• Trade Should Be Between Equals

    A couple of developments in the past week or so have cast a fresh light on a familiar question – should we be worried about the possibility that agents of foreign governments can buy influence in our politics and government?

    The first such development was the news that the Serious Fraud Office is investigating Simon Bridges and the National party over Jami-Lee Ross’s allegations that they were guilty of election law fraud and corruption in their handling of a large donation from a Chinese businessman which they wanted to remain secret.

    Whatever the findings may be on that issue (and we can surely rely on the SFO to get to the truth of the matter), the real question arises from what we have learned about the role played by anonymous donations in funding our political parties – and whether that practice (whether handled in accordance with the law or not) allows foreign interests to exert an influence of which we – the New Zealand public – are unaware.

    The second development drew the Labour Party into the same morass. A Select Committee asked by the Justice Minister, Andrew Little, to investigate the possibilities of untoward foreign influence in our politics decided that it would not hear a submission from Anne-Marie Brady, a Canterbury University academic who has made the running, both at home and internationally, in warning of the dangers of just such possibilities.

    Some readers may recall that Ms Brady has already hit the headlines – not only because of her whistle-blowing – but because of the suspicion that, as a response to her warnings, her house has been burgled, her e-mails hacked, and even that her car has been criminally tampered with by parties unknown.

    All the more surprising, then, that an acknowledged expert on the subject should not have been heard by the Select Committee set up for the precise purpose of examining the risks of foreign interference. The Chair of the Select Committee, the Labour MP, Dr Raymond Huo, explained the decision not to hear Ms Brady on “procedural” grounds – she had apparently been out of time – but a Select Committee worth its salt would surely have overcome such a difficulty if it had been focused on collecting the most relevant evidence.

    Dr Huo was supported by the Labour members of the Committee, leaving in the air the question of whether the government MPs were fully committed to their task – and the further awkward question as to whether the loyalty of members of the Chinese diaspora in New Zealand is owed to their country of origin or adoption.

    What is worrying is that both of these developments surfaced against a backdrop when anxiety is expressed in many quarters about the blow to New Zealand-China trade relations delivered by the security service’s recommendation that the Chinese telecom giant, Hua Wei, should not be involved in the roll-out of our new G5 network.

    It cannot be emphasised too often that a trading relationship is best regarded as conducted between two sovereign countries and not between a powerful economy on the one hand and a country on the other hand that is treated as its satellite or colony.

    Our trade with China, in other words, does not and should not preclude us from standing up for ourselves, whether on security matters or on issues of internal political interference. Indeed, the reverse is the case; every time we give ground on such issues, we encourage our trading partners to believe that pressure works and to demand that we yield further to that pressure.

    And if our trade with China is, as it should be, a trade between equals, we should not only be entitled to maintain our stance on issues that are important to us, but should also be able to ask for changes in the policies of our trading partner. The difficulty we face in respect of Hua Wei is not of our making but is the direct consequence of the Chinese practice of establishing major Chinese companies as arms of the Chinese state.

    The supposed disturbance to our relationship occasioned by our decision on Hua Wei could, in other words, be removed by a change in the way China and its agencies do business. The ball is largely in their court – and we should never forget that the ball bounces both sides of the net.

    Bryan Gould
    13March 2019