Gordon Campbell: Key's backbone problem with China

john keyOn the evidence of the past week, New Zealand has a Prime Minister who seems chronically unable to stand up for himself – or this country – on points of principle. First we had John Key’s non-reaction (during his Breakfast TV interview) to Paul Henry’s racist comments about the Governor-General, even though a forthright response to Henry at the time would have stopped the scandal in its tracks. At yesterday’s press conference, we saw a similarly pathetic non-response from Key to the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo.

Rather than stand up for principle – Liu has been jailed for 11 years for co-signing a document calling for greater respect for human rights and democratic reform – Key has chosen to run and hide, lest he offend the tyrants in Beijing. Yesterday, the award to Liu had already been applauded by the UK, US and French governments, and by the European Union. President Barack Obama had said:

I welcome the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Liu Xiaobo. Last year, I noted that so many others who have received the award had sacrificed so much more than I. That list now includes Mr. Liu, who has sacrificed his freedom for his beliefs. By granting the prize to Mr. Liu, the Nobel Committee has chosen someone who has been an eloquent and courageous spokesman for the advance of universal values through peaceful and non-violent means, including his support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

In Australia, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said this in a interview with the ABC:

Rudd : The Australian Government congratulates Liu Xiaobo on having been awarded the Nobel peace prize. This is a prestigious award. Based on our knowledge of Liu Xiaobo’s work, he’s worked with Charter 08. He of course is a worthy recipient.

Interviewer Alexandra Kirk : : You’re aware of the plight of his wife. His lawyers are saying that since she visited him in jail that she’s under a de-facto form of house arrest and her phone’s been taken away.

Rudd: We haven’t been able to finally confirm the details concerning Liu Xia, that’s Liu Xiaobo’s wife. Our understanding is that her freedom of movement has been curtailed and her freedom of contact with others by telephone has been restricted. On the precise details, however, we do not have all information to hand.

Kirk : Will you take up their cause?

Rudd : Australia maintains a continued human rights dialogue with the Chinese. We have made representations in relation to Liu Xiaobo in the past. We will continue to make those representations on behalf of him and any freedom, unnecessary restrictions of freedom of movement in relation to his wife as well.

And New Zealand’s reaction? What forthright message did John Key send when questioned about our government’s response to the Nobel awards at yesterday’s press conference? “I’m not aware of why he’s in jail and it’s not for me to comment about what’s appropriate in terms of a country’s putting people in those facilities.” Key also said he would take advice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but could not guarantee any kind of public statement on the matter.

Got that? So when dictatorships put people in jail for supporting human rights and democratic reform, John Key believes that “Its not for me to comment about what’s appropriate in terms of a country’s putting people in jail in those facilities.” Offhand, it is hard to think of a more shameful statement – ever – by the person who represents New Zealand on the world stage.

He also needs a briefing from MFAT before commenting? Well, our traditional allies – the UK, France, Australia – have been making representations on Liu’s behalf for months. In July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Poland that supported Liu, and explained why his cause needed to be defended. Perhaps Key and the officials at MFAT should read it :

We continue to engage on civil society issues with China, where writer Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11-year prison sentence because he co-authored a document calling for respect for human rights and democratic reform. Too many governments are seeing civic activists as opponents, rather than partners. And as democracies, we must recognize that this trend is taking place against a broader backdrop.

In the 20th century, crackdowns against civil society frequently occurred under the guise of ideology. Since the demise of Communism, most crackdowns seem to be motivated instead by sheer power politics. But behind these actions, there is an idea, an alternative conception of how societies should be organized. And it is an idea that democracies must challenge. It is a belief that people are subservient to their government, rather than government being subservient to their people…It requires private organizations to seek the state’s approval, and to serve the states and the states’ leaderships’ larger agenda.

….. That refusal to allow people the chance to organize in support of a cause larger than themselves, but separate from the state, represents an assault on one of our fundamental democratic values.

The idea of pluralism is integral to our understanding of what it means to be a democracy. Democracies recognize that no one entity — no state, no political party, no leader — will ever have all the answers to the challenges we face. And, depending on their circumstances and traditions, people need the latitude to work toward and select their own solutions. Our democracies do not and should not look the same. Governments by the people, for the people, and of the people will look like the people they represent. But we all recognize the reality and importance of these differences. Pluralism flows from these differences. And because crackdowns on NGOs are a direct threat to pluralism, they also endanger democracy.

Yet instead of defending Liu and the principles of pluralism and democracy that he represents, Key is choosing to smile that vacuous smile, and is falling into appeasement mode. Lest it be said that Norway had nothing to lose by making the Nobel award, it should be borne in mind that Norway and China are right in the middle of negotiating a free trade agreement, and the relevant meetings began back in 2007. Plainly, some countries still think there are principles more important than trade. It is a pity New Zealand is no longer one of them.


Taxpayer-funded discrimination at Te Papa

According to a NZ Herald report, the Te Papa national museum has been party to a restriction of access to some of Te Papa’s collections, on condition that pregnant and menstruating women refrain from attendance:

An invitation for regional museums to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of some of Te Papa’s collections included the condition that “wahine who are either hapu [pregnant] or mate wahine [menstruating]” were unable to attend. Jane Keig, Te Papa spokeswoman, said the policy was in place because of Maori beliefs surrounding the Taonga Maori collection included in the tour. She said the rule was one of the terms Te Papa agreed to when they took the collection.

“If a woman is pregnant or menstruating, they are tapu. Some of these taonga have been used in battle and to kill people. Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects.”

The policy is not in place for the general exhibition. If an object is tapu it is “forbidden” and in Maori culture it is believed that if that tapu is not observed, something bad will happen.

In the Dom-Post however, Keig says that Te Papa is not imposing a ban on access, but merely asking menstruating or pregnant women not to attend the exhibits ‘for their own safety’. Just what a state-funded organization – and one whose branding is based on it being called Our Place – thinks it is doing by promoting such beliefs is mind-boggling, given that the beliefs in question are based on nothing other than a misogyny sanctified by tradition.

Meaning: it is not the safety of women, but fear of their procreative power that is the point here. Lets be clear about this. Menstrual blood will not attract death rays from an axe. People who believe that it will are free to do so, though it is hard to see how such beliefs would not be harmful to Maori girls and women. Maori are also welcome to try and impose such conditions on the display of their property – but access to public space cannot be influenced by such conditions. The key point has been succinctly stated within the Dom-Post article by Deborah Russel, from the Hand Mirror blog :

“I don’t understand why a secular institution, funded by public money in a secular state, is imposing religious and cultural values on people.”

The state should not impose other people’s cultural practices on people in general, Ms Russel said.

Well said.


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