• Standing Up for Ourselves

    Prime Minister John Key was seen at his best in Nelspruit, South Africa, when the All Whites achieved their famous result against Italy. He was there supporting our team, celebrating their success, blowing a vuvuzela and praising the team’s “courage and pride.”

    Back home, however, “courage and pride” were less in evidence. A New Zealand MP, within the precincts of our own Parliament, had been roughed up by Chinese security officers. This was seen as requiring an apology to the Chinese on behalf of the New Zealand people for the embarrassment caused to the Chinese Vice-President.

    Let us be clear. This was a straight conflict of political cultures. On the one hand, the Chinese intolerance of free speech, let alone protest, and on the other, our proud history of human rights, freedom of expression and tolerance of political dissent.

    In this area, and quite apart from the intrinsic value of the human rights that we take so much for granted that we seem to think that they are scarcely worth defending, we do indeed have a proud record. We regularly top international assessments for the effectiveness of our democracy. We are recognised as pioneers who have been the standard-bearers for a whole range of social and political advances. When we speak on issues of free speech, we are listened to with respect.

    We rightly celebrate our sporting success but our record on human rights is truly a matter for national pride. We demand in the way we conduct our public affairs a range of democratic freedoms that are not only stamped on in China but where even an attempt to exercise them would lead to prison or even execution. A peaceful protest against government policy in China would not only be suppressed immediately; it would not even be reported.

    It was necessary to apologise to the Chinese, so we are told, because we owed the Chinese Vice-President, as an invited guest to this country, a duty not to embarrass him. But this is to allow the Chinese to import their political culture into our Parliament. Protest is, by definition, embarrassing and even offensive to those whose interests are challenged. Freedom of speech isn’t worth much if it is only acceptable when it suits the interests of those in power. If that were the case, we should stop posturing and pretending and concede that our human rights are worthless when it comes to the crunch.

    We have instead entered an Alice-in Wonderland world where government ministers feel able to say with a straight face that a scuffle in which a flag was seized from a peacefully protesting New Zealand MP by Chinese security guards at the entrance to Parliament and that was clearly seen by reporters on the spot and shown on television news programmes was in fact an assault by that MP on Chinese officials for which an apology was required.

    It must surely have required a very powerful motivation to prompt people who expect to be taken seriously to come up with such a laughable distortion of what happened. We are assured that our new dependence on trade with China was not a factor, but it is hard to see what else could explain such a craven response.

    The irony is that it is precisely our relationship with China that is likely to suffer in the long term. Even if we do not apparently have enough self-respect to stand up for what we say we believe in, it is the respect of others – not least the Chinese – that is truly at stake.

    The relationship with China is, we hope, one for the long term. But if, at the outset, we demonstrate that we are pushovers, that we are prepared to ditch our supposedly most fundamental values for the sake of staying in Chinese good books, what chance is there of the relationship developing in any way other than that of a client state entitled to no respect or consideration? Surely we trade with the Chinese because we have products they want and for which they are prepared to pay a fair price, not because we will give up our principles at the sight of a five-dollar note?

    And it is not only the Chinese who will draw the conclusion that we are full of wind and no substance. When we speak up for the rule of law and freedom of expression on behalf of those who are repressed, in countries like – for example – Fiji, do we now expect them to take us seriously? We do not even allow Fiji’s political leaders to come here, let alone be protected from protest when they get here; is that because it is easier to pick on the little guys?

    For once, John Key’s touch may have deserted him. Many of those who have no sympathy with Russell Norman’s protest will come to see that they would be aghast if their own right to protest at something they felt strongly about were to be trampled on. When minds have cleared and the immediate party political loyalties have subsided, New Zealanders who are rightly proud of what we have achieved in this free country will view this episode as a source, not of pride, but of shame.

    Bryan Gould

    23 June 2010

    This article was published in the New Zealand Herald on 29 June.

Leave a reply.