New Zealand, China, and the limits of friendship

Line of Defence Magazine - Autumn 2019

The original zhengyou, Wei Zheng.

Whatever the current state of New Zealand – China relations, writes editor Nicholas Dynon, Wellington would do well to stick to sinologists for understanding China and to diplomats for communicating about China.

Media coverage of the recent apparent deterioration in the New Zealand-China relationship has jumped to find signs of discord in developments that might be considered benign in more sober times. The Huawei block out, a delayed ministerial visit, shipments stalled at Customs, and a turned-around Air New Zealand flight circumstantially evidencing a story of souring relations.

Such is the trope of a media more interested in the story than in the answers – which are admittedly far more elusive. Of this, Victoria University Wellington Professor Robert Ayson observes in a recent article in The Spinoff that we seem to be “stuck in a room of many mirrors, trying to work out which reflection is genuine.”

Purposely avoiding the tea leaf reading frenzy, Massey University Associate Professor Beth Greener, also in The Spinoffsensibly asks, “how might we seek to navigate New Zealand’s diplomatic relationships, including with China, into the future?” It is one of the big questions of our times, and it attracts no shortage of opinion.

Security analysts, political scientists, economists, and entrepreneurs are well represented in public debate over the place of China in contemporary New Zealand. As a consequence of these line-ups, we tend to be presented with an unnecessarily binary framework for understanding China as either a trading partner or strategic threat. Such approaches tend also to see the relationship through largely Anglophonic linguistic and intellectual prisms, which limit their analytical utility in the context of China.

New Zealand is blessed with a quality core of China specialists, or sinologists, following paths blazed by the likes of pioneering China luminary and political activist Rewi Alley (1897-1987). Most widely known among these is University of Canterbury’s Professor Anne-Marie Brady, whose Magic Weapons research into China’s ‘sharp power’ has famously exposed Chinese intrusions into New Zealand’s democratic processes. 

In particular, suggestions that Brady’s personal security has been compromised by pro-China groups unhappy with her claims around Beijing’s undue influence in New Zealand’s electoral system have jammed journalistic airwaves.

Most New Zealanders would not be aware of just how internationally authoritative Brady’s research on the Chinese Communist Party’s systems of propaganda and social control is. But with the intrigue around apparent break-ins at her home and university office, Brady herself has unwillingly become the story, which isn’t helpful.

The UC professor, who gained her PhD from the Australian National University, credits eminent sinologist and ANU emeritus professor Geremie Barmé as a long-time “model and an inspiration” for her scholarly work.” Now based in the Wairarapa, Barmé was one of her doctoral supervisors.

Barmé is China watching royalty, an international rock star among China specialists, who developed the idea of ‘New Sinology’ as a model for studying China. The goal of New Sinology, he writes, “is to understand, study and appreciate ‘China’ through locating itself inside the Chinese world in order to communicate what animates and inspires this world.” 

It is informed by an acknowledgement that as China in recent decades has become stronger and more confident, her thought traditions, literature and cultural practices have attained renewed importance – part of an “articulation of modern selfhood.” Thus, for the ‘new sinologist’, a must-have skill for true China literacy is the ability to read, write and speak Chinese.

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Former Australian Prime Minister and Barmé protégé, Kevin Rudd, is well-known for his command of the Chinese language. Prior to his now legendary Mandarin-delivered speech to students at Peking University in April 2008, former ANU China Club president Rudd had sought Barmé’s advice on how to weave into his script the uncomfortable topic of China’s human rights violations in Tibet. Accordingly, the professor suggested that he use the concept of ‘zhengyou’ to characterise a new type of Australian relationship with China.

“A true friend is one who can be a ‘zhengyou’, that is a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship,” Rudd told his audience. “In other words, a true friendship which “offers unflinching advice and counsels restraint” to engage in principled dialogue about matters of contention.”

In an essay published in April last year (on the tenth anniversary of the speech), Barmé described zhengyou as an “independent-minded interlocutor who was sufficiently well thought of so that when they offered the unvarnished truth they would not cause offense.”

Barmé had come across the term when he’d read the classic Political Essentials from the Zhenguan Reign while working in the 1970s for a Chinese bookstore and publisher in Hong Kong. Compiled in 708-710, this Tang-dynasty guide to ideal government recounts the frank and fearless advice provided to Emperor Li Shumin (626-649) by official Wei Zheng, a zhengyou still-celebrated by Chinese leaders.

Ultimately, as Graeme Dobell wrote in a 2014 edition of the Lowy Interpreter, “Beijing did not want a Kevin Rudd who offered unflinching advice. China eventually hammered Rudd and Australia to make the true friend shut up and get back in line.” It was only after a ‘ceasefire’ agreement in October 2009, writes Dobell, that “China’s diplomatic version of the death of a thousand cuts was brought to an end.”

With a free trade agreement signed between Beijing and Wellington just two days prior to the Rudd speech, New Zealand’s relationship with China followed a somewhat different trajectory.

New Zealand prides itself as an independent ‘honest broker’ in international affairs; as a small state we champion multilateralism and the maintenance of a rules-based international order. 

The most recent documentary expression of this is last year’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement (SDPS), which noted China’s military-led territorial expansionism in the South China Sea and its failure to recognise Court of Arbitration rulings, and singled out China’s views on human rights and freedom of information as standing “in contrast to those that prevail in New Zealand.” Add to this other rebukes, including the GCSB scuttling Huawei’s hopes of involvement in the country’s 5G network, and New Zealand’s ‘rules-based’ pretensions start looking in Beijing more like ‘alliance-based’ behaviour.

Beijing’s resulting displeasure has been the subject of wide conjecture in New Zealand. But whatever the tea leaves may or may not reveal, history tells us that such pointed public rebuke is never easily digested in the corridors of Zhongnanhai.

In the rules of propriety that Beijing assiduously follows in its public interactions with foreign governments, symbolism is important, as is the notion that critical words are to be spoken behind closed doors and beyond the public narrative of ‘win-win cooperation and mutual benefit’. 

Rudd’s zhengyou bid was destined to fail. The unvarnished truth delivered in Mandarin at its most venerable university was always going to cause offence. Just as we can be confident that the SDPS and Huawei rebukes have been interpreted by Beijing as a public slap on the face and an unfortunate turn by Wellington towards the ‘China containment’ position of its traditional Anglophonic allies.

Could the SDPS have articulated what it needed to without outing China in the way it did? Could the Huawei position have been more delicately stated, perhaps along lines more akin to the subsequent UK GCHQ announcement? Probably.

It’s not about acquiescing to Beijing’s dictates in order to protect New Zealand export revenues, and it’s not about making a choice between Beijing and the Western alliance. Such binary views of New Zealand’s options are overly simplistic, and not overly helpful. Which brings us back to Professor Brady.

As an outspoken and principled critic of Chinese interference in New Zealand’s domestic politics, Professor Brady provides – and should be encouraged to provide – unflinching counsel to Wellington, just as Wei Zheng would have done in the court of the Tang emperor fourteen hundred years ago. 

But Wellington should also learn from the thwarted zhengyou ambitions of Kevin Rudd and consider a more diplomatic communications strategy with Beijing… one that avoids the type of indelicate – and zero sum – public shaming we’ve seen over the past several months.