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21 June 2010

Russel Norman’s protest on behalf of Tibet

When political activists become Members of Parliament, they change their way of doing things.   They are expected to act with more decorum than the typical radical activist.   They issue press statements, where in a previous life they might have joined in rowdy demonstrations or acts of civil disobedience.   They avoid activities which may lead to physical confrontation or risk arrest for some real or alleged breach of the law.

The Green Party Members of Parliament are no exception.   Sue Bradford and Keith Locke are good examples.   To their credit, they have been seen in popular street protests on occasions such as the opening of the war against Iraq, and the Israeli attack on the Gaza peace flotilla.  But they have not, to my knowledge, been involved in  militant protest actions of the kind which regularly got Sue Bradford arrested for alleged breaches of the law back in her heyday as a political activist.

It is therefore surprising to see Russell Norman, who is the epitome of the “respectable” face of the Green Party, involved in a bit of argy-bargy with Chinese security men.   In  finding himself in this position he leaves himself open to criticism on a number of counts.   First, he may be accused of lowering the dignity of his office by allowing himself to be caught up in a physical altercation.  (Political leaders generally employ anonymous security personnel to take care of that side of the business, as the Chinese vice-President did on this occasion).   Second, he may be accused of endangering “New Zealand’s” economic and political relations with the Peoples’ Republic of China, and thirdly, he may be open to criticism that he is jeopardizing the Green Party’s cooperative political relationship with the governing National Party.

None of these criticisms carry any moral weight.    On the contrary, they leave Russell Norman the moral high ground.  Norman is able to show, by implication, that neither his personal safety, the material and financial benefits of cooperation with the Chinese regime, nor the political benefits of cooperation with the National Party, are sufficient to outweigh his attachment to basic human rights and his humanitarian concern for the plight of the Tibetan people.

There is of course some political advantage to be gained by the Green Party through taking such a stand.   Both within and outside the Green Party in New Zealand there is significant support for the Tibetan cause,  a measure of distrust towards the Chinese regime, resentment towards the increasing influence that China exerts within the New Zealand economy and political establishment, and a determination to preserve the principles of  “free speech” in this country.   But there are no grounds on which to suggest that Norman’s actions were prompted by purely cynical political considerations.  On the contrary they have the hallmarks of genuine political conviction.

Having said that, I personally do not see any merit in waving flags (whether they be of one’s own nation, or another) in order to make a political point.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly,  New Zealand’s relationship with China, and China’s relationship with Tibet, need to be put in context.

It is apparent that the New Zealand Police handed over the task of “crowd control”, and with it their legal powers under New Zealand law, to the Chinese security detail.   This was not, however, an unprecedented departure from tradition.   New Zealand gives special powers to British and American security services when their respective heads of state (or their deputies) are visiting.   It also abrogates the rights of New Zealand citizens on such occasions, going so far as to arrest and hold without charge persons who might be considered likely to cause embarrassment to visiting dignitaries.

Such measures are but one expression of New Zealand’s subservient relationship to Britain and the United States.   They are now applied to China, because in following its normal modus operandi the colonial regime now must also appease its Chinese friends, along with those from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

China’s economic influence within New Zealand arguably exceeds that of the United States and the United Kingdom.   Its political influence, whether exerted directly through the Chinese population within New Zealand, or indirectly through New Zealand business interests with investment and trading links to China, is such that New Zealand can probably never again engage in the kind of military confrontation with China that characterised the ANZUS era.   That, in my opinion, has to be a good thing.

But it is not such a good thing that the colonial regime is simply attempting to incorporate China into the colonial model which has shaped New Zealand’s relationships with Britain, the US and Australia.   For starters, it will be difficult for New Zealand to manage all four relationships on the basis of deference.   Political tensions will inevitably arise between each of these four major powers, and at some point New Zealand may be obliged to come down on one side of the fence or the other.   In that event the benefits of colonialism may start to look decidedly uncertain, and national independence will become an increasingly attractive proposition

In short, Russell Norman has brought the China/Tibet issue to the fore, but he has failed to put it in a proper political context.   To do so would necessarily involve the admission that China’s role  in Tibet exactly parallels Britain’s role in New Zealand, which is a treaty, followed by an  invasion, followed my mass immigration, economic development and cultural assimilation that has fundamentally transformed the character of the country.    Since Russell has joined  himself with the regime that Britain established in New Zealand, it is hard to see on what grounds he can condemn China for undertaking a similar exercise in “regime change” in Tibet.   If he wants to speak out against China, he should also speak out against Britain.   And if he speaks out against Britain, how can he remain pledged in allegiance to the British crown?

The underlying problem, which Russell Norman may hesitate to address, is bigger than Tibet, and bigger than China.   It is the problem of imperialism.   And we will make more progress in the struggle against imperialism by confronting the colonial regime in New Zealand than by attempting to confront the Chinese regime over Tibet.