PM apologises to Chinese delegation over Tibet protest

Last updated 08:24 21/06/2010

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Prime Minister John Key apologised to the visiting Chinese delegation after Green Party co-leader Russel Norman's free Tibet protest at Parliament on Friday, it was reported today.

Dr Norman waved a Tibetan flag and called for democracy as Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping's delegation arrived at Parliament. A scuffle broke out as a member of the delegation tried to cover Dr Norman with an umbrella and he was pushed before having his flag pulled off him.

Dr Norman managed to retrieve the flag and loudly remind delegates they could not suppress freedom of speech in New Zealand, but said he was shocked at the response he got.

He complained to police, who said there was not enough evidence to substantiate his complaint.

Mr Xi then avoided other outings, holding a visit with Labour's Phil Goff at his hotel on Friday and on Saturday did not go to Victoria University to open the Confucius Institute. A ceremony was instead held at his hotel.

The vice-president has now left.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully was critical of Dr Norman's action and last night told The New Zealand Herald that Mr Key had telephoned the most senior minister in the visiting Chinese delegation to apologise on Friday night.

He "conveyed his regret that there had been this encounter and expressed the hope that it had not unduly affected what has been a very positive visit," Mr McCully said.

"I understand that the fact that the Prime Minister picked up the phone was appreciated."

A spokesman for Mr Key, who is in South Africa, confirmed that Mr Key had made the call.

"He apologised for the incident," the spokesman said, but Mr Key had not spoken to the vice-president directly because of translation problems.

Dr Norman yesterday was already frustrated that the Government had failed to stand up for free speech. He was reacting to Mr McCully earlier saying his actions were "massively disappointing" and "calculated to give offence".

"Of course we have freedom of speech in New Zealand, but that doesn't mean we have to use that freedom of speech to cause offence to people, particularly to overseas visitors," Mr McCully told TVNZ's Q and A show.

"What I'm saying is that Dr Norman shouldn't have actually been in that situation in the first place, if he'd have shown good judgement and if he'd put New Zealand's interests to the fore."

Dr Norman said the Government had failed to stand up for free speech and human rights in its failure to control the Chinese security services in New Zealand and failure to speak out for human rights and democracy in Tibet.

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"On the face of it, it looks like the Government is going quiet on human rights because they think they might be able to sell some more milk powder as a result.

"I think we should be extremely cautious in our dealings with China because it is a dictatorship and has very strong anti-democratic and anti-free speech views and is getting increasingly aggressive about promoting those views, he said.

Mr McCully's call not to use freedom of speech where it would cause offence meant there was no free speech.

"New Zealanders believe in free speech and democracy."

The New Zealand Government should speak out about the situation in Tibet, Dr Norman said.

"The Chinese government has imprisoned people just because they speak out in favour of Tibet, they've murdered people in Tibet."

- NZPA

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