Chinese designs on Hong Kong and Taiwan must be checked

For months China has been trying to rein in an increasingly restless Hong Kong protest movement. The movement which sprung up last year was originally intended to stop the Hong Kong legislature passing laws that would enable Beijing to extradite dissidents, instill pro-Beijing views into children and station security forces there. The laws led to a protest movement that caught the attention and respect of much of the free world. They were men and women of all ages who had made home in Hong Kong and were prepared to put their livelihoods and lives on the line for their freedom.

Initially they succeeded. The laws were shelved and when elections were held, pro-democracy candidates swept the ballot in one of the most comprehensive routs I can remember. But in doing so, they angered the dragon. They angered Beijing, which resolved to bypass the legislature altogether and simply impose the law, which was done last Friday.

New Zealand has a long relationship with China. In its early days Chinese gold miners worked in harsh central Otago conditions to lay down water races so they could sluice gold, and were the subject of considerable discrimination whilst doing much to enrich the history of the province. It has a tricky balancing act to maintain as China is now our biggest export market and could cause massive damage to the economy if it chose to stop tourists coming here; stop taking our exports.

At the same time, China must learn – and New Zealand must participate in this teaching – that what it is doing in Hong Kong is not acceptable. It is not acceptable to bully other territories into submission simply because they have an alternative thought. Which is why the condemnation yesterday of China’s moves on Hong Kong and the fact that every party in Parliament spoke out against it, is to be applauded.

In 1972 the then United States President Richard Nixon visited China and re-established relations with the Peoples Republic. Following the vision of Deng Xiaoping, Paramount Ruler, China began opening up. It realized that command economics could not work and started developing a market economy. Chinese businesses were encouraged to innovate; Beijing joined the W.T.O. and began to show an interest in helping poor countries develop their natural resources.

But for all of China’s huge economic progress and the improvement of living standards in the worlds most populous nation, the Chinese Communist Party rules the country with an iron fist. Its tolerance for dissenting views of Beijing and in particular for those expressing a desire for democratic reform is quite frankly atrocious. It is not uncommon to have police officers awakening people in the night and taking them down to the local station “for a chat”, which may be more accurately described as a warning to cease and desist. Many a human rights lawyer, journalist, activist has been arrested and put in state run “re-education” camps. Its 1989 Tiananmen Square crack down in which the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army was deployed in huge numbers and killed or wounded 3,000 people

Hong Kong for the most part has been a model of people power and peaceful protest. Some days hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens have been on the streets. Much of the violence seen on television has been the result of security personnel agitating the protesters into committing acts of violence so they can be arrested. The Hong Kong Police Force by contrast have increasingly become a model for how not to deal with protesters. In the last two years the protests and protester movement putting up the protests has increased dramatically following attempts by Beijing to increase its level of control over Hong Kong . The new law change that I have described will no doubt see that distrust increase further.

Similarly China is becoming increasingly annoyed with Taiwan. The island nation that has grown rich and powerful and has been one of the true highlights in the global war against COVID19, is widely seen by Beijing as a renegade province that it wants back. Beijing fails to recognize that Taiwan is an independent nation. Formosa was never been a part of China, prior to becoming Taiwan. Ever since the Nationalists left the mainland to the Communists in 1949, Beijing has been plotting how to take the island nation without triggering a war. Taiwan’s very success and the high level of respect around the world for what it has achieved could be described as inducing Beijing’s envy. The rejection of the “One Nation Two Systems” rule which meant in return for China having control of Taiwan it could maintain its free and democratic governance, has been seen as an affront to Beijing. Although Beijing’s dream of taking Taiwan by force is unlikely – not least because it could a massive U.S. military response – as long as Taiwan is not directly ruled by China, Beijing will have designs on it.

New Zealand, like other nations, must stand firm against them.

Will there be a COVID19 sequel?

Up to yesterday 15 May 2020, New Zealand’s new COVID19 case numbers for the month had gone like this: 1, 2, 2, 0, 0, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 0, 0, 0. Yesterday there was a solitary new case. Which is great because it means that the very long tail of COVID19 is something that we are well into.

However there is a problem. Aside from that very long tail existing, it also points to the need to display ongoing vigilance in the community against COVID19, which is very hard to do in a shopping mall where there are queues extending into the mall and

New Zealand’s hard work is at grave risk of being undone at some point in the future, because the pressure to reopen the borders and permit air travel again will become overwhelming. The pressures will be both internal, from the travel industry, from people wanting to go on holidays and see the world again and external pressures from trading partners wanting to do business with New Zealand again.

With the exception of Taiwan many of the other countries that were initially ones to watch and try to model our approach on, have since slipped markedly. This suggests that they eased their social distancing and isolation measures too soon.

One example is Singapore, which has a lot of migrant workers living in cramped dormitories has had a major jump in its cases to nearly 27,000. Yet miraculously its death toll is exactly the same as New Zealand. However, with only 6,000 of those cases having recovered, the death toll is almost certain to rise.

South Korea, after doing so well has also slipped. A single person with the virus who was apparently asymptomatic, visited Itaewon in Seoul, an area with nightclubs and popular with both locals and foreigners alike. He has infected a dozen people with 30 more probable and 7,200 people may have been exposed to the virus. South Korea, despite North Korea being isolationist and difficult to enter at best, has a potential 22 million strong incubator north of the Demilitarized Zone – North Korea does not admit to having any cases at all, but a combination of zero state transparency and a medical system that would not stand the strain, there are quite possibly cases.

As for Taiwan, incredibly its numbers are unchanged from when I last looked at them several days ago. 440 cases all up. 383 have recovered and 7 have died, leaving 50 outstanding cases.

New Zealand faces a testing balancing act in the coming days and weeks. There is no doubt that we need to get the economy moving again and that New Zealanders will not tolerate indefinite curtailment of their liberties – one day after the budget and two days after it was passed the COVID19 Public Response Act has already been referred back to a Select Committee for proper examination. There is equally little doubt that no one wants to go back to Level 4 or Level 3 restrictions any time soon, as the compliance issues would increase in inverse proportion to New Zealanders following recommendations.

Many questions also remain unanswered. One that I am keen to know more about is whether the warming weather in the northern hemisphere will exhaust the virus and prove the idea that it does not do well in temperatures above a certain level (I think 30ÂșC). Another is obviously whether a vaccine will be ready in 2020. I suspect not, just because even if all wealthy nations pitched in, it has to undergo a rigorous testing phase. If that testing is deemed a success, the ministries/departments of health around the world then have to be given instruction on its use, all the while waiting for a facility that can manufacture the vaccine in large enough quantities to be made ready. On top of that there are also outside forces – some controllable and some not so – such as geopolitical rivalries between the United States and China; poor medical infrastructure in some countries and conflicts all contribute to a myriad of challenges that a vaccine faces.

But the really disturbing thing is – as we have just seen in South Korea – one person in a bar or other potentially densely crowded meeting place is a mobile biological bomb exploding bit by bit. It would only take one or two such cases here and we might be locking down before we even known what happened.

And no one wants that.

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 37

Yesterday was DAY 37 of New Zealand in lock down as we fight the COVID19 pandemic.

It has been interesting to look at the news from around the world these last few weeks and observe the hugely varied reactions of politicians and the public to COVID19. The diversity of reactions and responses has been quite profound. From the grim unity of New Zealanders going into lockdown to the increasingly violent division in the United States; from the quiet success of Taiwan to the flat out denialism over taking Brazil and some third world despots, the variation in the reactions and subsequent responses have been startling.

I will not concentrate on New Zealand so much as that is well documented and now receiving high praise from around the world, warranted or not. Instead I will look at some of New Zealand’s major international partners and where those partnership might go in the post-COVID19 environment.

A few days ago I examined the Australian response to COVID19 and noted that it is doing per head of capita, slightly better than New Zealand. The governments of both countries are talking to each other about how reopening the borders might happen, which is good. However, there are other nations that New Zealand and Australia should start talking to about an extended bubble. Taiwan is one of these nations. The island nation east of China has been one of the true success stories in the global campaign against COVID19. It has had just 429 confirmed cases, of which 324 have recovered with 6 deaths. No new cases have happened since 26 April. New Zealand and Taiwan have good relations and share similar democratic principles. South Korea is another one that could potentially be invited to join the bubble. It has 10772 cases of which 9072 have recovered, with new case rate per day in the single digits.

I now examine the risks posed to our small Pasifika neighbours like Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and our Melanesian neighbours in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. These little island nations might have dodged a bullet by being remote and not having large numbers of tourists arriving like Tonga, Fiji and Samoa do. All of these islands have weak health and social welfare systems, which means a potential outbreak in any of them could be absolutely catastrophic. The last serious pandemic to affect them would have been the 1918-1920 influenza, which was transported around the world by ships carrying soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe. A ship that was carrying infected New Zealand soldiers was allowed to dock in Apia during that time and 7,000 Samoans or about 1/5 of Samoa’s population then died.

It is not just these small nations that could be devastated. It is also the even smaller territories such as Wallis and Futuna, Niue, the Cook Islands, Tokelau, Kiribati, Palau and other tiny land masses could potentially have their entire populations wiped out. Because of the great risks posed to these nations, no one should be surprised that they were quick to slam their borders shut.

New Zealand and Australia need to take charge of aid to these little nations. They cannot afford the lack of transparency and the potential for agenda setting that goes with Chinese aid. Nor can we rely on American aid any for them any longer in the age of Donald Trump. Given the size of some of the smaller territories like Wallis and Futuna, a sum of say $200,000 directed through the Red Cross would be quite substantial.

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 6

Yesterday was DAY 6 of New Zealand being in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

There are times when I am truly frustrated with New Zealand. There are times when the Mixed Member Proportional system of governance, combined with our laissez faire “she’ll be right” attitude to society, to life is like a car revving its guts out, with the hand brake still on.

But right now is not one of those times. In a world where much bigger, better resourced nations that should be leading decisively, showing the rest of the world how to beat COVID19, we are seeing the major powers make massive mistakes that are literally killing people, accelerating their case rate, accelerating the probability of a massive medical catastrophe. We are seeing countries that our grand parents were encouraged to look up to and say this is who New Zealand should be following – the United States, Britain, Australia, and that little ol’ New Zealand is too small to do big things.

This really is not one of those times. The nations that are leading the world at the moment, with New Zealand in pursuit are Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea. These nations have the experience of the S.A.R.S. emergency in 2009, and out of that realized that their testing regimes, their hospitals and nursing systems had to be overhauled. They realized that should a pandemic hit, they have to have action plan ready to go and be prepared to enforce it rigorously. Dutifully all three nations made those preparations and although none of them are yet clear of COVID19 cases, compared with Spain, Italy and the United States, they have the situation well at hand.

New Zealand is not quite tracking like they are yet, but we are doing well. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s cabinet made the decision to “go hard and go early”, realizing the longer we waited the worse it would be and the more explosive the growth rate in cases would be – hundreds, maybe even thousands, instead of several dozen a day at the moment. Our case rate is moving further away from doubling every couple of days and is now taking several days to double, meaning our rate is growing in linear fashion instead of exponentially.

Is our response perfect? No. And nor is anyone else’s. All nations with COVID19 cases are probably looking back at their progress so far and probably wishing they had done things a bit differently. In the case of New Zealand, we should have probably arranged bus companies to scour both islands and round up any travellers who wanted to get out of the country before the borders shut and get them to Christchurch or Auckland airports. In reverse, maybe a pair of Air New Zealand charter flights using 777’s or 787’s to likewise recover New Zealanders wanting to get out of Europe and Asia before they shut down would have been useful as well.

Our biggest challenge will be in a few weeks, when the pressure to relax the lock down will really kick in. People will want to see businesses rapidly reopening, but we will have to be patient. Much of the world will still be in lock down and the borders shut, which I suspect will probably be until late this year if the news from popular travel locations such as the United States and Europe are anything to go by.

But for now, New Zealand needs to keep doing what it is doing. It needs to look to Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan for signals rather than our traditional friends in the U.S. and Europe. And whilst acknowledging the very gloomy time it must be for businesses here, they, like the rest of New Zealand are on board with the idea that beating COVID19 involves an all in effort. As the financial year ends and the new one starts, we should thank them for that.