many subsequent junkets to China. 

This article was first published in the December issue of North & South.

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