Gordon Campbell on our determination to ignore China’s human rights abuses

7611b7c63417eb42cfb6For nearly two decades, New Zealand has been juggling our dependency on China when it comes to trade, while expecting our traditional allies to look after our defence and security needs. Yet the scale of China’s human rights abuses has added a new element to the mix, and we’ve finally chosen sides: its China for us, regardless – even though we’ve chosen to cloak that decision by telling our allies that we have an “independent” foreign policy. (They’ll appreciate that)

In practice, what it really means is that we have chosen – uniquely among Western nations – to turn a blind eye to China’s human rights abuses. The Ardern government has openly broken ranks, and will not be adding New Zealand’s voice to the global denunciation of (a) China’s genocide against the Uighurs in Xinjiang and (b) its crushing of democracy in Hong Kong.

Jacinda Ardern’s speech on Monday to the China Business Summit lacked any mention of either the “genocide” word or any expression of outrage at what is being done to democracy activists in Hong Kong. Oh, we will continue to express our “concern” about some of China’s actions, while simultaneously assuring Beijing that surely we can agree to disagree, and that our differences need not impede our close trading ties, which we regard as being “core” to our relationship.

One has to wonder what Beijing would have to do in order for New Zealand to suspend the processes of mutual enrichment. Decades ago, Robert Muldoon once famously said that New Zealand’s foreign policy is trade, but even Muldoon probably would have treated the fate of the Uighurs as a bridge too far.

In Monday’s speech though, Ardern also re-assured Beijing of our recognition of the “one China” policy that has been China’s rationale for suppressing dissent in Hong Kong, and for recently amping up its old threats to Taiwan. As has been widely noted overseas, Ardern’s speech – and that of Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta two weeks ago – have made New Zealand seem uniquely sympatico with China, regardless of Beijing’s abuses of international law. Mahuta’s recent comments about her “discomfort” with the 5 Eyes network being used against China were met with “dismay” in London, as the Times reported at the time. (If the 5 Eyes offend her, maybe Mahuta should pluck us out of that alliance altogether, but as usual we want it both ways.)

Yesterday’s Guardian sub-headline had the Ardern speech about right: “Her words might have sounded tough to a domestic audience but in fact they’ll go down fine in China.” Meanwhile, the EU, the UK, the US and Canada have all slapped sanctions on China over its treatment of the Uighurs, and in defence of democracy in Hong Kong. In payback, China is imposing sanctions on 10 EU citizens, (including several EU parliamentarians) for their “gross interference” in China’s internal affairs. More on that below.

Overall, China can be relied on to express its outrage if and whenever any foreign power dares to object to it imprisoning up to a million Uighurs in concentration camps, forcibly sterilising Uighur women and outlawing the use of Uighur language and cultural expression, including the practice of Islam. (One wonders how Nanaia Mahuta can be so complacent about China’s suppression of the culture of its indigenous minorities.) So far, our leaders have been willing to frame these monstrous acts as a “difference” from our values that we can safely manage without disruption to our trade. In fact, Ardern has presented our mild expressions of “difference” as being a sign of our bravely “independent” foreign policy. Really.

Bringing it all back home

Domestically, it seems extremely odd that an allegedly left wing Labour government is needing to be prodded into action on human rights abuses by the Act Party. Yet reportedly, Act’s deputy leader Brooke van Velden is about to request Parliament to debate whether China’s actions in Xinjiang should be classified and condemned as “genocide” – a step that both Labour and National’s shadow foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee are plainly reluctant to take. The Greens are doing their own form of hair-splitting, by urging sanctions against those Chinese imports made in Uighur slave labour camps, while otherwise maintaining business as usual.

As mentioned, the countries that we usually regard as our friends and allies – Australia, the UK, Canada, the US, the EU bloc – are taking the heat, in tit-for-tat exchanges of travel bans and asset freezes:

In a statement, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it would endorse sanctions against the individuals and four EU entities for “maliciously spreading lies and false information. “On the list of individuals to be sanctioned are five members of the EU parliament — Reinhard Butikofer, Michael Gahler, Raphael Glucksmann, Ilhan Kyuchyuk and Miriam Lexmann — EU human rights and security committee members, and Adrian Zenz, a US-based German scholar who has published reports of abuse against minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. Beijing said it will also sanction EU entities including Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies and a Danish democracy organization.

It is significant that the sanctions imposed by the EU on China over the Uighurs have marked the first time that Europe has sanctioned China on humanitarian grounds since the Tiananmen Square massacre 31 years ago. The UK, which has unique obligations to the democracy activists in Hong Kong, has imposed its own sanctions. In fact, the Westminster statement on China and the Uighurs will reportedly be similar to what will be put before the NZ Parliament. It read :

“This House believes that Uighurs and other ethnic religious minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region are suffering crimes against humanity and genocide, and calls on the Government to act to fulfil its obligation under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and all relevant instruments of international law to bring it to an end.”

Right. And since New Zealand bangs on so consistently about how- as a small country – we rely on the international system of rules and conventions, this one should be a no-brainer. Do we support the UN Convention on genocide, or don’t we? Or will Labour and National quibble about whether what the Uighurs are being subjected to Xinjiang does, or doesn’t, quite meet the definition of “genocide”? Labour and National may need to be reminded that ensuring China does not lose face is not really the key issue here.

Footnote One: Trade Minister Damien O’Connor’s speech on Monday to the China Business Summit was, as you would normally expect, all about trade. Yet in the current circumstances there was also something surreal about touting our successes in selling luxury stuff to China:

Les Mills [has] launched a WeChat Mini Program to provide free workouts and other content, allowing Chinese consumers holed up in their apartments to stay healthy….And there’s Fisher&Paykel appliances who, at the peak of the pandemic, successfully signed four new strategic partnerships with some of China’s top real estate developers. This meant they could deliver full kitchen solutions to over 2,000 new Chinese families. Taking advantage of the significant opportunity in China’s home development sector, Fisher & Paykel continues to expand into luxury retail with the opening of up to 10 Fisher & Paykel stores per year planned through to 2024…” etc etc.

Footnote Two: Last year, it was also O’Connor who told the Australians that they should

take a few tips from us about how to talk more diplomatically to the Chinese. It would have been very interesting to have been a fly on the wall in say, Peter Dutton’s office when that piece of advice landed.