Antipodica 1: The cis-Tasman yard

This is the middle post of a triple on CCP influence in Australia and New Zealand. The first two introduce former PRC diplomat Chen Yonglin’s 2016 China in Perspective piece on Australia as “China’s backyard”, presented for the first time in English.

0. Leading from the back end
1. The cis-Tasman yard
2. Chen Yonglin: Australia as China’s backyard

Meanwhile in Australia, Clive Hamilton’s book on CCP influence cis Fossam has just been published, after refusals by three publishers fearful the entities it discusses might retaliate. The first of these would-be publishers was the centenary Allen & Unwin, now prevented from profiting from a much-publicised tome in exchange for their ascent to the pantheon of the vicarious enforcers of CCP censorship, together with CUP (Censor U Poshly) and gleichgeschalteter Springer. I haven’t read the book yet, but news reports indicate it’s the culmination of years of work by Hamilton, together with his researcher Alex Joske, on the Party-state-Army’s influence in Australian academia, politics and, perhaps most importantly, coprorate power and coproratised think-tankery and academia. (A rather unfavourable review has just appeared.) In many ways, these activities seem to be more extensive than outre-Tasman, but they have been less successful: CCP influence has been the object of much scrutiny, press coverage and debate, and even some politicians have changed their minds about the need to welcome it. Although serious concerns about the CCP’s activities in Australia had been raised by John Fitzgerald more than a decade ago, and journalists (notably John Garnaut) were writing about billionaire United Frontling and political donor Chau Chak Wing 周泽荣 in 2009, it would seem it has taken a while for these activities to receive sustained attention and discussion in mainstream media and politics.

Given the abundant coverage of this topic in Australia, now including a book, debate about a book, and coverage of fights over a book, there’s no need to recapitulate it there. I will just remark I was delighted to learn Hamilton’s tome devotes an entire chapter to Bob Carr, a retired politician who has found a new career as director of a Research Institute initially funded by Huang Xiangmo 黄向墨 (Huang Changran 黄畅然), then Australia, now Oceania’s top United Frontling. Just like Raymond Huo’s Xi-speak slogan ignited in me the Passion of the Rolled-up Sleeve, prompting a closer look at New Zealand United-Frontlinghood, the peculiar circumstances of Carr’s ascent to Sinological punditry suffice to justify an interest in the Australian version.

I conclude this brief Antipodean detour with two items relevant to the Land of Yeast-Extract Delicacies. The first is a short parable I wrote to celebrate a state-media celebration of Carr’s scholarship. The second, for which the rest of this series is meant as an introduction, is an article by Chen Yonglin, a former Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia in 2005, presented here for the first time in English.

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Tasmaniani cis maris aequora (Standards Australia / Wikimedia Commons).

After reaching the heights of Novoaustralocambrian and national politics, former Australian foreign minister and multi-term NSW premier Bob Carr (affectionately known as Beijing Bob (北京宝宝)) began a second career as head of the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at University of Technology Sydney (UTS). The University established ACRI in 2014, with money that included a donation from United Frontling Huang Xiangmo 黄向墨 (Huang Changran 黄畅然). Said donation we may affectionately call the ACRImonies. Huang was appointed ‘chairman’ of the Institute, in which capacity Huang chose Carr as director. Although Huang no longer chairs or funds it, the shop remains committed to a “positive and optimistic view of Australia-China relations”, radiatingpositive energy‘ (正能量) partly generated by “corporate contributions” from i.a. Chinese SOEs.

The Institute’s activities have received mixed reviews. James Leibold calls much of its output “one-sided, decontextualised fact sheets and opinion pieces” and criticises its “closed-door” activities and Carr’s meetings with CCP officials, including no less than Zhu Weiqun 朱维群, a United Front cadre well known to my regular readers. To an outside observer, ACRI’s most visible output does indeed make it look like a BRI-touting think tank. Like many other state and non-state actors, the CCP has a known interest in setting up, funding or otherwise grooming lobbyists for its policies; what is remarkable is that such groups can be institutionally embedded into universities, and continue to function as positive-energy emitters even if state-linked entities  have ceased to be their primary funders. This can look better and be more cost-effective than in-your-face exoprop endeavours like Confucius Institutes, and shows a savvy exploitation of the public disinvestment, bureaucratisation and corporatisation of universities in many countries. (United-Frontling munificence indeed allowed UTS to replace an existing China-studies centre with ACRI; the Australian National University intends to turn its own into a ‘hub‘ without permanent faculty staff.) The ACRImonies also illustrate another aspect of the vulnerability countries like Australia offer to such actors as the PRC Party-state: the ease with which moneyed lobbies can work their way into policy-making. Exposing (and mocking) ACRI’s PRC links might prompt a PR reaction, but it’s highly unlikely to reduce such vulnerability.

ECSN, a manifestation of the China News Service (中新社), takes a more charitable view of ACRI. A Carr panegyric last year talked of his “sharp eyes”. “Bob looks full of energy and well presented.” As behooves the director of “the only think tank in Australia that is dedicated to study Australia-China relations”, Carr has an office where “there is a statue of Yat-sen Sun [sic], the book titled ‘Art of War’ and other Chinese works.” Although the readily admitted that to “really become a ‘China expert’, there is still a long way to go”, he was portrayed holding a copy of Sunzi’s Art of War (孙子兵法), in its case.

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De bello australi. ACRI Director Carr holds a case containing a book (source).

I took the trouble to identify the tome. It’s a bilingual edition with Giles’ public-domain translation. It comes with some commemorative stamps, part of a series called, hardly in Giles’ English, “Collector’s Version of Chinese Classical Books in Silk Version”, marketed on Taobao as a coprorate gift fitting interactions with foreigners (送老外).

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刷卡尔。

Carr’s gradus ad Parnassum. Readers of modest means may choose to read the same text, also with the Giles, on ctext. Those looking for more recent scholarship can go for Mair’s English; for those into older stuff, Amiot’s French is on Gallica.

In an exchange celebrating Carr’s erudition on a microblogging site, user Yun suggested Carr and others should read Zhuangzi 庄子 instead. I found the remark very sensible, and composed the following parable, an imitation of Zhuangzi’s famous butterfly dream. In it, Carr becomes a fruit, rather than butter-, fly, alluding to both Mao’s muscid poem (小小寰球,有几个苍蝇碰壁 On this tiny globe / A few flies dash themselves against the wall) and the Belt-and-Roady connotations of the genus name Drosophila (爱露 ‘dew-loving’), interpretable in Chinese as 爱[一戴一]露 ‘love of [One [Nipple] Covered, One] Revealed, [in scandalous homophony with “One Belt, One Road” (一带一路)]’.

Alex Joske has translated the parable and graciously authorised me to republish his version here, in a slightly edited form.

卡尔梦蝇

昔者卡尔梦为果蝇,自喻适志与!不远万里,飞蝇赴华,至越进汕。汕人见南蝇,知其嗜果,予之巨梨。栩栩然果蝇也,见梨乐级,食之美,饱足就寝矣。梦为卡尔,不知卡之梦为蝇与,蝇之梦为卡与?俄然有蟆焉,开口食之,知蝇也。

Carr dreams of a fly

Once, Carr dreamt he was a fruit fly, going about happily and as it pleased. It did not consider ten thousand li to be far away and flew over to China, reaching Chaoshan [Huang Xiangmo’s home region]. A man from Chaoshan saw this southern fly and knew it loved fruit, so he gave it a massive pear [a pun on a Chinese name for Sydney [雪梨 (Cantonese Syut3lei4)]. This fruit fly fluttered about, and upon seeing the pear was extremely delighted and ate it, tasting it sweetness. It became full and went to sleep. The fly dreamt it was Carr, but was not sure whether it was really Carr dreaming he was a fly, or a fly dreaming it was Carr. Suddenly, a toad [perhaps former president Jiang Zemin] appeared and opened its mouth to eat it. The toad knew it was a fly.

2. Chen Yonglin: Australia as China’s backyard

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Antipodica 0: Leading from the back end

This is the initial post of a triple on CCP influence in Australia and New Zealand. The first two pieces are a prelude to former PRC diplomat Chen Yonglin’s 2016 China in Perspective piece on Australia as “China’s backyard”, presented for the first time in English.

0. Leading from the back end
1. The cis-Tasman yard
2. Chen Yonglin: Australia as China’s backyard

Antipodean developments lured this blog away from its usual northern haunts last year. In September, Anne-Marie Brady published a comprehensive treatment of United Front (统一战线) activities in New Zealand (Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping; for the history of the Maoist ‘magic weapons’ (法宝, dharmaratnāni), cf. this post by Victor Mair). The CCP’s use of the political, business and academic élites of foreign countries for its policy purposes is a well-known aspect of United Front work, but the success of such ‘work’ in New Zealand, Brady’s systematic presentation of it, and reactions from the local élite make Kiwi United Frontics worth following even for those not specifically concerned with South Pacific affairs.

My interest in New Zealand politics had been triggered somewhat earlier, when I came across what I believed was a hoax attempting to discredit Labour MP Raymond Huo (霍建强) and his party by associating them to a bizarre Xi Jinping quote (‘roll up your sleeves and work hard(er)’) known for its masturbatory overtones and other pun potential (cf. “Comrades, ‘hike up your skirts for a hard shag’“). Only after extensive consultation and analysis, with many a face-palm, could I conclude that the quote was very much authentic, and Huo had been kite-flying it in earnest as the official Chinese version of Labour’s campaign slogan. After Brady’s report came out, I embedded my comments on the Xi quote (‘Skirts lifted, jewels unveiled’) into a post that detailed how the major political parties in New Zealand have essentially outsourced the political representation of a minority to individuals linked to organisations controlled by the Party-state (“United Frontlings always win”, in turn embedded into a China Heritage post (Geremie Barmé, “The battle behind the front“)).

For brevity, my ‘United Frontlings’ post focused on two individuals, Huo the rolled-up sleeved Xi-quoter and National Party MP Yang Jian 杨健, famous for his PLA intelligence background. While nominally competing for the Chinese-speaking electorate, Yang and Huo are functionally United Front eggs in different baskets. But various degrees of CCP influence are apparent across New Zealand’s political class, way beyond the Yang-Huo double act. Magic Weapons discusses political donations to the major parties, business links to politicians or their relatives, SOE jobs for former office-holders, MPs in Belt-and-Road lobbying groups, all traceable to United Front organisations and various entities linked to the Party-state. It’s a Who’s Who of New Zealand’s élite politics: former prime ministers Jenny Shipley, John Key and Bill English; former Labour leader, Auckland mayor Phil Goff; former National leader Don Brash; National MP Judith Collins, the ‘fun’ candidate to lead her party [UPDATE: she lost]. Better-known cases of successful PRC influence involve autocracies, structural corruption, ideological affinity, resurgent nationalism, debt diplomacy; in New Zealand, a prosperous, stable democracy among the least perceivedly corrupt, dependent on China for less than a fifth of its exports as of 2016, what has been published about CCP influence provides evidence for the effective exploitation, using legal, if little transparent, means, of a lack of relevant area expertise in policy-making, business influence on politics, and politicians and officials’ appetite for retirement options. Despite obvious differences, many of these tactics could be replicated in other Western small states, in particular some in Northern Europe, under this blog’s official remit.

With a sizable Chinese community, New Zealand is also the arena for the CCP’s long-term battle to win overseas Chinese support for a range of domestic and international strategy goals. Overseas work has been largely successful, at least at the leadership level, aided in part by attitudes among the monocultural majority that have evolved from a racist past to a form of respectful ignorance and undiscerning acquiescence with the pro-CCP takeover of community organisations.  Those not conforming to the  views of the alliance between the political-business élite and United Front organisations can expect to be doubly marginalised. As one Chinese Kiwi recently put it: in China, you have to cope with being a dissident, and abroad, with being both a dissident and Chinese.

Information has continued to emerge since the publication of Brady’s report. In this post, I will discuss two events that illustrate New Zealand’s outsourcing of ‘Chinese affairs’ to the Party-state, with an excursus on state efforts to control student organisations, before concluding that these achievements of United Front work are unlikely to be undone in the medium term.

Kiwi pollies mark the Year of Cerberus

The Magic Weapons have been inordinately effective in ensuring New Zealand’s cooperation with certain aspects of CCP propaganda efforts. One key goal of United Front work is to win the loyalty of overseas Chinese communities (by a broad jus sanguinis definition that purports to include even the descendants of people who emigrated a century before the PRC’s establishment), attempting to identify the CCP with all expressions of Chinese culture; another is to present a positive image of the Party-state’s leadership to non-Chinese-speaking foreigners, legitimising it as supported by the ruling élites of as many foreign states as possible. New Zealand’s politicians provide help towards both these goals.

According to a source with knowledge of the matter, recent requests from a CCP-unfriendly NZ Chinese organisation to have ministers send Chinese New Year greetings were reportedly redirected to Raymond Huo, effectively making the ruling party’s leading United Frontling, whose PRC-consonant views are wellknown, the government’s gatekeeper to contacts with the Chinese community. In contrast, ministers and other politicians didn’t hesitate to attend celebrations with PRC diplomats. In other words, the Party-state, through its local advocates, can vicariously veto official support for something as apolitical as a calendrical festivity, at least when the persons seeking such support happen to have Chinese surnames. Brady has quoted a “senior Chinese diplomat” as comparing New Zealand’s relations with China to Albania‘s dependence on the PRC during the ’60s; prophetically enough, Enver Hoxha’s name in Chinese (恩维尔·霍查) is interpretable as ‘[the Party’s] Benevolence (党恩) holds thee [and all else (Shi 191.3)] together; [Raymond] Huo inspects’.

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鸡犬立而吠。 Cerberus, immanis ianitor Factionis.

Source: KPDNKK.

Still in the Avian Year, NZ grandees offered the Party-state fulsome praise at international propaganda events. Last November, former National PM Dame Jenny Shipley attended Chau Chak Wing 周泽荣’s Imperial Springs Forum. Dame Jenny, further elevated to the dignity of a China Construction Bank (建设银行) employee, attended a post-forum audience with Xi Jinping in Beijing, where her praise of Xi and his Belt-and-Road Initiative made it into a People’s Daily piece proclaiming the world’s support for ‘the Chinese Approach (中国方案)’. National’s president, Peter Goodfellow, quoted as valuing “the Chinese” because “they don’t complain and they pay up“, sent a congratulatory message to the 19th Party Congress, as did his Labour counterpart, Nigel Haworth, who also showed up in person at the Auckland consulate to talk about “Xi Jinping’s wise leadership“. Haworth also attended an ‘interparty’ meeting between the CCP and assorted foreign parties in December; he praised Xi’s speech on camera for state media CGTN: “I think he is taking a very brave step, trying to lead the world to think about global challenges”. (Ironically, before becoming an apologist for an authoritarian regime that jails labour activitists, Haworth had an academic career specialising in Latin American labour movements. One has to wonder what insights from that field led him to develop a sincere admiration for the likes of Pinochet.)

Huo as unofficial gatekeeper and all the official Xi-fawning should suffice to illustrate how New Zealand’s main political parties actively work to advance key aspects of the CCP’s propaganda work.

Jobs for the Frontlings

New Zealand leads the world, not only thanks to its pioneering time zone, but in terms of official interaction with United Front organisations. The political determination to outsource Chinese constituents to CCP-affiliated groups isn’t limited to the ascent of United Frontlings Yang and Huo. When Brady’s report came out, Labour was running another ethnic Chinese candidate, Chen Naisi 陈耐锶. A law student who sounded like a candidate malgré soi (Brady quotes an interview where she claims to be “not in the least bit interested in politics“), Chen has an important position that might have justified Labour’s choice: the former presidency of the New Zealand Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA, 中国学生学者联合会) and current vice-same of its Auckland chapter. As we will see, Chen didn’t become an MP, but was appointed to a largely taxpayer-funded post of some significance.

The significance of Chen’s appointment might not be obvious to a casual observer. What’s so unusual about a student leader becoming moving into ‘grown-up’ politics, or about someone born in the PRC leading a primarily PRC student organisation? Unlike the well-connected politicians and officials described above, Chen has hardly begun a career, and is, by herself, not terribly influential in NZ-PRC relations. Some of her views, quoted below, are rather remarkable, but the significance of her post lies in her capacity as CSSA leader. In the following digression, I will detail how, while CSSA membership can have little to do with politics, leadership of a CSSA chapter implies a willingness to work under the direct ‘guidance’ of the Party-state, as well as a degree of ideological agreement with it, often subject to the evaluation and supervision of PRC diplomats. As will soon become clear, Party-state control over overseas student organisations is mandated by Party regulations, has been documented by specialised academics, is observable through state-media sources, and is readily declared by the organisations themselves, also in New Zealand. Not only is agreement with authoritarianism apparently compatible with mainstream New Zealand politics: a major party and a state-funded organisation actively seek to work with a United Front group, perhaps trying to ‘improve China ties’ by giving jobs to those (correctly) perceived as linked to the Party-state.

Correct guidance

CSSAs have been receiving some English-language attention of late, highlighting state connections that remain less than obvious to the non-Chinese-speaking public. In Australia, Alex Joske has been researching them for some time; see e.g. his piece with Wu Lebao 吴乐宝, and a fuller treatment in a section of the Hamilton-Joske parliament submission. Even a cursory look at CSSA Chinese-language websites will show that they’re typically established by the local consulates or embassies, that often contribute funding and ‘guidance’. For convenience, a wealth of screenshots showing these links, primarily in US universities, has been shared these days on a micro-blogging site, notably by Shawn Zhang 章闻韶. After a recent piece focusing on one particular instance of Embassy funding, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is working on a longer treatment [UPDATE (Mar 7): Allen-Ebrahimian’s piece, with contributed research by Shawn Zhang, is out; plenty of detail on American CSSAs, based on multiple inside sources.]. Chen’s organisation, the Auckland CSSA, fits in this picture: a 2012 state-media article describes the association as “under the correct guidance of the education section of the Auckland consulate”. CSSAs are an aspect of the Party-state ‘Diaspora Affairs’ (侨务 qiaowu). James To notes that education attachés at diplomatic outposts began establishing CSSAs to support and ‘guide’ students abroad so as to “raise their patriotism” soon after 1989, as part of a general turn to nationalism intended to prevent the reemergence of dissent. The 1992 “State Council General Office Circular on matters relating to students studying abroad” (国务院办公厅关于在外留学人员有关问题的通知(国办发[1992]44号)) is clear about these policies: Chinese students abroad are welcome (or, if on government scholarships, required) to return, and graciously forgiven if they have been associated with “organisations opposed to the Chinese government”; those who take foreign passports must renounce PRC citizenship and will be “treated as ethnic Chinese of foreign nationality” (i.e., within the purview of qiaowu work); embassies and consulates are instructed to support them, as well as inform them of “our country’s situation”; students must be “educated” to respect local laws while “loving the motherland, protecting its reputation and interests and earning glory for the country”.

While these directives have been systematically implemented for decades, the Xi Era’s emphasis on United Front work also includes a stronger engagement with students abroad. In May 2015, in a speech at the work meeting of the Central United Front Work Department, Xi referred to those who study abroad as a “new focus of United Front work“. Within days, state media was featuring the work of the CSSAs and quoting selected CSSA leaders worldwide who answered this “call from the Motherland”, while popularising the gist of the speech on social media.

Quotes from the speech continue to be repeated and elaborated in doctrinary writing. A recent example is this piece published on Party theory magazine Qiushi 求是 under the Marxist Theory Research and Construction Project (马克思主义理论研究和建设工程) analysing Xi Jinping’s thought on the United Front, again with the “new focus” dictum.

The Party Central Committee’s 2015 “Regulations of the Communist Party of China on United Front Work (for trial implementation)” (中国共产党统一战线工作条例(试行)) include students abroad and back from overseas within the purview of United Front work, highlighting the role of the Western Returned Scholars Association (WRSA, 欧美同学会(中国留学人员联谊会); a venerable association no longer restricted to those who studied in the ‘West’). The WRSA, a United Front organisation, is having its purview extended to include supporting and liaising with students abroad and their organisations, pursuant to a set of recommendations issued by the Party Central Committee in 2016, emphasised in suggestions by a government-affiliated think tank ‘partnered’ with the WRSA, with which its leadership overlaps, and visibly implemented in links to at least some CSSAs.

The Ministry of Education (typically responsible for ‘guiding’ CSSAs through the education sections at diplomatic missions), in a celebrated directive from its Party organisation calling for more patriotic education, also called for the propagation of Xi’s “Chinese Dream” to students overseas through a network linking “the Motherland—embassies and consulates—overseas students groups—broad numbers of students abroad” (original; NYT coverage).

While this firmly anchors student organisations in official state policy and United Front doctrine under Xi, a recent example can illustrate the importance of students overseas for Xiism and show coordinated state ‘guidance’ of the CSSAs at work.

The Muscovite Letter

On 30 December last year, Xi Jinping replied to a letter from the Moscow State University CSSA on such edifying topics as the spirit of the 19th Party Congress. Its authors included the MSU CSSA’s president, Lu Sentong 卢森通, a lawyer who has also held positions at the Russian Association for the Peaceful Reunification of China (a United Front group) and the Union of Chinese Students in Russia (中国留俄学生总会, Союз китайских учащихся в России), to whose presidency the embassy has just elevated him. The letter was reviewed and forwarded to Beijing by the Embassy. Xi’s reply stops at around 300 characters, mostly used to extol the role of the young in the Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation and setting up a parallel to Mao’s 1957 speech at the same university during his visit for the Moscow Conference.

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像早晨八九点钟的太阳。Inter ludis virgines, stellis nebulam candidis spargis.

Mao Zedong with diplomatic staff and student representatives at the Chinese embassy. Moscow, November 1957. Source.

State media found the missive newsworthy. On the very 30th, the letter was read on China Central Television, during the 7pm news (Xinwen lianbo 新闻联播). Selected students, including the CSSA leader, watched it live at the PRC embassy.

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Students including MSU CSSA leader Lu Sentong 卢森通 watch the Imperial reply to their letter read live on Xinwen lianbo. PRC embassy in Moscow, December 30th, 2017 (Source). As of press time, it’s unclear if prior warning existed that Xi’s missive, dated that very day, had been given, or if the students and diplomats just happened to dress like that and meet up at 2pm on a Saturday to watch the universally loved broadcast.

The People’s Daily published Xi’s reply on its front page the next day.

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People’s Daily, 31 December 2017.

Education sections of diplomatic missions worldwide then proceeded to organise study sessions with students and scholars under their jurisdiction, in order to analyse the ‘spirit’ of Xi’s reply. This process, involving CSSAs and other groups, was then widely reported by state media, government-affiliated sites and publications, and some of the associations themselves on their websites and social media. The WRSA, the United Front organisation given increased jurisdiction to liaise with those who study abroad, has also reported on these exegesis sessions; it also organised what could be seen as the Mother of All Muscovite Missive Exegetics Meetings, attended by Dai Junliang 戴均良, deputy director of the Central United Front Department. The exoprop system was also set in motion to bring the good news to foreigners, even including such foreign partners as TASS, thanks to its increasing cooperation with PRC media.

The spirit of the Moscow Letter was studied in Singapore, Sweden, the US, Finland, South Korea; in Moscow, again; and in Aukcland, where, already on 31 December, the Consulate arranged a forum with students and visiting scholars. (The Auckland session didn’t involve the CSSA, but a small group of students on government scholarships (公派), who are more often expected to participate in this kind of event.)

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Season’s Greetings: Auckland New Year’s Eve Xi-Exegetics session organised for students on government scholarships, by Consular injunction. The banner quotes Xi’s 19th Party Congress report, with one character missing I believe (source).

No such thing as a discounted lunch

The global pantomime set up to fête Xi’s 300-odd characters is only one example of centrally coordinated political work aimed at students overseas; similar events, including ‘study sessions’, took place at other junctures, such as, of course, during the Party Congress. Of course, this doesn’t imply that political work constitutes the bulk of CSSA activity, or even a significant or noticeable part of it, as experienced by most members. Much as in the case of other student groups, the point of CSSA membership is surely access to social events, various forms of support or such goodies as restaurant discount vouchers, rather than the privilege of attending study sessions with Their Excellencies. In many cases, as in the rather poorly attended New Year’s Eve Imperial Moscow Correspondence Exegesis Symposium in Auckland, or, say, the Party Congress study session at Australian National University, involving the relatively rare sight of a (possibly ad hoc) Party cell on foreign soil, political work is only for visiting scholars or students on state scholarships, sometimes not even involving the actual CSSAs. On special occasions, however, the broad masses of CSSA members can be summoned, and not a few will respond: Hamilton and Joske describe the embassy-organised rallies to welcome Li Keqiang to Australia in 2017, with “hundreds of students” who were trained, and assigned roles in groups that included “security squads”.

Like other external groups involved in United Front work, the CSSAs spend most of their time and resources on non-political activities that offer actually useful services to a certain non-Party social group of UF interest. Members can be attracted by any number of incentives, from ‘discounted lunches’ to patriotic spirit. On the other hand, leaders of such organisations are surely clear about their political role: they place themselves under the ‘guidance’ of the education section of the local diplomatic mission (as in the case of Chen’s Auckland organisation); their election sometimes even takes place on consulate premises; candidates can be subject to the approval of a consulate, or directly designated by the embassy. A CSSA leader such as Labour’s Chen Naisi can’t credibly claim independence from its ‘guiding’ entity.

Chen’s own public statements are worth quoting. Asked about the revelations about Yang Jian’s military past during an English-language interview before the election, she claimed they would have “increased the level of support for Yang from the Chinese community.” She thought the community would have “emphatised” with Yang. Since the ‘community’ was actually divided over Yang, Chen probably had in mind her own ’empathy’ for a political adversary. She added: “In China it’s very hard not to have anything to do with the Communist Party, or even the military regime itself. It’s part of the working life. The hospital, the schools are all part of the regime.” Such a statement is either trivial (state institutions are of course somehow related to the Party in a one-Party state), or false (it’s not particularly easy to become a CCP member, let alone to have a career at a PLA institution; Yang’s career has little in common to that of, say, an average SOE employee).

Hätt’ ich nicht so viel getanzt

Although Chen lost the election, thus succeeding in staying away from all the ‘uninteresting’ politics, she is an advisor to the New Zealand China Council, a partially taxpayer-funded “cross-sector, peak body for the New Zealand-China relationship”. Its Advisory Council also includes both United Frontling MPs, Yang and Huo. Led by a former official turned consultant without known Chinese expertise, the Council works as a lobbying group advocating Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, sometimes in cooperation with such organisations as Confucius Institutes (cf. a recent “Belt and Road Forum“, a genre affectionately known as BARF). His own website shows him performing a bowing dance, too cringey to reproduce here, in front of Li Keqiang 李克强, to his Premierial hilarity.

Chen Naisi is certainly politically junior to well-connected United Frontlings Yang and Huo, but her organisation’s profile and her own views leave no doubt that, by giving her such visible roles, Labour and the NZ China Council are signalling their acquiescence with relevant CCP policies. Labour, just like National, clearly agrees that the CCP’s United Front organisations have a natural right to represent New Zealand Chinese. The Council is also clear in its commitments; it has summarily dismissed the evidence of CCP political influence operations, and reaffirmed its advocacy of Xi Jinping’s geopolitical Initiative.

Conic relief

Soon after the revelations on Yang Jian and Brady’s report, Michael Reddell, an economist and former official, complained of the “cone of silence that seem[ed] to have descended over elite New Zealand” around Yang’s case. Indeed, Yang remains an MP, was consistently defended by Bill English, former PM and until recently leader of the National Party. I don’t think I’ve seen any senior Labour politician air the slightest criticism of a rival MP with a background in PLA intelligence. As seen above, senior politicians, officials and state-funded lobbyists continue to offer adulation to the Core and to advocate his Initiative. Local coverage has been modest, mostly limited to the work of one investigative journalist, Matt Nippert, at the nation’s paper of record, and some articles from news outlet Newsroom.

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原委如此。Conus insignis galeae cristaeque comantes. Source.

Brady was quickly placed under the cone. When Chris Finlayson, then the attorney general, was asked about Yang’s case and Brady’s work at a campaign event, he refused to “respond to any of the allegations” against Yang (which allegations Yang has confirmed himself) and proceeded to complain about “a whole class of people” being “singled out for racial abuse”, before insulting Brady: “I don’t think she likes any foreigners at all.” While her work has been quoted by scholars and journalists the world over, and was probably a key factor in initiating the current scrutiny of Chinese influence in the West, it has had little visible effect in her own country. Reactions came from state nationalistic tabloid Global Times (环球时报), which posted a piece through social media quoting NZ-based “young scholar” Ken Liu (Liu Yuxi 刘羽西) attacking Brady’s views (since she “lacks understanding of China and still looks at it using Cold-War thinking”). Liu is a member of the NZ China Friendship Society, as well as of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese (中国侨联), a United Front group. He has contributed praise of China’s political system to Skykiwi (天维网), a Chinese-language website linked to state media.

Ardern’s concerns

A more kinetic response followed. Brady had her office and house burgled. Laptops and phones were stolen, while “[[o]ther] valuables weren’t taken”. The burglaries did generate considerable press coverage; PM Jacinda Ardern expressed concern about possible links between the attack and Brady’s work, and announced she would “be asking some questions” of the intelligence service.

Whatever indignation the Relevant Burglaries might generate, New Zealand’s political, business and academic landscape makes it rather unlikely that the CCP’s influence operations will be seriously questioned. Ardern might be sincerely concerned about people being burgled, but, if my sources are to be believed, her government continues to keep a United Frontling as gatekeeper to Chinese-community interaction. Her party is presided by an apologist of totalitarian ‘wise leadership’. Her Loyal Opposition has even stronger CCP links, takes pride on its PLA-intel man; National, and so perhaps one day the government, might [UPDATE: not so] soon be led by Judith Collins, the peculiar business background of whose family couldn’t be freely discussed when she was a minister, and could become fully taboo under her premiership.

As observant readers might have noticed, Brady’s surname pops up rather frequently in this and other accounts of Zelanian United-Frontics. Brady is a well-known scholar and has pioneered the subject, but it’s rather unusual to see almost no one else broach the topic. New Zealand has, after all, a fair number of Sinologists; their silence speaks volumes. Discussion of CCP influence elsewhere has led to vigorous debate, while in New Zealand it’s just Brady. Brady, shm(r)ady!

More generally, nothing suggests a change is imminent in the monolingual, monocultural majority élite’s view of China (and everyone and everything ‘Chinese’) as an exotic totum that will rain deals, junkets and votes on you if you just help it conceal its dirty laundry, ape the lingo of its eternal Leader, entertain it with a mock-Asian bowing dance and show it your stupeur et tremblements. While an obvious improvement over ethnic prejudice, this is still intellectual laziness. Our favourite Frontlings know how to play the ‘inscrutable’ card to the China-naïve: when confirming he hid his background from the public, Yang Jian said the “system” in China was too “complicated”; Raymond Huo called his prosaic Xi-speak election motto “an auspicious Chinese idiom”; Chen Naisi explains Yang’s background as just everyday life in China, comparing PLA intel-school staff to rank-and-file SOE employees. If you don’t know Chinese, can’t find China on a map of China, and are too lazy to learn, those are acceptable responses. Such organisations as the NZ China Council, ~⅔-funded by the public to play a role in engaging with a major trade partner, are led by the China-illiterate, and effectively outsource all thinking tasks to advocates of the entity they’re meant to engage. When it comes to China, common sense is suspended; or do how-to-negotiate books sold at Wellington Station teach you to let the other side do your due diligence for you?

As it continues to slide down the BARF-y Road, New Zealand is worth keeping an eye on for those interested in United Front Work and techniques for coopting Western élites. Since no policy change seems likely, one should expect United Frontlings and the motley prancing lobbyhood will at least stay funny. Huo’s borderline-onanistic Xi-speak campaign slogan is admittedly hard to beat, but the ever-gushing geyser of what Barmé calls New China Newspeak will hopefully produce something on time for the next election. Should the Nats need an advisor, I might try and merge Holyoake’s “Steady does it” into Xi’s Donkey Theory (驴论); but there’s surely more potential in an amalgam of Xi’s rerefloatment of Mao’s “Knife Handle [in the Party-and-people’s hands]” (党和人民手中的刀把子) and Judith Collins’ “I stab from the [F]ront”.

This concise introduction to the Backyard piece will now continue across the Ditch.

1. The cis-Tasman yard

Icy Xi-speak and northerly exoprop: the Arctic White Paper

[These jottings on the much-hyped Paper are still under revision. Further notes can be expected next week.]

The Arctic White Paper released last week (中国的北极政策, China’s Arctic Policy) is perhaps the first unified presentation of the PRC’s Arctic activities for foreign audiences. A product of the Party-state’s foreign propaganda (外宣, ‘exoprop’) apparatus, the document does not set policy guidelines or announce new plans. More than for what it says, largely confirming well-known policies, the paper is interesting for what it doesn’t. Some key themes of PRC Arctic strategy (natural-resource acquisition, alternative trade routes, state support for investment, tourism development, participation in Arctic governance) are there, while the national-security motivation and the Arctic’s integration within larger polar and maritime policy, both present in Chinese-language materials, are left out of this document. Xi-speak tropes and slogans (the Arctic version of the New Era’s New China Newspeak) are selectively translated based on their international adequacy, diluting two China-as-a-power items and mixing them with regionally and globally fashionable vocabulary. While the Paper, a straight-forward text supplied with an authoritative translation, doesn’t require a deep analysis, the way its presentational aspects have become the focus of much Western coverage of the document can help assess its effectiveness as a PR product. Western commentary’s lingering passiveness and dependency on English-language input leave a vacuum that exoprop is eager to fill. After a brief overview of the Paper’s vocabulary, assertions and omissions, based on the Chinese original with reference to the official translation, this post will turn to its function as a ‘discourse power’ (话语权) tool.

An Arctic strategy document had long been expected. Internationally, China’s silence contrasted with Arctic policy papers published by fellow non-Arctic players: South Korea’s 2013 Arctic Strategy Master Plan (북극정책 기본계획), the Arctic sections of Japan’s 2013 Ocean Policy Master Plan (海洋基本計画) and the 2015 Arctic Policy (我が国の北極政策), the German and Italian Guidelines, among others. This generated a lack of trust and, perhaps more importantly, left officials and analysts without Chinese skills short of documents to talk about. The document also caters to domestic needs. A public strategy can help state and non-state players competing for funds and backing a way to justify their projects by anchoring them in national policy.

What it says

As behooves a propaganda document, the Paper is peppered with Xi-speak items. A favourite with worldwide BRI-touters, ‘Humankind’s Community of Shared Destiny’ (人类命运共同体), is surely there, while two Xi-isms pertaining to the China-rise narrative, ‘Chinese wisdom’ (中国智慧) and ‘strength’ (中国力量) are collapsed into just ‘wisdom’ in the official translation. Another two invocations specific to Arctic exoprop will be discussed in the last section.

Proper emphasis is placed on opening trade routes and exploiting natural resources, recapitulating two known pillars of Chinese polar policy. Notable Chinese extractive activities in the Arctic include the Yamal LNG project in Russia, as well as mining investments in Russia, Greenland and Canada. CNOOC (中海油) was the main, then the only player in oil and gas exploration in Iceland before giving up its licence last week.

The PRC asserts its rights to fishing and extractive exploitation in the high seas (公海) and “international seabed areas” (国际海底区域, translated as “the Area”) of the Arctic Ocean. Commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean is to be forbidden until 2033 by an agreement China was involved in drafting. Its renewal beyond that date can be stopped by the objection of a country, and China’s expanding fishing fleet and explicit intentions make it clear that the long-term goal is to fish in those waters. Given known Chinese fishing practices and a history of fishing rights disputes in the region, this could become a point of contention in the medium term. Unlike fishing rights, China’s rights to some sub-sea resources could be limited if any of the competing extended continental shelf claims by Arctic states as part of the implementation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) were to succeed. Canada, Denmark (on behalf of Greenland) and Russia have presented overlapping claims extending all the way to the North Pole. (The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf has already issued a positive recommendation endorsing a more modest Norwegian claim that includes the remarkably named ‘Loophole’ (Smutthullet/Smottholet, later covered by a treaty with Russia) and ‘Banana Hole’ (Smutthavet/Smotthavet or (seemlingly less often) Bananhullet/(?)Bananholet).) While China has little need for international law and multilateralism in the South China Sea, it commits to them as its only road to leverage in a region where it’s a new, external player.

Regional organisations are paid due acknowledgment, with a few sentences devoted to the Arctic Council, where China has been a permanent observer since 2013. Lesser forums are also mentioned. The order matters, as it’s not lexicographical (by pinyin or stroke count). Pride of place is given to Putin’s “The Arctic—Territory of Dialogue” (Арктика—территория диалога), followed by former Icelandic president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson’s Arctic Circle (whose advisory board includes the head of China’s polar institute, and two scientific and business partners of PRC entities as Icelandic representatives), then the Tromsø event Arctic Frontiers, and China’s own Sino-Nordic research centre.

Repeated expressions of state “encouragement” (鼓励) for enterprises to invest in infrastructure, natural resources and tourism accurately reflect current policy. The tourism industry, prominently mentioned, provides good examples of private enterprises in the Arctic working in tandem with state policy-making. One of its key roles is to communicate China’s polar-powerhood and national strategies to a domestic audience. In a rather spectacular example I researched last year, Guangzhou-based ‘élite’ travel club Souluniq (心友汇) provided a public for the ‘official’, yet surreptitious, launch of a project to build a satellite ground station in Greenland and the first known Chinese UAV flight there.

What it doesn’t say

Another pillar of PRC Arctic policy is national security. Part of the significance of Arctic trade routes stems from the possibility of avoiding conflict-prone areas and solving the ‘Malacca dilemma’ (马六甲困局). Defending them will require the involvement of the PLAN. As a senior Chinese scientist recently put it, “threats to China come from the Arctic”. China doesn’t still have enough satellite ground stations in the Arctic as required by research purposes, in particular, for the dual-use Beidou 北斗 navigation system. The new Greenland project is therefore an important addition to the existing station in Kiruna, Sweden. Speculatively, a site under consideration for China’s first permanent research station in Greenland, at around 83°N, could provide an interesting location for satellite reception.

Institutionally and in terms of staff, China has an integrated polar strategy. The natural-resource motivation asserted in this Paper applies to Antarctica as well. In turn, polar policy belongs under maritime policy, with its increasing emphasis on becoming a ‘maritime superpower’ (海洋强国). Resource acquisition also involves global, rather than regional, policies. Some (near-)Arctic activities are best analysed within larger frameworks. E.g., a recent proposal by a state, Party and Army-linked consortium to build a deep-sea port in Sweden was cancelled after controversy that indeed highlighted its significance in a global context; similarly, state-controlled investment in Greenlandic rare earths is linked to ministerially-defined long-term strategies on the domestic production and export and overseas development of those minerals.

Greenland isn’t mentioned by name; Denmark is. Greenland is increasingly important to China, with two mining projects near production, high-level contacts, infrastructure talks and scientific cooperation, and the topic of Greenland independence (of potential benefit to China) now openly discussed in Chinese academia. Officially, though, China avoids being perceived as supporting independence in any way and treats its authorities as a regional government. Again, this shows diplomatic savvy on a sensitive topic for Denmark.

The national-security significance of the Arctic and the relevance of other strategy areas are present in the PRC’s presentation of its Arctic policies to domestic audiences, but don’t belong in a document tailored to the sensitivities of Arctic stakeholders and the regional public. Those interested in China’s actual Arctic strategy, rather than its foreigner-friendly presentation, would learn more from the work of analysts such as Anne-Marie Brady, whose recent treatment of China’s polar ambitions can be read as an Arctic (and Antarctic) strategy avant la lettre. Specifically, the national-security motivations the institutional integration of Arctic, Antarctic and maritime policy, as well as their interaction with the propaganda system and other policy areas, are best described in her book, on which this section is largely based.

An excursus into exoprop

In a clear exoprop exercise, the Paper was released by the State Council Information Office (SCIO, 中央新闻办), presented not by a representative of the organs with decision power on Arctic affairs, but by Kong Xuanyou (Gong Hyeon-u 공현우 孔铉佑), a foreign-affairs vice minister with responsibility for maritime affairs, but best known as special representative for the Korean peninsula. Rather than policy guidelines, the paper is primarily an international message, and its effectiveness can be judged by its success in guiding global discourse.

Some reports have described the paper as ‘unveiling’ China’s ‘Silk Road on Ice’ (冰上丝绸之路), or announcing its ‘near-Arctic’ (近北极) status. This is inaccurate. The latter self-descriptor has been installed for over half a decade. It has been negatively perceived because of its questionable geographic base, although it refrains from any territorial claims. Revisionist claims can be found in the odd publication, e.g. denouncing the Nerchinsk treaty and describing Chinese ‘effective administration’ over swathes of Siberia under the Tang and the Yuan reaching the Arctic Ocean. Although about as historically rigorous as those justifying the annexation of the South China Sea, they enjoy no government support or inform Arctic policy.

The ‘Silk Road on Ice’ (冰上丝绸之路), a Xi-speakism of purely invocatory character and no great consequence, deserves a closer look as it’s less known. The phrase ‘Silk Road on Ice’ isn’t new, or had been ‘veiled’. The literal phrase has been official for half a year; the concept (embedding the Northern Sea Route into the Belt-and-Road project) is much older. Brady notes that it began being used soon after Xi’s late-2014 Hobart speech, in which he famously spoke of China as a “polar great power” (极地强国). Officially, the ‘Ice Silk Road’ concept is now traced back to a sentence in a joint communiqué (Chinese, Russian) at the 2015 regular meeting of Chinese and Russian heads of government, calling for cooperation in Arctic navigation. Although that locus classicus doesn’t actually mention the Silk Road (the document does elsewhere), its mention helps install the Ice Road as a joint, or even Russian, idea, avoiding a perception of Chinese encroachment. Official use of the literal phrase ‘Silk Road on Ice’ seems to begin in May last year, with foreign minister Wang Yi 王毅 calling it a Russian idea that the Chinese side “welcomed and supported“. In Russian media, the phrases ледяной/ледовый Шёлковый путь, Шёлковый путь на льду generally refer to the Chinese concept, although a possibly native coinage of similar meaning exists: deputy premier Dmitry Rogozin’s ‘Cold Silk Road’ (холодный Шёлковый путь), proposed in 2015. The definitive auctoritas for the ‘icy’ version as PRC officialese is its utterance by Xi Jinping in July. Since then, it has become official vocabulary.

Such misreadings of the Paper’s novelty and aims help confirm that, when it comes to the Arctic, the bulk of Western commentary does in fact mostly react to the propaganda system’s output streams. As evidence of the exoprop system’s Arctic ‘discourse power’ gains, the Paper’s coverage is more interesting than the Paper itself.

[Thanks to Anne-Marie Brady and Dag Inge Bøe.]

Lysekina: SOE, PLA-linked United Frontling want a deep-sea port in Sweden [UPDATED]

[UPDATE (Jan 31): It won’t happen. Through their ‘consultants’, the investors have informed they’re calling it off because of the public criticism the project attracted since it was leaked to the press. (InBeijing, Bohusläningen, Dagens Nyheter)]

Backed by state-owned China Communications and Construction (CCCC, 中交建), a well-known Hong Kong-based United Front figure is lobbying a small Swedish municipality to let him build a large deep-sea port. Using a tactic seen elsewhere, state-linked investors leveraged Sweden’s decentralisation, which leaves decisions on foreign investment to local administrations, to avoid the public scrutiny that comes with interactions at a national level.

 

The Michelin-spangled harbour

Last November, Lysekil municipality officials, overseeing the local affairs of a population of 14,000, were Powerpoint-presented with an investment plan that includes the new port, expanding the existing one, a logistic centre, a bridge, roads, a health resort “with Michelin Star restaurants” and other desirable items. They were reportedly given ten days to respond.

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The presentation, authored by three Swedish consultants. The languages used (English and simplified Chinese, for a Swedish audience) and word choice (“中国香港” ‘China’s Hong Kong’) suggest it’s not entirely their own work. Indeed, its ‘appendix’ largely translates the prospective investor’s website. Source: Jojje Olsson on Scribd.

And respond they did:

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Lysekil municipality’s answer. Source: Olsson via Scribd.

Quite on time (or close enough for government work), the municipality commissioned a feasibility study, deeming the proposal “interesting”. The study was requested from the same consultants who had brought the contact with the investors in the first place, and authored the impressive presentation (which, as seen above, borrows rather extensively from the investor’s website). It should be ready this or next month.

The tactic of lobbying local officials and trying to get a fait accompli before the feared “China threat theory” (中国威胁论) can kick in has been seen elsewhere; a remarkable example covered on this blog is the satellite ground station project in Greenland, “officially started” without the government’s knowledge after cultivating a local scientist. Unfortunately for the investors and consultants, the news leaked, leading to national-media coverage and increased opposition. Critics question the port’s environmental impact and the security implications of having Chinese state-linked entities build and operate a major piece of infrastructure. The project has become known as ‘Lysekina’, a pun on the name of the town and the Swedish word for China. Jojje Olsson, who has been covering the case on his website and Swedish media, wrote a summary in English for the Taiwan Sentinel. For another English-language account, here’s Ola Wong talking to Lene Winther on Danish radio station Radio24syv.

 

Evaluate a Frontling, dispatch him

The main investor is Sunbase (新恒基), owned by Gunter Gao (Gao Jingde 高敬德). Gao is a prominent figure in Hong Kong United Front organisations. (The CCP’s United Front Work Department is charged with handling and controlling various external groups at home and abroad, using tactics that go back to the Comintern in the 1920s. A renewed focus on them is a feature of Xi Jinping’s administration, recently leading to unusual international exposure and a growing backlash in some countries. Cf. my ‘United Frontlings always win‘.) He was, in particular, the founding chairman of the Hong Kong Association for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (中国和平统一促进会). ‘Reunification of China’ is of course a euphemism for the annexation of Taiwan. The APPRC’s Australian chapter is perhaps its most famous, thanks to its leadership‘s donations to the country’s major political parties.

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Chairman Gao, representing Hong Kong at the 8th meeting of the Reunifier association. Beijing, 2009. Source: 中国统促会.

His seniority within United Front structures is illustrated by his participation in meetings with high officials. For an old example, here‘s a Xinhua story describing a visit to Beijing in 2009, where Gao met, among others, Du Qinglin 杜青林, then head of the Central United Front Work Department. He has been a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC, 政协会) for five consecutive terms. In Hong Kong, besides his membership in multiple CCP-linked organisations, he openly supports the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB)— to the point of obsequiousness. At a DAB fundraiser in 2016, he offered HK$18.8m for a specimen of calligraphy by Zhang Xiaoming 张晓明, then the central government’s representative in Hong Kong.

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The HK$18.8m specimen. Source: HK01.

Zhang’s calligraphy reads: 度德而处 ”measure one’s virtue and manage [the situation]’, a Zuozhuan 左传 quote (隐公十一年) which, together with the following phrase (‘estimate one’s forces and proceed’), is alluded to in the idiom 度德量力 (‘measure one’s virtue and estimate one’s force’). In the Zuo locus classicus, Duke Zhuang 庄 of Zheng 郑 pacifies the ‘lawless’ (无刑) state of Xu 许 but, instead of simply annexing it, rules it through envoys from his court. Despite ruling the conquered state as a sort of protectorate, Zhuang refrains from imposing his country’s rites on it: past turmoil in his own state of Zheng, that pitted him against his mother and brother, shows his merits don’t entitle him to a claim to the vanquished state (he ‘measures his virtue’); and making the defeated Xu a friendly neighbour can be convenient (he ‘assesses his forces’). All in all, quite like the PRC’s rule of Hong Kong through envoys like Zhang Xiaoming, while letting it maintain a semblance of autonomy (‘two systems’) if it behaves, and ruling it through an envoy in its “west” (使公孙获许西偏) just like Beijing’s Liaison Office in HK occupies a skyscraper called ‘The Westpoint’ (西港中心); but of course he didn’t mean the allegory to apply wholesale. At the pro-Beijing fundraiser, he provided his own interpretation of the Zuo quote, in which it means “to proceed according to moral standards”, “reforming others with one’s own virtue”, and added the ‘assess your force’ second half of the quote could be a gift for the losing candidate at the next HK chief executive ‘election’. (Said election is in fact a staged, non-competitive event involving CCP-selected individuals. As of press time, it’s unclear if the official who played the ‘loser’ at the latest instantiation, John Tsang (曾俊华), received any consolation calligraphy.)

Gao Jingde’s $18.8m investment and shoeshining prowess has proved clever in retrospect: the virtuous calligrapher has since been promoted to the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (港澳办) in Beijing. He surely remembers fondly the purchase, and might keep it in a prominent place, perhaps pondering if the 德 ‘virtue’ in the phrase couldn’t be read as the one in his given name 敬德 Jìng: 度德而处 ‘evaluate Jingde and deploy him’.

Also in 2016, his company was found to share an address with eight groups entitled to vote for ‘functional constituency’ representatives (the non-democratically elected part of Hong Kong’s legislature, whose function is to limit the possibility of an opposition majority).

 

Promoting a glorious, civilising, superior Army

Most striking are Gao’s links to the military. As his company’s website puts it, he has “generously supported the publication” of various “valuable books with the intent of promoting the glorious image of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a civilizing and a powerful force and of spreading the superior tradition and revolutionary spirit of the PLA”. The volumes, seemingly published by the pro-Beijing paper Wen Wei Po 文汇报’s publishing house, aren’t widely available and, as of press time, I haven’t been able to secure a copy. One of them, however, did apparently reach former president Jiang Zemin.

Such adulation has been remunerated. One of Gao’s companies, a Sunbase subsidiary called Sunbase International Properties Management Ltd (新恆基國際物業管理有限公司), has been managing all 18 plots used in Hong Kong by the PLA since the 1997 handover. Its website lists the PLA garrison, Beijing’s Liaison Office and Xinhua news agency among its main customers. The company changed its name from ‘Sunbase International Hotel Management’ in late 1996, reflecting its new focus on servicing the Party’s Army and state.

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If Gunter Gao’s political and economic links to the Army and state might not be universally known, little needs to be said about CCCC, a state-owned company with an important role in China’s global port building and acquisition activities, part of the drive to build a ‘maritime power’ (海洋大国). CCCC is indeed involved in projects in Chinese ports in Gwadar, Pakistan and Colombo, Sri Lanka.

In short, the consortium seeking to build Scandinavia’s top Michelin-star port-cum-resort, though superficially a private endeavour, has links to the state and Army deep enough for it to serve as a potential instrument of national policy.

The project’s very existence is indeed consistent with regional and global policy goals. The Lysekil plans should indeed be read in the context of China’s general interest in securing port assets worldwide. In the North, in particular, there has been talk for years about Chinese involvement in deep-sea ports, in Iceland and Norway. The international connection has being noticed in Sweden. In a recent article, journalist Ola Wong advises Sweden to “study” the controversial 99-year lease of the Australian port of Darwin to Chinese company Landbridge.

Before it can reach its Michelin-studded glory, the Lysekina project will need to navigate all this unexpected scrutiny. Most importantly, Chairman Gao or his attendant consultants would need to convince the port’s prospective landowner, the refinery owned by Preem, who now categorically deny any intention to sell or lease.

Sweden isn’t often discussed on this blog; a somewhat relevant post discussed another port purchase, this time by Lau Ming-wai 刘鸣炜, the HK ‘government adviser’ who prematurely inherited a business empire from his convicted father.

Greenland: China discreetly launches satellite ground station project

China has ‘officially’ launched a project to set up a satellite ground station in Nuuk, although Greenland’s public and elected representatives were kept in the dark about it for months, in an attempt to avoid concerns about its likely dual-use capabilities. Last May, a ‘launching ceremony’ was held in Greenland, where speakers included the well-known polar scientist in charge of the project and a military pioneer of the Beidou system, China’s alternative to GPS. The event was attended by a public of a hundred ‘élite’ businesspeople, including, in all likelihood, a senior Navy officer, as part of a group holiday; only two Greenlandic representatives were present. While reports were immediately available in Chinese media, the project’s launch went unnoticed in Greenland until I first ‘revealed‘ it last October. A subsequent investigation by journalist Andreas Lindqvist for Greenland’s main newspaper AG, to which I provided help with Chinese-language materials, found the Greenlandic authorities knew nothing about the ‘officially’ launched project, even though it requires government permission. Based on Lindqvist’s research in Greenland and new information from Chinese sources, I am now able to present a fuller picture of the project, its participants and possible dual-use goals.

The atypical embedding of such an event in a tourist trip is, in fact, understandable in the context of the Chinese Party-state’s information management practices, and in particular the way its polar strategy is presented to foreign and domestic audiences. This analysis is backed by the project leader’s own statements, as well as the partial success of what a source in Greenland called a ‘camouflaging’ tactic, at least until my blog and the local press found out. Calls are now emerging for Greenland and Denmark to have full access to data received by the planned station, something the Chinese side has clearly not yet agreed to, and a possible complication for some of the project’s purposes.

Cruising for the Motherland

I mentioned the receiving-station-to-be in October, towards the end of a post about plans to build a Chinese research base in (possibly very northern) Greenland. While the base plans have been covered by Danish journalist Martin Breum for Greenlandic and Danish media, the satellite-station announcement, available from Chinese sources since early June, remained unreported in Western languages other than my blog until a recent article by Andreas Lindqvist came out in last week’s AG (Atuagagdliutit/Grønlandsposten; paywalled). I provided Lindqvist with information about the project from Chinese sources and background on its leader. As we will see, a rather surprising picture emerged after comparing them with what BJU’s Greenlandic counterparts were aware of.

In June, Sciencenet (科学网), a web portal maintained by the China Science Daily Publishing House (中国科学报社), under the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other state scientific organisations, reported on a somewhat ambiguously named ‘launching ceremony’ (启动仪式) for a satellite ground station, held in May in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland’s airport hub. The ceremony had the trappings of an official event: BNU’s representative, Cheng Xiao 程晓, delivered a speech on his university’s Arctic activities, and the importance of the project for “serving the people of Greenland, improving climate change research and serving [China’s] national strategy”. Together with its local partners, state-owned telecom Tele-Post and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (Pinngortitaleriffik/Grønlands Naturinstitut), BNU “officially announced the launch” of the Nuuk ground station project. The ceremony was attended by Karl Zinglersen, GIS manager and database expert at the Institute, Flemming Enemark of Tele-Post, and “more than 100 domestic [i.e. Chinese] representatives”, surely a visible crowd among Kangerlussuaq’s population of 493.

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As per the banner: [格陵]兰遥[感]卫星[地]面站启动[仪]式 “Greenland remote-sensing satellite ground station project launching ceremony”. Kangerlussuaq, May 30, 2017. Source: Sciencenet.

Despite its conspicuousness, and its significance for China’s engagement with Greenland, the event wasn’t reported in local media until last week’s AG piece. In it, Tele-Post confirmed the project existence, although the company “has no more details on the character of the research data that the ground station is to receive.” Zinglersen, the GIS expert at the Natural Resources Institute, gave a less spectacular account of the Kangerlussuaq ‘launching ceremony’. It was held at Roklubben, a local restaurant. In Zinglersen’s recollection, Cheng Xiao’s group included “a couple of researchers” (on which ‘researchers’, see below), but most of the Chinese visitors were tourists on a trip organised by Souluniq (心友汇), a Guangzhou-based ‘travellers’ club’ catering to a high-end base. Zinglersen received no explanation as to why Cheng’s delegation chose to come with a tourist group, rather than in his academic capacity as he’d done on other occasions. According to the AG article, the actual station will essentially consist of a seven-metre antenna to be installed along Tele-Post’s existing Nuuk equipment. Cheng won Zinglersen’s support for the project by offering him access to images from Chinese satellites ‘for free or at a low price’. A relationship with him and the Institute had been cultivated for some time, as we’ll see below. Both Zinglersen and Tele-Post sources quoted by AG confirmed the project will require the approval of the Greenlandic government before it starts. There might be a difference of opinion with the Chinese partners on whether the project has ‘started’, since Zinglersen hadn’t yet considered applying for the Greenlandic or Danish government’s permission, almost half a year after its ‘official’ launch. Both Greenland’s Foreign Affairs Office (Nunanut Allanut Pisortaqarfik/Udenrigsdirektoratet) and the foreign affairs and security committee at the Greenland parliament told AG they were unaware of Chinese plans to build a satellite station.

Thanks to AG‘s coverage and more recent information from Chinese sources, I’ve now been able to put together a fuller picture of what happened in Kangerlussuaq on May the 30th.
The event was indeed officially called a ‘launching ceremony’ in both Chinese and English. The hundred-odd travellers arrived from Copenhagen in the morning, attended the Kangerlussuaq ceremony, and left by helicopter in the evening to board a cruise ship (the Sea Spririt). The launching ceremony was described in promotional materials for the trip. It was clearly timed to allow the visitors to attend before embarking on the cruise. It was the only event they attended in Greenland besides the actual week-long boat expedition. Its combination with a cruise tour served a double purpose: it provided a Chinese public able to appreciate its significance and communicate it after returning to China, while its embedding in a tourist trip evaded the exposure a pure official arrangement could have attracted from the Greenlandic press. Souluniq isn’t your average tourist operator: it prides itself on organising regular trips to the Arctic (including Greenland) and Antarctica and events for members of the business élite, emphasising the strategic importance of China’s activities in the polar regions. Its chairman, He Zhijun 贺志军, is a well-connected businessman (e.g., he has worked with Tencent 腾讯, and a company led by He designed its famous penguin logo). He organised the first Chinese chartered-boat trip to Antarctica in 2010. He is conversant with China’s strategic goals in the polar regions, in whose pursuit and communication tour organisers and promoters like him do play a role. In a recent interview, he explained international interest in Antarctic exploration by stressing the continent’s abundant natural resources, notably fresh water, oil, coal and iron. Souluniq’s polar trips for the élite have featured prominent members of academia, officialdom, the diplomatic profession (including Sha Zukang 沙祖康) and the military. Rear Admiral (少将) Chen Yan 陈俨, former political commissar of the South China Sea fleet, well known for his Lady Gaga exercise routine and current Paracel spirit proselytising, has been to Antarctica with Souluniq. R Adm Chen was also part of this Greenland voyage, and, in all likelihood, attended the Kangerlussuaq station launching ceremony. Although he didn’t speak at the ceremony, his presence at the trip had an educational role in communicating the importance of the Arctic to China’s national interest.

xinyouhui0
Travellers on China’s first chartered boat trip to Antarctica, organised by He Zhijun’s Souluniq for over a hundred “élite entrepreneurs”. Great Wall Station (长城战), King George Island, 2010. Source: Souluniq.

The military component was also present at the Kangerlussuaq event. Speakers included, besides Cheng Xiao and a BNU colleague, a prominent figure in the Beidou 北斗 system, China’s alternative to GPS: Zhao Yaosheng 赵耀升, an engineer with a military background who is a Party member and former CEO of BDStar Navigation (北斗星通). BDStar was the first company allowed to use Beidou for civilian purposes. The company was originally a military enterprise established by the ministry overseeing defence procurement, and later became private, though still led by individuals (such as Zhao) with military backgrounds. (A 2008 article from Science and Technology Daily (科技日报) even credited Zhao with coming up with the name ‘Beidou’ for the system in 1994. Regardless of the truth of the claim, its occurrence in a state-media account illustrates Zhao’s involvement with the Beidou project already in the ’90s.) Although Cheng Xiao’s speech at the Kangerlussuaq event, as reported by Chinese media, highlighted the Nuuk station’s value for climate change research, the presence of such a Beidou veteran is a strong indication that China’s first ground station in North America is meant to a role in the satellite navigation system. Besides its civilian applications, Beidou is used by the PLA. Zinglersen and Enemark, the local representatives at the half-hour event, might have only been informed about the strictly scientific aspects of the project, and are likely unacquainted with the background of the Chinese participants. Its other goals, however, were clearly discussed during the Greenland tour, as confirmed by a businessperson on the trip who recalled the Nuuk ground station’s “strategic significance for gathering military data”.

agenda

Speakers at the Kangerlussuaq event, including BNU scientist Cheng Xiao 程晓, Beidou pioneer Zhao Yaosheng 赵耀升 and Souluniq CEO He Zhijun 贺志军.

Even during their cruise on board the Sea Spirit, our heroes didn’t limit themselves to leisure activities. On June 4, Cheng, together with Zhang Baogang 张宝钢, a BNU engineer who has been on two Antarctic expeditions, conducted what state media reported as China’s “first UAV flight in Greenland”. The fixed-wing remote-sensing drone Ji Ying 极鹰 (‘polar eagle’) 3 was flown for about an hour, seemingly around Nassuttooq.

The cruise-ceremony-expedition thus allowed the start of the ground-station project and other activities to be communicated to a selected Chinese audience and presented through Chinese media as an official bilateral event, while the Greenlandic public and their elected representatives remained unaware of the project existence. The senior figures in attendance, some of whom, like R Adm Chen, could have attracted undesirable media attention, simply came and left as tourists.

This rather peculiar behaviour, perhaps surprising to those familiar with (at most) only one side of China’s polar PR, is in fact consistent with Cheng Xiao’s own statements, as well as with the history of China’s activities in Greenland and the polar regions.

 

Strategies

The man behind the satellite-station project is Cheng Xiao 程晓, director of the Global Change and Earth System Science Research Institute (全球变化与地球系统科学研究院) at BNU. Cheng, a geographer by training, is a well-known specialist in remote sensing and an important figure in the polar science community. His experience in the polar regions spans almost two decades. His work on mapping Antarctica reportedly attracted the attention of state councilor Liu Yandong 刘延东 (now vice premier). He has taken part in several Antarctic expeditions, including the 16th (1999-2000), the 22th (2005-2006), reaching Grove Mountains, and the 24th (2007-2008), where his surveying work at Dome Argus (‘Dome A’) was crucial for the subsequent establishment of Kunlun Station. His work on satellite data processing and analysis is credited with an important role in polar navigation, in particular for China’s polar vessel Xue Long 雪龙 in several polar voyages.

In perhaps the most eventful such voyage, the Xue Long took part in an Australian-led endeavour to rescue the Russian ship Akademik Shokalsky, trapped in Antarctic ice on Christmas Eve, 2013. The Xue Long, whose icebreaking capabilites are limited, got itself stuck while trying to reach the Russian vessel, but helped evacuate its crew by helicopter. An American icebreaker was dispatched on January 4 to rescue the Chinese and Russian ships, but a weather change allowed them to set free of their own accord before it could reach the area. Not a day after breaking free, the 30th Expedition crew sent a message from the Xue Long thanking Cheng Xiao and his BNU team for supplying satellite data during the operation, that established “China’s positive image as a responsible polar exploration power”. The Expedition thanked Cheng’s institute again in a second letter in March 2014.

letter

The 30th Antarctic Expedition’s letter to Beijing Normal University thanking Cheng Xiao and his team for helping the Xue Long during the rescue operation. Sent from the ship the day after it broke free. Source: State Key Laboratory of Remote Sensing Science (遥感科学国家重点实验室). Full letter here.

Cheng has often referred to his work and scientific activity in the polar regions as serving China’s national interests. In a recent interview to Communist Youth-affiliated website youth.cn, he echoed Xi Jinping’s call to “accelerate the construction of a maritime power”. “What I do myself is polar research, and building a polar power is an important component of building a maritime power.” “The General Secretary has formulated very high expectations and demands” towards scientists. Talking to state tabloid Global Times, he stressed that the Arctic is of “great strategic interest” to China, and called for “every government department” to look at Arctic issues bearing the national interest in mind. “Our country’s future development opportunities are in the Arctic, just like the major military threats come from the Arctic.” At the Kangerlussuaq ceremony, he explained that BNU’s global network of satellite ground stations is a “strategic plan” the university has established as part of the nation’s Belt and Road and Arctic strategies.

Cheng’s recommendations on China’s engagement with the Arctic merit are especially relevant. In the Global Times interview, he talked of a “geopolitical” need for China, “as a responsible power”, to participate in Arctic affairs. Since, unlike in Antarctica, sovereign nations control Arctic lands, China must use its advanced technologies “to benefit indigenous inhabitants”. “For example, as a result of global warming, Greenland’s population is extremely concerned about the drastic changes brought on their living environment by large-scale receding of the ice sheet, caused by climate change. But the Greenland government has only two staff conducting satellite remote sensing, and doesn’t have its own ability to develop satellites. Therefore, BNU produced a high-resolution satellite map for the Greenland government and gave it to them as a gift through our Ministry of Science and Technology.” The map was given last year by Cheng Xiao, and the gift idea came from Zinglersen, his main contact in Greenland, who, as he told AG, had spent “decades” waiting for such a map from the Danish authorities. The map was actually made with American, open-source satellite images. Cheng’s team simply put them together; this year’s crucial success is likely at least partly due to the goodwill earned with that gift. Cheng calls for an increased role of higher education and research institutions in China’s Arctic strategy, since as “unofficial” entities they are able to “effectively counter the ‘China Arctic threat theory’.” In this regard, the peculiar arrangement for the May event has been successful so far: voices in Greenland and Denmark that could have been expected to raise concerns about the project simply didn’t know about it.

And indeed such concerns have now been raised. This week’s AG quotes Nils Wang, head of Denmark’s Defence College (Forsvarsakademiet), a well-known expert on Arctic security and the second rear admiral to be featured in this story, after R Adm Chen. Wang says that the Danish Realm (the state comprising Denmark, Greenland and the Faroes) should have “full access” to the unprocessed data received at the Chinese station. “Such a ground station is not necessarily a problem in itself, says Wang, if the data it gathers are only used for scientific research and are shared openly between the partners in the agreement.” Even though he might not have been aware of the event’s military angle at the time he talked to AG, Wang warned that, absent a clear agreement on data access by the host country, such a station “can obviously also be used for intelligence gathering and military goals.”  Zinglersen, BNU’s main contact, appears to agree with that proposition in a new interview, although it’s clear data sharing is not part of any formal agreement (he had earlier hoped for access to the data for free or at a preferential price). Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, chair of the foreign affairs and security committee of Greenland’s parliament, who also learnt about May’s event through the press, thinks that the administration should be informed about such projects, and in turn inform parliament. She warns against getting “scared every time there is a Chinese project.” She finds it “a bit worrying” that the Greenlandic government hadn’t been informed about the deal, as it should have knowledge about all its conditions, including what kind of data will be transmitted and whether Greenland and Denmark will be given access.

Needless to say, these worries would have been promptly assuaged if the agreement had been discussed openly back in the summer.

 

An excursus into exoprop

This contrast between China’s messaging to domestic and foreign audiences, emphasising, respectively, national (including natural-resource and military) strategies, and scientific engagement and trade, has been illustrated on several occasions in Greenland. In the case of mining projects, state involvement tends to be downplayed for foreign audiences. The first Chinese exploration project in Greenland, near Carlsberg Fjord, involved state-owned major Jiangxi Copper, since it began in 2009; Chinese investment in the project had been a matter of high-level discussions in China, with the China Institute of Strategy and Management (中国战略与管理研究会), a government think tank, touting it to SOEs. However, Jiangxi Copper’s participation, deemed a “sensitive” matter, was only publicly described in a Western language in 2013, in my first blog post on Greenland. In another example, Shenghe Resources, the rare-earth giant that has invested in the Kvanefjeld/Kuannersuit project, tends to be described as a ‘private’ company, a description that obscures its state affiliation; Shenghe’s intent to eventually acquire a controlling stake in the project was also presented rather differently in China and Greenland.

This differentiated approach is not limited to Greenland. Anne-Marie Brady, the world’s leading expert on China’s polar policy, and also known for her earlier work on the propaganda apparatus, discusses it extensively in her latest book, China as a Polar Great Power. “The Chinese media tends to talk up China’s polar activities and achievements in Chinese-language materials, where as it downplays the same activities and achievements in materials aimed at foreigners.” In particular, China’s interest in the exploitation of Arctic and Antarctic resources, a key goal of its polar research activities, is made clear to Chinese audiences, but ‘downplayed or denied’ abroad.

This duplicitous approach needs to be understood as coming from an authoritarian Party-state that attaches great importance to information management, and has the capabilities to force its propaganda policies on media, business and academia to an extent Western spin doctors would never dream of. While this strategy often succeeds in convincing foreign interlocutors, such as scholars or officials without China expertise, it can also generate mistrust. The ‘other’ side of Chinese polar strategies does reach foreign observers sooner or later, installing the idea that China has something to hide. In fact, there’s nothing unspeakably sinister about such aspects of China’s polar interests as the exploration of natural resources (including the eventual opening of Antarctica to mineral exploitation) or its dual-use satellite navigation system. It is rather worrying, however, that Greenland’s government might feel inclined to humour China’s Party-state and follow its nontransparent practices, with potential long-term consequences for Greenland’s open society.

Headlessness in KCNA invective

In a guest post for Language Log, I look at the translation strategies displayed in the various language departments of the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA, 조선중앙통신). The case studies are ‘running like a headless chicken’ and the mysterious ‘sorrow is laughter’s daughter’. The latter proverb is neither a literal translation of the Korean original nor the translator’s ad hoc invention; indeed, I managed to trace it back to Renaissance philosopher and mathematician Charles de Bovelles.

Headlessness in North Korean propaganda

My earlier Language Log post on KCNA vocabulary:

Of dotards and DOLtards

Propaganda in foreign languages (exoprop, as I like to call it) is a long-standing interest of this blog: China Radio International’s network of ‘borrowed boats‘ has been devoted a few posts, and more is to come.

NZ: kauri and cowries [copiously UPDATED]

[UPDATE (Feb 2): The investigation on the pipe rupture has finished, the Northern Advocate reports. An unknown illegal swamp digger “may have” triggered the damage. No one will be prosecuted.]

In an ongoing Antipodean streak, I’ve described how successfully united-front organisations have embedded themselves within both sides of New Zealand politics (“Skirt lifted, jewels unveiled“; “Kalendae octobres“). That description might eventually need an update, but not before a government is formed, which might still take a couple of days. [UPDATE (Oct 20): The new government will be a coalition of Labour, NZ First and the Greens. See updated interspersed through the post for what that can mean for kauri.] In the meantime, I propose to look at another aspect of PRC influence in NZ: PRC-orientated business, as illustrated by trade in one particular product, and its links to local politics.

As in my previous NZ posts, there’s some inevitable overlap with the revelations in the Brady report (Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping), whither I refer the more inquisitive reader; I will add, however, some new data and point to recent developments.

This post explores the intersection of politics, business, palaeobotany, trade-portal forensics and rectified dendronymy.

The rectification of dendronyms
The kauri (Agathis australis (D.Don) Lindl.) is a large coniferous tree that grows only in the north of New Zealand’s North Island. The name is of Maori origin, and one of its Chinese names is what one might expect in such circumstances: a sound transcription, 考里松 kǎolǐ sōng ‘kauri “pine”‘. That name isn’t commonly used. To the timber merchants covered in the central section of this post, the most species is typically known as 贝壳杉 bèiké shān ‘conch “fir”‘. The shān part is unremarkable; it occurs in the names of several coniferous trees. But what about the ‘shell’/’conch’ part? Bèiké actually is for ‘cowrie’, a mollusk whose shells once served as currency. Although the English words are unrelated (kauri from Maori, cowrie from Hindi < Sanskrit kaparda), the similar pronunciation might have motivated a folk etymology at some point before the Chinese term was coined.

I can’t tell for sure where and when the confusion originated, but it’s clear that early 19th-century English-language authors used any number of spellings to approximate the Maori pronunciation, and these indeed included cowrie. An example is the first systematic botanical description of the species, by David Don0 in 1824, who acknowledges the gift of “a large mass of the Cowrie resin”.

dammara_australis_don2
Dammara (=Agathis) australis in Lambert et al., A description of the genus Pinus… (1824)

The authority for the currently used binomial name, John Lindley1 in 1829, has cowdie:

A. australis, or New Zealand Cowdie Pine[ ]is one of the finest trees in the world, often growing perfectly straight to the height of 100 feet or more, and yielding one of the best descriptions of wood for masts.

but also kawrie on the same page.

The stage was set for mixing up the names of the shells with the Maori word for the tree, also in writing, already in the early 19th-century.

[Update (Oct 18): I’ve had a look at early newspaper materials from New Zealand. The spelling kauri predominates. Of possible relevance is the fact that a spelling for Maori, very similar to today’s standard, was created in 1820 and spread very quickly. The earliest NZ newspaper attestations of words for kauri are from 1840 (the year the first paper was published there), and by 1842 the word occurs in a Maori-language publication, Te Karere Maori (Maori Messenger) (caveat: I don’t read Maori, and have not yet been able to confirm whether the text actually refers to the tree). By the time the the English-language newspaper record begins, the standard spelling might have spread beyond those literate in Maori. Here are some examples with various spellings of the name of the tree: ‘kauri’ (1840, 1840), ‘cowrie’ (1840), ‘cowry’ (1848), ‘cowdie’ (1840, 1843).

For earlier newspaper sources, Australia comes to the rescue (I’m grateful to Geoff Wade for calling my attention to NLA database sources): ‘cowdy’ (1820), ‘cowrie’ (1828). The earliest attestations I’ve found so far for the spelling ‘kauri’ are from 1837: they occur in a letter to the King from New Zealand petitioners, and a piece that names multiple local plants using their Maori names; both published in The Sydney Herald.]

As for the genus names, Agathis is transparently Greek (ἀγαθίς ‘ball of thread’, describing the female cone) and australis means ‘southern’, but the first genus Dammara is less obvious. The name is much older than Lindon: it was introduced to Western botanical literature in RumphiusHerbarium amboniense2, published in 1741. Rumphius describes the tree now known as Agathis dammara, calling it Dammara alba, a Latinisation of the Malay he cites as damar puti. Damar refers to a number of resin products in SE Asia3.

The kauri tree’s unique characteristics were noted in the earliest descriptions: Don mentions its restricted distribution:

Habitat in Nova-Zeelandiæ nemoribus copiosè præsertim circa Æstuarium Queen Charlotte’s dictum.

“Grows in the woodlands of New Zealand, with particular abundance near the estuary called Queen Charlotte’s” (perhaps referring to Queen Charlotte Sound (Tōtaranui)). He also says it

may be ranked as one of the finest timber trees which New Zealand produces

Agathis-australis-cone-2

Kauri cone via New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Fine though the standing tree is, the relevant ‘kauri bonanza’ here involves subfossil kauri trees buried in the swamps of the north of the North Island. Thanks to the acidic soil, trees up to 45,0004 years old are preserved well enough to be of dendochronological significance, and, more relevantly here, to make the wood workable.

Besides the transcriptional 考里松 kǎolǐ sōng and the molluscan 贝壳杉 bèiké shān, a third name is used for this underground form: 新西兰阴沉木 Xīnxīlán yīnchénmù. This is not a proper species name; it means ‘New Zealand buried/subfossil wood’, which I suppose unambiguously describes kauri. 阴沉木 yīnchénmù can in turn be replaced with 乌木 wūmù or other (near-)synonyms.

The trade

The trade in swamp kauri began in the 1980s, but the real boom came in this decade. This on New Zealand Geographic piece describes an initial free-for-all period, followed by more proactive regulation brought in after damage to indigenous wetlands and assorted peculiar business practices generated attention. The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), which regulates the milling and export of the product, maintains a helpful page that includes quantitative reports going back two years.

[Update (Oct 18): Here’s a story from the ‘free-for-all’ period. In 2013, Mike Nager, then an environmental officer with a local council, was attacked by a group of men in an isolated location. He had bleach thrown in his eyes, which temporarily blinded him, and his face was cut with a knife. He was told to ‘stay away’. Nager was driving to testify as a witness in an illegal swamp-kauri extraction case. The attackers were never found. He returned to work, but began suffering from PTSD soon after and went on sick leave. The council fired him over a conflict related to his injury compensation; he sued and lost.]

According to the relevant laws and regulations, subfossil kauri is only allowed to be exported as “a finished product” or as “whole or sawn stumps or roots” not from “indigenous forest land”. There’s a specific definition of ‘stump’ (essentially, roots plus a section of trunk as high as the maximum diameter), but things seem less specific with ‘finished products’. The whole trade is controversial, and its detractors argue that enormous slabs sold as ‘tabletops’ or whole logs with some perfunctory carving described as ‘temple poles’ or ‘artworks’ are taking advantage of a legal loophole to actually sell the wood as a raw material. A conservationist group called the Northland Environmental Protection Society (NEPS) has taken the government to court alleging the subfossil logs are fossils, in a legal sense that would forbid their sale abroad; they lost and are now waiting for a Court of Appeal ruling.

[Update (Oct 18): Fiona Furrell of NEPS told me the ministry has announced they will sue for legal costs over the appeal, which, she says, would force the organisation to close. It’s unclear if any larger environmental groups, better prepared to afford legal battles, would take up the issue.]

The main export destination has been a certain populous Asian land. In the halcyon days of the subfossil kauri trade (2013 to 2015) more than 90% of all exports went to China:

kauri_exp0_16

Note that the graph is logarithmic. The peak is above 3500 m3/y. Source: MPI, Quarterly report of swamp kauri activity, Dec ’16.

After 2015, exports to China suddenly decreased. 2015 was also the year stricter monitoring was put in place. It’s not immediately clear if there’s a causal link between such scrutiny and the abrupt fall in exports to China.

kauri_exp1_17

From the June ’17 report.

Reports have continued to emerge of suspicious-looking kauri slabs offered for sale on trading portals, both in New Zealand and China. The government’s consistent position has been that the trade is proactively monitored and illegal exports do not occur.

For a halcyon-day example of this, let’s consider a Radio NZ report from June ’15. Pictures of kauri logs for sale had appeared on Chinese trading portal Alibaba 阿里巴巴. Logs can legally be exported if carved into an artwork in its definitive form, thus constituting a ‘finished product’. (Presumably, if some prosaic buyer chooses to recycle such completed artworks into, say, furniture, that’s their problem.) The relevant minister of the day, Nathan Guy, defended the trade:

I have seen some photos where some fantastic-looking swamp logs have been carved and they’re going to be an amazing feature for our country in an international country that they’re destined for.

It’s unclear if Guy was referring to this specific log:

kauri_rnz0
A fantastic-looking kauri log, offered for sale to an ‘international country’ on Alibaba, via Radio NZ.

People unamused at the government’s handling of this included Dover Samuels, a Northland Maori leader, and the aforementioned NEPS. Interestingly, a further individual unhappy with these fantastic, amazing NZ finished products exported to international countries was Winston Peters, leader of the small right-wing New Zealand First party. Peters, affectionately known as Winnie, has emerged as the ‘kingmaker’ after the last election, and is expected to announce which of the major parties he will allow to form a government this week. [UPDATE (Oct 20): The parties are Labour and the Greens, until now in opposition. Winnie himself is expected to be in government, possibly as deputy PM.] He happens to be from kauri country, and was MP for Northland at the time.

Here’s what Winnie had to say:

If they think that this sort of chiselled scribbles on an ancient Maori log is art, then they are not fit to the job that they’re occupying.

He referred to claims the MPI was following the law in allowing exports of such ‘finished products’ to proceed as “bunkum” and “balderdash“, and warned against the “environmental despoliation” created by uncontrolled digging.

That was, of course, during the halcyon days. As we have seen, regulations got stricter after that, and exports to China subsequently decreased. However, a case similar to the one in the Radio NZ story was reported days ago by Peter de Graaf for the Northland Advocate. The article refers to tip-offs on suspected illegal exports to the MPI, including, again, Alibaba offers of massive amounts of swamp kauri slabs. One company involved was New Zealand Forest Enterprise, owned by James Qian (Qian Liping 钱黎平). De Graaf quotes an MPI spokesperson saying they “spoke” to Qian’s company, and found “it is aware of the rules. As a result, we have no further concerns in relation to its activities”. The MPI did not believe the slabs were “actual product for sale”, which raises the issue of what they were doing on a trading portal accompanying a sales offer. Qian, interviewed for the article, didn’t provide an explanation, but said the advert was “very old” and promised to take it down. I haven’t found the actual listing on Alibaba, perhaps because it’s no longer there, but 2013 offers from Qian’s company and a Shanghai distributor are still preserved on another trade portal. Quite likely, the story refers to the posting shown below, found on the English version of Alibaba and shared on social media.

kauri_twitter

Qian’s swamp-kauri offer on Alibaba English, via Malcom Justice (@MPD_NZ).

The adverts above, as well as the ones I’ve seen in complaints to the MPI, come from English-language websites. As a modest contribution to the kauri-advert canon, I’ll give a few examples from Chinese trade portals. I haven’t seen these particular pictures in English-language media, but of course others might have reported them on social media or directly to the MPI.
The Sino-kauri corpus

First, some slabs.

kauri_nfl0
新西兰五万年阴沉木原木大板 “50,000-year-old New Zealand ‘buried wood’ log slabs” (source)

These 4.5m-long slabs have some markings and a label which readers more cognisant of the industry might be able to identify. The advert, from 2015, can be found on New Zealand Forests Ltd’s page on timber-trading portal wood168.net (Zhongguo muye xinxi wang 中国木业信息网). Other products on offer include swamp kauri stumps, some more finished-looking slabs, and some non-kauri timber. (Readers who don’t read Chinese wishing to consult that page can search for product names containing the word 阴沉木 yīnchénmù ‘buried wood’.)

nfl_home
New Zealand Forests Ltd’s page on wood168.net

New Zealand Forests Ltd is led by Zhou Jiang 周疆, affectionately known as 豆花周 Douhua Zhou or Tofuman. In an interview with the Chinese Herald (先驱报), he tells how, after many successes in the food and other industries, he decided to enter the kauri business, establishing two companies, NZ Forests and Kauri World in 2010. Kauri World was dissolved in 2015, but NZ Forests remains active, with Zhou as a shareholder and director.

kauri_tofuman
Zhou Jiang 周疆, via the Chinese Herald, via read01.com

Zhou says that he established contacts with Maori groups to get their agreement to exploit the resource. In 2013, the company “inspired” PM English’s gift of the Kiwi-Panda Ball, crafted by swamp-kauri woodturner Alby Hall, to Xi Jinping, to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishent of diplomatic relations. The company’s press release notes that it “works closely with local iwi [Maori tribes] to promote New Zealand culture to the world.” As seen above, support for the swamp kauri trade was less than unanimous in the Maori community, but some clearly don’t object to NZ Forests’ activities.

[New Zealand Forests Ltd] notes that the ancient Kauri used to craft the Kiwi-Panda Ball has been carbon dated as nearly 50,000 years old and is therefore very appropriate to be presented to one of the world’s oldest civilisations with a recorded history of 5,000 years.

Astute readers will appreciate the flattering time-span inflation, appropriate to the exchange of gifts between illustrious dignitaries like English and Xi. As of press time, swamp kauri hasn’t been carbon-dated to 50000 years ago, and China doesn’t yet have 5000 years of recorded history. As the senior partner in the bilateral relation, the Chinese side was treated to more generous number inflation than the trees.

kauri_ball
Alby Hall, Kiwi-Panda Ball (panda hemisphere). Swamp kauri, “inspired by New Zealand Forests Ltd”, 2013. New Zealand’s official gift to the People’s Republic of China. New Zealand Forests Ltd press release via Scoop.

Here’s another slab offered by Zhou’s companies:

kauri_nfl2
From another 2015 posting

This one looks more finished, and could pass as a rustic table. It’s listed as offered by NZ Forests on the trade portal quoted above, and also on another one, China Timber (中国木材网), where it’s ascribed to one Fuzhou Yima Trading Co., Ltd (福州伊玛贸易有限公司). Fuzhou City government information systems don’t seem to record a company with that name, which could be due to a clerical error, the company’s extinction, or its non-existence. Regardless, the contact data on the page match those of Kauri World in New Zealand, the company introduction actually refers to NZ Forests Ltd, and the same picture seems to be used on both websites. There can be no doubt that this posting also belongs to Zhou’s company.

Let’s look at one final Kauri World offer.

kauri_nfl4

Another Kauri offer from 2015.

A closer look:

kauri_nfl3

Per the advert, the log weighs between 1.5 and 2 t, was unearthed in February 2014, and once finished could be worth between $200k and $500k. For the export to be legal, such finishing would have to take place before shipment to China. The log is only 5000 years old (possibly a typo for the customarily inflated 50,000) and has “multiple burrs” (数瘤), considered a good thing.

Similarly, the picture on Kauri World’s homepage, which serves as the Chinese version of NZ Forests’ website,

kauri_oocl.png

shows a swamp-kauri log being loaded into an Orient Overseas Container Line container, perhaps for shipment to another New Zealand location, since the product doesn’t look quite finished. If actually finished, the geometry of the base doesn’t augur well for its structural stability as a temple pole, so a different use could be intended. Then again, the picture doesn’t constitute a business offer and may differ from actual products being sold.

Incidentally, the fantastic, finished log featured in the Radio NZ story quoted above also came from New Zealand Forests Ltd. On the English version of Alibaba, they dispensed with any ‘temple pole’ euphemisms and called the pieces just ‘logs‘.

All the pictures above were most likely taken in New Zealand. It’s not clear whether the products they show were actually sold and exported, as the MPI might have blocked some such exports. It’s not hard to find pictures of swamp kauri being offered by traders in China. Here’s a piece of a rather particular shape, offered in 2014 by a Xiamen trading company (without any visible link to any particular NZ exporter).

kauri_cn0

I’ve also seen swamp-kauri offers from China-based traders posted as late as last year.

The legal and dendrometric subtleties involved in assessing the legality of exporting all those products escape me, but it should be clear that the limits of the ‘finished product’ concept were being tested.

Stone duality

Besides New Zealand Forests, one of the biggest players in the kauri trade was an Oravida Kauri, a Stone Shi business. Upon first encountering his name, some readers will assume it alludes to Marshall Stone and the duality named after him. Such an assumption would be mistaken: ‘Stone’ is simply the translation of his surname. His full Chinese name is Shi Deyi 石德毅. There is a certain duality between ‘Shi’ and ‘Stone’ as given names and surnames, and also between Stone Shi’s activities in China and New Zealand, and his links to business and politics.

Stone Shi’s best known activities are selling milk and buying airports. Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons report devotes him two paragraphs, worth quoting in full.

In 2011 Shi Deyi (also known as Stone Shi, 石德毅) donated $56,500 (via Oravida NZ) to National and secured a game of golf with John Key in return. The photo of the match is still used in Oravida publicity. Shi donated a further $30,000 via Oravida in 2013, in 2016 he gave $50,000, and then a further $50,000 in 2017. Shi is CEO of Shanghai Jiacheng Investment Management 上海嘉诚投资管理有限公司, but in New Zealand he is most well known as the director of the milk products company Oravida. Shi also bought Ardmore airport, Auckland’s second airport, in 2016. In 2005 Shi was involved in a fraud case in China; his business partner got life in prison, while he was sentenced to pay debts and compensation. Stone Shi is now a rotating chair of a Red Capitalists organization, the Shanghai Entrepreneurs Association (上海新沪商联合会). This is a grouping of 2,000 of the most powerful companies in China, and is under the supervision of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce as well as the United Front Work Department. The Shanghai Entrepreneurs Association is a channel for public-private partnerships in China. It currently has an MOU with the New Zealand China Trade Association.

Shi bought Oravida in 2010 under its former name Kiwi Dairy, from Terry Lee; a businessman associated with Shanghai Pengxin. Former New Zealand National PM Jenny Shipley is a director of Oravida, as, for almost five years until 2017, was David Wong-Tung, the husband of National MP Judith Collins. Collins’ relationship with Oravida attracted media scrutiny when she attended a private dinner with a Chinese customs official and Shi when Oravida were having difficulty exporting their products to China. The National government later gave Oravida $6000 to help it to overcome border issues.”

Brady also provides a picture showing Shi at a prime-ministerial golf match. As a modest contribution to the Shi golfing-portrait genre, here’s a PM-less portrait, from a Sheshan 佘山 golf club magazine.

shideyi0

After the fraud case in the early aughts, Stone Shi resurfaced in New Zealand, attracting considerable media attention with the airport purchase and high-level political connections. He was also fully rehabilitated in the Motherland, as shown by his prominence in the Shanghai Entrepreneurs Association.

Serendipitously enough, another airport-related incident occurred last month, a week before the election. A pipeline that fed fuel to Auckland airport (the big one, not Stone’s) ruptured, leading to cancelled and postponed flights. An investigation underway. The pipe’s owner believes it “was damaged by a digger before it ruptured”. The investigators have met some obstacles. The owner of the property where the accident occurred doesn’t live there, and investigators have not been able to locate him after presumably searching for a month. This is perhaps understandable, since he (it is a ‘he’ according to press reports) is allegedly not in the phone book and might have left the country. If abreast of these developments, ‘he’ might be disinclined to show up, since a fine could be waiting. The digging, media reports claimed soon after the incident, was in fact an “exploratory search for swamp kauri“. Later, it was said that the damage could have occurred back in the heroic age of the swamp (~’14). It has been asked whether the kauri exploration responsible for the rupture, or earlier damage to the pipe, was related for Oravida Kauri, now renamed Kauri Ruakaka Ltd.

The hypothesis is hardly far-fetched. The reasoning is simple: digging is already openly considered the most probable cause, based on an analysis of the broken pipe; industry sources talked specifically about swamp-kauri exploration, and satellite images shared by Twitter user @matarikipax appear to indicate traces of recent activity and a log lying on the ground; if the cause was indeed kauri digging, the first place to ask is Kauri Ruakaka, the nearest kauri business and a major player in the heroic age. It seems obvious that these links should be analysed. However, no mention of a Oravida Kauri or its successor Kauri Ruakaka has been made, as far as I’ve seen, in media reports.

Stone Shi, a National Party donor, is still a director of Kauri Ruakaka. Judith Collins, the National MP whose husband was a director at the company until a few months ago, is the minister of energy and resources.

[Update (Oct 18): The orchid

A rare orchid growing only in some Northland wetlands is threatened by draining of their habitat. Environmentalists claim illegal draining to extract subfossil kauri has pushed the plant to the edge of extinction.

The plant belongs to the genus Thelymitra, but its precise taxonomic status remains unclear. In the meantime, it’s known as Thelymitra “Ahipara”. Ahipara refers to a Northland locality near which the plant has been found. The name is Maori: ahi means ‘fire’ and para, among other meanings, refers to the king fern (Ptisana salicina). Some sources (Wicky quoting this dictionary; this article) give the interpretation “the fire where the fern was cooked”.

The New Zealand Native Orchid Group website has photos of the flower.]

This is not a pipe

Again, I’m not enough of a New-Zealandist and forensic palaeodendrometrician to provide an informed opinion on the legality of the proposed sales above. They might be fully compliant with the relevant definitions of ‘stump’, ‘finished’ and other xylurgical concepts. By giving those examples, besides enriching the kauri-advert canon with some Chinese-language specimens, I meant to illustrate how this China-orientated sector has been ‘testing the limits’ of the regulations, as well as the controversy surrounding the kauri trade. In that controversy, the government’s position is consistent with its general attitude towards China-related issues: the benefits of trade with China and Chinese investment overweigh environmental concerns and overrides the opposition of (some) Maori. In all fairness, the MPI’s response to complaints after the free-for-all era has been transparent, and a remarkable amount of information on the trade is publicly available. It’s the government’s position on a largely Chinese-dominated sector, consistent with its overall attitudes to the PRC, that I find worth taking note of.

Soon after the incident, a reporter claimed to have filed a story that covered the possible links between the pipe rupture and kauri digging with The Dominion Post. The editor who decided to put the article “on hold” denied there had been any political, legal or other pressure, but found “too many ifs, maybes [and] perhapses” in it. Perhaps that should be called an epistemological pressure; maybe, such pressure could have been resisted if the piece didn’t misrepresent the conditionals and probabilities. Even if that one article was bad, it’s quite remarkable that no one else has taken up the issue, in what would seem a competitive media environment. That was another motivation for consolidating my observations here.

The current state of knowledge is, indeed, a chain of conditionals. The various links between the location of the ruptured section, Stone Shi’s business and his political connections don’t warrant, at the moment, the conclusion that his company has any responsibility for the incident. On the other hand, the media silence on all these links only brings them to the foreground. Again, it might turn out that no work was ever done for Shi’s companies near the broken pipeline, but why is no one asking him, or even mentioning the possibility, or discussing it with people who’ve brought it up?

[Update (Oct 18): A source who requested anonymity to discuss the matter candidly refers to the ‘famous litigiousness’ of Oravida’s directors as a reason for the media’s failure to mention the possible links to the pipe rupture.]

I might update the post with any new developments.

[UPDATE (Oct 20): The emergence of a new government could have consequences for the future of the subfossil-kauri trade. Critics of it were in a minority position in politics until now. I have counted three MPs who have in the past been strongly critical of the trade: Winston Peters, of NZ First, quoted above; Kelvin Davis, deputy leader of Labour; Eugenie Sage, of the Greens. As it happens, the first two will now be in the cabinet, with Peters perhaps as deputy PM; it’s unclear if Sage will be made a minister, but as Greens environment spokesperson she presumably delivered her criticism on behalf of the party.

When stricter regulations on the trade were put in place in 2015, Kelvin Davis didn’t consider them sufficient:

They won’t make an iota of difference because they rely on honesty… and these contractors refuse to reveal how much of this ancient toanga they’ve dug up and shipped off overseas.

In a Green Party press release last March, Eugenie Sage was quoted as saying:

We simply shouldn’t be ripping up our wetlands for short-term profit when the environmental destruction will last for generations to come.[…]

[The minister for primary industries] needs to stand up to this industry and stop allowing this precious taonga to be mined until we know if and how it can be done sustainably.

Winston Peters‘ views were quoted above (‘despoliation’, ‘balderdash’). Here’s another quote, from a Radio New Zealand interview where he considers the issue of whether rough slabs, not unlike the ones opening my Sino-kauri Corpus above, can be reasonably considered ‘finished products’ ready to serve as table tops:

I’d invite the Minister, Mr Guy, to slide his rear end down these rough-hewn slabs and tell me that they’re finished. He’ll have splinters everywhere.

With these three people now in or near government, changes in the regulation or oversight of the subfossil trade could be expected, assuming of course they still mean what they previously said.]

[Thanks to Geoff Wade]

Notes

0 Lambert, Aylmer Bourke, Ferdinand Bauer and David Don, A description of the genus Pinus: illustrated with figures, directions relative to the cultivation, and remarks on the uses of the several species, vol.2, London: J. White, 1824. Available at the Biodiversity Library.

1 Loudon, J[ohn] C[laudius], An encyclopædia of plants… London: for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1829. Also available through the Biodiversity Library.

2 Rumphius, Georg[ius] Everhard[=Rumpf, Georg Eberhard], Het Amboinsche kruid-boek…/Herbarium amboinense…, vol. 2. Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht: Apud Fransicum Changuion, Joannem Catuffe, Hermannum Uytwerf, 1741. Available on the Botanicus Digital Library.

3 Rumphius also gives the Malay name damar batu, ‘stone resin’. I’m grateful to Geoff Wade for references and comments on the Malay terms.

4 Turney, Chris S.M. et al., “The potential of New Zealand kauri (Agathis australis) for testing the synchronicity of abrupt climate change during the Last Glacial Interval (60,000—11,700 years ago)”, Quaternary Science Reviews 29 (2010) 3677-3682. Available on the one of the authors’ Academia page.