National Party Leader Simon Bridges has returned from his trip to China proud to have signalled his commitment to strengthening his relationship with New Zealand’s largest trading partner.
Yet questions have been raised over whether the Chinese Government may have used Bridges for purposes beyond furthering trade ties.
During the trip, Bridges, National’s Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Gerry Brownlee and National MP Jian Yang met with one of the most powerful people in the Communist Party of China - Guo Shengkun.
Guo is one of 25 people with a seat on the Central Politburo, which oversees the Party.
He is also the Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which oversees all of China’s legal enforcement authorities, including the country's police, intelligence agencies and courts.
Interest.co.nz understands that in general diplomatic practice, Guo isn't the person to meet foreign opposition delegations.
Guo was formerly the Minister of Public Security.
A National spokesperson told interest.co.nz the meeting was “one of a number of official meetings which was offered to us by the host government in association with MFAT [New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade]”.
So, the Chinese Administration wanted one of its most powerful figures, who oversees the country’s domestic surveillance and will be instrumental in the handling of pro-democracy Hong Kong protests, to meet with New Zealand’s Opposition Leader.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask why.
Could a lower level official with expertise in trade, or perhaps the Pacific or Belt and Road not have done the trick?
Maybe the National Party is well connected and held in high esteem by the Chinese Government.
But the language Bridges used in an interview he did with the Chinese state-controlled television network, CGTN, raised eyebrows among New Zealand/China observers and indicated there may’ve been more to it.
Bridges toes the Chinese line
The director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre based at Victoria University of Wellington, Jason Young, observed Bridges repeating the narrative that we see in Chinese domestic politics.
Young noted Bridges put a strong emphasis on the role of the “Communist Party of China” rather than the “country”.
He recognised it isn’t unusual for politicians to make efforts to connect with those they’re trying to appeal to, but pointed out that the language Bridges used didn’t feel very “New Zealand” in terms of the way we talk about ourselves and China.
For example, asked how he valued the role of the Communist Party of China in leading the country’s development, Bridges credited the Party for driving the strong relationship New Zealand shared with China.
“New Zealand has enjoyed a very strong relationship with the CPC. We’ve felt the privilege of being able to have many firsts with your party and with your country,” he said.
“Whether it’s been as a developed country developing free market status, the first free trade agreement, accession to the World Bank, the joining up to the Asian Investment Bank or indeed joining up to the Belt and Road Initiative.
“These things have been very good between our countries and of course have been driven by the CPC.”
Asked about “global instability” on the rise and the fact “some countries” are pursuing protectionism, Bridges went so far as to naming the US - the Chinese enemy New Zealand is also juggling relations with.
“We stand to gain and do well out of multilateralism; out of the rule of law, out of mutual cooperation,” Bridges said.
“A very powerful example of this right now is the WTO [World Trade Organisation], of which China and of course New Zealand is a member of.
“Now we have a situation where come December, certainly early next year, the WTO will not be able to function because the US is not allowing new judges to be appointed. This is not right and is not in New Zealand’s interests.”
Asked for his view on the “illegal” and “violent” pro-democracy Hong Kong protestors, Bridges said: “We understand and accept China’s sovereignty in Hong Kong.
“We simply want to see the peaceful resolution of what is happening in Hong Kong. I think the recent step around the extradition bill is very positive.”
Bridges made no mention of human rights abuses in the video, which was edited.
Questioned by New Zealand media on Tuesday over these issues, Bridges responded: “Of course we disagree with them on human rights, of course we’ll push for rule of law, of course we don’t like what’s happening in Hong Kong and want a peaceful resolution.
“But to run this sort of woke line, that some of you love so much on Twitter, that somehow means we shouldn’t be visiting and we shouldn’t be having a relationship with a superpower that we trade more with than any other country in the world, I think is pretty irresponsible.”
University of Canterbury professor and China researcher, Anne-Marie Brady, tweeted:
Useful Chinese idioms, an occasional series:— Professor Anne-Marie Brady (@Anne_MarieBrady) September 9, 2019
"If you eat other people's food, your mouth will be soft; if you take their gifts, your arm will be shortened."
In other words, there is so such thing as a free banquet or trip.
Brady went on to explain in another tweet:
Party-to-party links are an important channel for CCP united front work. The CCP utilises senior current & former politicians as bridges to their governments, in exchange, offering: status, trips to China & BRI events, as well as access to CCP leaders for business opportunities.— Professor Anne-Marie Brady (@Anne_MarieBrady) September 10, 2019
The Hong Kong-based Asia editor of the Financial Times, Jamil Anderlini, questioned Yang’s presence on the trip.
Yang made headlines in 2017 when Newsroom revealed he taught English to students in China so they could monitor communications and collect information, and had attracted the interest of our Security Intelligence Service.
Yang didn’t mention in his CV a decade he spent in the People's Liberation Army-Air Force Engineering College or the Luoyang language institute run by China's equivalent of the United States National Security Agency. That agency, the Third Department, conducts spying activities for China.
Why is the leader of New Zealand’s biggest opposition party meeting with the head of China’s secret police? And why is he in Beijing with a NZ member of parliament who spent 15 years working for Chinese military intelligence? @jacindaardern @Anne_MarieBrady @winstonpeters— Jamil Anderlini (@JamilAnderlini) September 9, 2019
Meanwhile the aspect of the situation that the director of the Centre of Strategic Studies at Victoria University, David Capie, commented on was Bridges appearing to diverge from the bipartisan approach politicians in New Zealand have traditionally taken to foreign affairs:
Truly extraordinary comments about the Chinese Communist Party from NZ's Opposition Leader Simon Bridges in this interview with CGTN. Alarming to have such a big gap between govt & opposition views/language concerning such a critical relationship. https://t.co/K40ua11eUW— David Capie (@davidcapie) September 9, 2019
University of Otago professor Robert Patman wasn't as cynical about Bridges' comments.
He acknowledged Bridges said things his hosts wanted to hear, but wasn't sure about the extent to which this was driven by China.
Patman said the New Zealand/China relationship had evolved in recent years as China had an increased consciousness of its growing economic and military power.
Trade Minister David Parker hadn't watched the interview when asked for comment on Tuesday afternoon.
Is New Zealand being played?
We don't know for certain why the Chinese Administration wanted Guo and Bridges to meet.
What we do know is that Guo is much more powerful than Bridges.
And the same visit saw Bridges - who is from a Five Eyes country - rebuke the US and talk about China in an exceptionally China-centric way. Bridges sounded like he was narrating talking points given to him.
What message does this send to the Chinese diaspora around the world about Guo’s influence?
These sorts of visits are about public perception as much as they are about relationship-building.
It’s hard to see how the trip benefited Bridges and New Zealand more broadly, as we try to figure out how to navigate waters made stormy by China and the US thrashing it out for dominance.
Rather it calls into question the price of politicking and the advice provided to MPs who represent New Zealand on the world stage.
The show of strength signalled by the Chinese Administration via Bridges may well be much louder than the signal Bridges sent that New Zealand is open for business.