OPINION: Green Party co-leader Russel Norman's decision to protest at Parliament during the visit of Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping was eminently predictable.
His party has long supported the free Tibet movement and highlighted China's shocking human rights record. Just as his predecessor as the Greens' male co-leader, the late Rod Donald, did in 2005 during the visit of another Chinese dignitary, Norman waved a Tibetan flag as Xi's delegation arrived at Parliament. Norman did go further than Donald, who mounted a silent protest, by also calling out for democracy. But the attitude of New Zealand authorities in these two cases was quite different.
In 2005, police and security staff respected the right of Donald to protest and rejected calls from Chinese security guards to remove him. But no action was taken last Friday by New Zealand authorities when Norman had his flag taken from him by Chinese security personnel and a scuffle broke out. Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully later lambasted Norman, saying the Green MP had abused Parliamentary privilege and his actions were calculated to give offence.
McCully was half right. Norman's protest was a stunt aimed at provoking the Chinese and to attract publicity for the Greens and the Tibetan cause, about which China is hugely sensitive. But McCully is totally wrong to accuse Norman of abusing his position. Unlike members of the public, whose protests at Parliament are carefully controlled, Norman is an MP who has the freedom of the building and its grounds.
He was perfectly entitled to exercise his right to freedom of speech where he did. And if his position was perceived as a threat to the personal security, rather than just the sensitivities of the visitors, it is up to New Zealand authorities to take action.
The Chinese officials who took the flag and scuffled with Norman probably had limited understanding of Norman's rights as an MP. New Zealand security personnel still should have stepped in to protect him.
This is not the first time that New Zealand authorities have bowed to Chinese sensitivities. In 1999, during the visit to Christchurch of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, the police, at the insistence of his security officers, moved protesters back from a pre-arranged protest point and even used buses to block the demonstrators from being seen by the president.
Then in 2007, accredited journalist Nick Wang was ejected by police, after consulting with Chinese officials, from a photo opportunity with another dignitary.
New Zealand does have a close and valued relationship with China. This has been shown by the recent free-trade deal with it and by the emphasis placed by New Zealand on its participation in the Shanghai Expo.
But these economic ties must not obscure the fact that there are differences between us and one of these is New Zealand's strong commitment to human rights, including freedom of speech and the right to protest peacefully.
Instead of berating those who, like Norman, exercise these rights, New Zealand ministers should have firmly reminded the Chinese that in this country, unlike their own nation, these rights are sacrosanct and must be respected by foreign guests.
- © Fairfax NZ News