The price of a free trade agreement with China

Last updated 08:10 22/06/2010

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Parliamentary Speaker Lockwood Smith needs to formulate a protocol for MPs wishing to double as political protesters. That much is clear from Friday's scuffle between Green Party co-leader Russel Norman and Chinese security staff protecting visiting Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping.

OPINION: Dr Norman, waving his Tibetan exiles flag, was in a privileged position. As an MP he had the right to be on the parliamentary forecourt, along with visiting dignitaries, while other protestors, with their banners, were kept at a reasonable distance as the vice-president entered Parliament.

Accordingly, Dr Norman was able to rush forward in what must have looked, to Chinese security staff, as an attempt to drape their leader in the flag. That would have been an affront to his dignity and they reacted by blocking Dr Norman's way and ripping the flag away from him.

All things considered it was a wonder Dr Norman did not find himself on the ground with a knee on his throat and another in other vital regions. Guardians of the emperors of the Middle Kingdom are not renowned for being restrained. The fact that they acted, in this case, like relative pussycats, shows just how far the Chinese have developed in their understanding of our weird Western democratic customs.

When Beijing diplomats first came to town, after Norman Kirk's incoming 1972 Labour Government recognised the mainland as the true China and sent the Taiwanese envoy packing, there were immediate misunderstandings.

Before they moved into their high-rise embassy building in Glenmore St, the men from Beijing decided they preferred the adjacent Sharella Motor Inn. When the owner declined to sell, the diplomats called on the foreign affairs minister, expecting him to intervene.

It was left to genial Joe Walding to try to explain to the incredulous diplomats, many on their first overseas postings, that there were certain things he could not do. That was followed by complaints, over many years, about newspaper coverage and editorials, especially in this newspaper. It was incomprehensible to the Beijing
diplomats that newspapers could operate without state direction.

There were regular threatening noises from Glenmore St over anything related to New Zealand contacts with Taiwan, Tibet, the Dalai Lama or Falun Gong. This sounded like bullying and was counterproductive to the Beijing cause. Recently, this noise has tailed off, perhaps another switch from knee-across-the-throat tactics.

From the time of recognition, New Zealand was favoured as the first overseas port of call by the next generation of Chinese leaders. There was much puzzlement and speculation about this, with the general view being that we offered a low-key exposure to Western ways before the new leaders went on to face important European and American audiences. But this did not stop successive New Zealand governments from sending messages of concern about infringements of human rights in China.

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A classic standoff came in Christchurch in 1999 when visiting Chinese president Jiang Zemin kept 350 guests, including then prime minister Jenny Shipley, waiting for nearly two hours before he attended a state dinner in his honour.

He appeared to be acting under the direction of an accompanying hardline security colonel and refused to enter the venue because of the proximity of pro-Tibetan protesters. Police astutely solved the Mexican standoff by parking police vehicles in front of the protesters (keeping them out of sight) and turning on their sirens (to drown out the chanting) while the premier entered.

Police got rapped for this in a subsequent parliamentary hearing, but that finding was suspect. Under the Vienna Convention, the host nation has a duty to protect not only the security but also the dignity of visitors.

Protesters here get much closer to their subjects than in other countries, such as Australia. The alternative in the Christchurch case would have been for the Chinese president to boycott his own state banquet in New
Zealand. What price then our subsequent free trade agreement?

That ground-breaking agreement has led to a staggering leap in trade, with China now replacing Japan and the United States as our second largest trade partner, after Australia, with the promise of much more to come. Should this be jeopardised by a maverick MP misusing his role and his access to sandbag a visiting leader in the precincts of Parliament?

- The Dominion Post


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