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New Zealand’s relationship with China: is it really a bridge… or a doormat?

I have friends from Europe and North America who believe that the biggest challenge to liberal democracy today is the way money corrupts politicians and political parties. I have Chinese friends who believe that this is basically how all political systems work and have always worked.

“Western multi-party democracy is a game that revolves around big capitalist donors and the buying of power,” a Communist Party official in charge of a northeastern judicial committee told me, waving away ideals about democracy with the flick of an annoyed hand. He assured me that the west was no different from China: “here we buy influence and there you buy influence.”

july 1 democracy rally protest march

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

As a classical liberal who believes that government should be constrained, I am usually sanguine about concerns about big money and politics. If government were smaller, there would be less demand for under-the-table contracts and scratching of backs with regulation. Crony capitalism is a result of big government.

But when the largest Communist dictatorship buys influence abroad, I agree that people should worry. Call it international crony socialism.

Last month, the government of New Zealand announced that it wanted to become ‘a bridge and broker’ in the trade war between the United States and the People’s Republic. It believes that its military alignment with the US and economic ties with China ‘give it a unique perspective.’

Well, that military alignment is shaky at best due to doubts about New Zealand’s trustworthiness when it comes to China. New Zealand is part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement with Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, but the other partners have reason to believe that briefings New Zealand received were subsequently shared with agents from the People’s Republic of China.

The doubts about New Zealand’s true loyalties were put into words by the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘the Five Eyes are actually Four Eyes and a Wink.’

Jacinda Ardern Li Keqiang

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Photo: GovCN.

On trade, New Zealand has an addict-like dependency on agricultural commodity and primary good exports, particularly milk solids. Its largest trading partner and importer of those goods is China.

Where Australia has successfully leveraged its exports of strategic minerals by demanding more transparency about political interference, New Zealand has been quietly promoting its exports, suggesting that there are no strings attached, as replacements for the US products that Beijing slapped with retaliatory tariffs.

Conversely, New Zealand’s exports are easily substitutable if the trade war truce ends in a trade deal. More importantly, they are inconsequential to China’s broader strategic planning. This makes New Zealand extremely vulnerable.

Meanwhile, Beijing is interested in establishing a naval presence in New Zealand’s backyard, or rather, its duck pond, with access to strategic island chains that would allow it to harass the US Navy out of the Indo-Pacific region.

Transparency International has praised New Zealand in the past for its reputation of having a society that is relatively free from corruption, but it warned in 2013 that donations to political parties were ‘worrisome.’ Case in point, Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross alleged in October that he was ordered by National’s leader, Simon Bridges, to help break up a NZ$100,000 donation to the party from a Chinese Government-aligned businessman into smaller parcels of less than NZ$15,000 each to avoid having to declare the source of the donation(s) to the Electoral Commission.

If New Zealand wants to be a broker in the trade war, which is now fortunately on hold, it should be an honest one. And an honest broker is not for sale. New Zealand has been bought by Beijing, lock, stock and milk churn.

The donation that created a minor fuss came from Zhang Yikun, who was a member of the Communist Party’s Consultative Conference in Hainan Province for five years until this year. The offer to donate a big sum to the National Party came after Zhang met Bridges at a dinner on May 14 this year at his home in Auckland.

Less than a month later the former People’s Liberation Army officer was awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit. The merit in question being deep pockets.

Jacinda Ardern Zhang Yikun

Jacinda Ardern and Zhang Yikun. Photo: WeChat.

Money buys influence, one way or another, and the fact that New Zealand’s political parties get such donations from China is likely to be connected with New Zealand’s remarkable silence on the plethora of human rights violations in China and China’s aggressive policies in its near abroad.

Last year, at a big party to mark the anniversary of New Zealand and China establishing bilateral relations, Foreign Minister Winston Peters said without any flinching that ‘westerners should not constantly harp on’ about what he aloofly described as a ‘romance of freedom’ in China.

New Zealand can certainly not be blamed for harping on about anything that upsets Beijing. New Zealand has its iconic Maori haka war dance, made famous by the ever-victorious All Blacks, the kiwi rugby team. Perhaps there is a less well-known Maori submission dance that could be performed in front of the throne of Xi Jinping.

In March 2016 New Zealand didn’t join a dozen other countries in an unprecedented United Nations Human Rights Council statement denouncing China’s abuses of human rights lawyers. In October 2016, Deputy Prime Minister Bill English memorably cancelled at the last minute a meeting with venerable Hong Kong democracy leaders Martin Lee and Anson Chan, stating but not explaining that it was ‘diplomatically sensitive’ to meet them.

New Zealand did not sign a joint letter with other governments in February 2017 expressing concern about torture in China’s extralegal detention centres. New Zealand was quiet when Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo died in the summer of 2017 being guarded by his Communist Party persecutors.

New Zealand refused to denounce the sudden arrests of house church leaders in Chengdu last week, a few blocks away from the New Zealand consulate that is often used to wine and dine CPC officials. Just last month New Zealand declined to join the ambassadors of 15 nations seeking a meeting with the Communist official responsible for the inhuman treatment of up to a million Muslims in the remote region of Xinjiang.

Martin Lee Anson Chan

Martin Lee and Anson Chan. File Photo: Apple Daily.

The silence and presumed acquiescence is so profound that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has called New Zealand ‘the soft underbelly’ of the west with regards to China. The Canadians joined the Americans in suggesting that New Zealand’s membership of the Five Eyes should be re-evaluated, because of high level infiltration from China. The Canadians also singled out the problem with political donations.

While being self-righteously assertive on human rights in international bodies such as the UN, where New Zealand proudly acclaims it ‘punches above its weight’, when it comes to China the island nation relies exclusively on ‘private diplomacy’ on human rights, which to Chinese officials equals not being criticised at all.

While Angela Merkel’s Germany used its own version of private diplomacy to secure free passage for the widow of aforementioned Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia, to safety in Germany, there has been no discernable effect of New Zealand’s diplomatic silence. Well, apart from a steady flow of political donations, that is.

liu xiaobo memorial

File photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

There is bipartisan agreement in Australia that China has been using donations to corrupt its democracy. A Labour Senator there, Sam Dastyari, had to resign after Chinese donations to his personal campaigns were revealed.

Australia has held open Parliamentary discussions about how to combat China’s influence-seeking, and when Chinese officials complained about their country’s treatment in the Ozzie press, former Prime Minister John Howard drily commented that it would be so much easier if they just admitted that they represented an authoritarian regime.

The bipartisan agreement in New Zealand seems to be to keep accepting those very same donations and keep quiet. The governing New Zealand Labour Party dispatched a representative to a Chinese Communist Party gathering in Beijing in December 2017 that endorsed Chinese President Xi Jinping as a ‘peacemaker.’

He could only be said to make peace in the ancient Roman way: to create a wasteland and call it peace.

The National Party opposition has not only accepted donations from CPC-linked Chinese, such as the aforementioned Zhang Yikun, it even has a Member of Parliament, Jian Yang, who lied about his CPC membership and who before becoming a New Zealand citizen was a teacher at a Chinese Party school that trained ‘foreign bound operatives.’

That the National Party has not unceremoniously kicked him out of their party could have something to do with the fact that he is said to be National’s most successful fundraiser. Meanwhile, former Prime Ministers such as Labour’s Helen Clark are getting nice payments to promote New Zealand in China and vice versa, all the time maintaining their pliant silence.

The current Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has poked fun at President Donald Trump’s controversial election victory, but she has yet to ridicule Xi Jinping for never having been elected at all or for having ascended to the red throne of lifelong dictatorship.

There are signs of doubt in New Zealand’s lively civil society, but in the higher echelons of business and politics there is a consensus that New Zealand says nothing that might possibly upset Beijing. Because it has been so utterly corrupted and subjugated by Beijing New Zealand can never be a bridge between the two powers in the trade war, but it definitely has been walked over and trampled upon.

New Zealand’s relationship with China: is it really a bridge... or a doormat?