Forget Free Tibet: What About Free New Zealand? a week is a long time in politics, two years is practically geological. Following on from last week’s turnaround on foreshore and seabed legislation, it seems we have a new foreign policy on Tibet – and freedom of speech for that matter.

The last time Tibet came up in New Zealand politics was when Key declined to meet the Dalai Lama when he visited New Zealand last year. At the time reporters called Key out on a promise he’d made on the 2008 campaign trail that he’d do so, but Key replied that he simply “wouldn’t get a lot out of that particular meeting”.

That may be so – and it’s not like his predecessor was any less evasive – but Key’s apology is not just a backpedal on the issue of Tibetan annexation. It is also the latest in a string of diplomatic handwaving over clashes between Chinese officialdom and freedom of speech in New Zealand.

Remember Nick Wang in 2007? Wang was an accredited member of the Parliamentary press gallery who was barred from a press conference with China’s then Vice-Premier Zeng Peiyan by an officer in New Zealand’s own diplomatic protection squad. While Speaker Mary Wilson confirmed Wang had every right to cover the event, Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen dismissed the incident altogether:

Dr Cullen said there had been a misunderstanding and Wang was removed “after he got upset”. “I think it’s unfortunate that Wang got himself overly wound up on that matter.”

A year later Wang was denied a Chinese visa to cover the signing of New Zealand’s free-trade deal and Cullen was approached for comment:

“No New Zealand citizen has a right to enter China. China, like every other country, reserves the right to withhold entry across its own borders.

“New Zealand does exactly the same thing, and indeed this Government … declined to give a visa for the entry into New Zealand of David Irving in the past.”

This is all technically correct but incredibly mealy-mouthed: Wang was not a holocaust denier on a book tour; he was a New Zealand reporter traveling with a New Zealand delegation to cover a story about New Zealand. There was no reason Cullen couldn’t publicly appeal Wang’s case as with any other international incident, other than that  the Clark government refused to brook any conflict that even remotely jeapordised their chances of a free-trade agreement.

Then there’s also the 1999 protests during the visit of then-President Jiang Zemin, where New Zealand police officers stood on protesters’ Tibetan flags (sound familiar?), blocked protesters’ line of sight, closed roads on an ad-hoc basis and forced demonstrators 100 metres away from the venue.

The Police Complaints Authority report on the incident seems to talk out of both sides of its mouth: it found “no political directive was given to police” but acknowledged a decidedly political-sounding difficulty “at an operational level”:

The Police Operational Order prepared for both the visit of the President of China and the President of South Korea noted the President of China’s sensitivity to both visible and audible protest and recorded that police would “make every effort to minimise the impact of protest on either visit”. That undertaking, whilst ostensibly innocuous, carried with it the obvious and inherent risk of curbing or inhibiting the right of protestors to carry out a lawful and peaceful protest.

It can now only be a matter of speculation as to how police proposed to ensure the right of peaceful protest, whilst at the same time limiting by lawful means the exposure of the Presidents to that protest. The duty to ensure the safety of the Presidents did not extend to shielding them from exposure to lawful and peaceful demonstration by New Zealand citizens. There is no evidence that the President of China was ever at risk during his visit to New Zealand.

The Greens immediately sent a letter of protest to the then-PM Jenny Shipley but the Scoop archives have no record of any public comment by Shipley on the matter.

Taken together these incidents paint a clear and deeply troubling picture of Labour and National attitudes towards freedom of speech: when in Rome, for god’s sake don’t upset the Carthaginians. They’re a major trade partner.

One Comment on “Forget Free Tibet: What About Free New Zealand?”

  1. Robin says:

    Excellent article, except the maxim is a little off in the last paragraph. Other than that interesting and a little chilling.

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