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Finesse, not foolhardiness is the right response to Chinese

New Zealand Herald, Auckland

Editorial: Finesse, not foolhardiness is the right response to Chinese

23 March 2008

The moral high ground is always easier to occupy when falling from it poses little danger of sustaining serious damage. So it required little courage for MP Keith Locke, the Green Party’s indefatigable foreign affairs spokesperson, to put pressure on the Government to take a stronger stand against the Chinese authorities’ crackdown on protesters in Tibet.

From a New Zealand point of view the timing was exquisitely problematic. Opposition to the Chinese presence in Tibet has been smouldering - and occasionally flaring - for more than half a century, but the latest round of tension erupted in the very same week that our Government announced the successful conclusion of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China.

The FTA, to be signed in Beijing next month, is the first concluded by a developed nation with the country generally predicted to become the world’s largest economy sometime in the next quarter-century and is, by any measure, a credit to the politicians and officials responsible for its painstaking creation.

Prime Minister Helen Clark’s caution was the proper response. But Locke chose to characterise it as a failure of nerve: in his view, the delicate position in which the PM found herself, he said, was a reason for speaking out about the crackdown in Lhasa - not one for keeping silent. Helen Clark’s view that the trade agreement had nothing to do with human rights was "amoral and unacceptable" and our Government’s failure to send a stronger message about the riots, "fuelled the suspicion we have gone soft on Beijing because a free trade agreement with China is about to be signed".

The problem is that the Prime Minister did not say that trade had nothing to do with human rights, or anything that could reasonably be interpreted as meaning that. Indeed, a spokeswoman said the Government was trying to obtain more accurate information, in the meantime calling on all sides to exercise restraint. Within hours our official response had been cranked up a couple of notches: our ambassador in Beijing had been instructed to express our Government’s "deep concern" about the violence, and to urge that China react "carefully and proportionately".

These statements may not have come quickly enough or have been worded strongly enough for Locke’s liking, but he is in the comfortable position of representing a party not in Government and not likely to be. Politically it is cost-free for him to urge a harder line even if that would endanger the FTA. It is telling that National, which has given its seal of approval to the agreement, has tacitly endorsed the Government’s approach.

Locke’s comments may have greater support among the public at large than among those closest to the situation. A TVNZ poll showed that 50 per cent of people opposed an FTA (as against 40 per cent who supported it). But it’s not hard to imagine that a large part of that opposition is based on a gut feeling that freeing up trade means a quantum increase in the flood of cheap Chinese imports, rather than a deep-rooted distaste for the Beijing Government’s habitual response to political dissent. In fact, the FTA promises to improve the trade figures, which are currently three to one in China’s favour. And if we demanded of all our trading partners, in particular the US, a lilywhite record in international affairs, we would have precious few left.

The Beijing Olympics in August are certain to provide a focus for protest about China’s sorry human rights record, which - as Locke knows - did not begin to be written this week. New Zealand will doubtless add its voice to those exerting pressure. But it is unreasonable to demand of the Government that it endanger our economic well-being by leading international condemnation without a thought for the timing.