Sir John Key at an ANZ press conference (Dan Cook – Radio NZ)

John Key just met the most powerful man in China. How and why remains a mystery

Our former prime minister secured a meeting with Chinese premier Xi Jinping outside all normal diplomatic channels. Interest’s Jenée Tibshraeny asks what it means for New Zealand’s evolving relationship with the superpower.

This story was originally published on interest.co.nz and is reproduced with permission.

Former prime minister John Key secured a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week without the involvement of ANZ, the National Party or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). ANZ confirmed Key, who chairs its New Zealand board, visited China in a “personal capacity”. According to the Chinese news organisation, Xinhua, Xi told Key that the world was changing and China was becoming even more willing to cooperate with other countries.

It reported: “China sticks to the path of peaceful development, said Xi, adding that China’s door “will be open even wider to the world. “Xi said China welcomes all countries and their companies to grasp the opportunity provided by China’s development to better realize mutual benefit.

“Speaking highly of Key’s active contribution to the China-New Zealand relations in his capacity as prime minister, Xi said he hopes that Key can continue to help enhance the friendship between the two peoples.” Meanwhile Key reportedly told Xi that he’d continue to play an active role in promoting the understanding and cooperation between the two countries.

The Mandarin version of the article said Key also praised Xi for his vision and leadership and said he believed the Belt and Road Initiative would succeed. Key couldn’t be reached to verify these comments and talk about the trip more generally.

From the front page of the state controlled People’s Daily

National knew, Bridges didn’t?

While the National Party was aware of Key’s visit and the meeting with Xi on October 16, leader Simon Bridges said he wasn’t. The party said it had no involvement organising the meeting and didn’t provide Key with any funding.

Bridges last month surprised China observers, meeting with one of the most powerful people in the Communist Party – Guo Shengkun – and then seemingly singing very loudly off the Chinese songbook during an interview with Chinese media.

Guo is one of 25 people with a seat on the Central Politburo, which oversees the party. He is also the Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which oversees all of China’s legal enforcement authorities. Bridges was accompanied by National MPs Gerry Brownlee and Jian Yang, who had taught English to Chinese students so they could monitor communications and collect information.

Improved diplomatic relations

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in April met Xi and Premier Li Keqiang during a visit to Beijing. The leaders agreed to hold the seventh round of negotiations to upgrade the 2008 NZ-China Free Trade Agreement.

The visit also saw a double tax agreement between the two countries updated, “memorandums of arrangement” on “financial dialogue” and “science and research cooperation” signed, and a “Strategic Plan on Promoting Agricultural Cooperation” formulated.

Later in the month, Trade Minister David Parker led a business delegation to a Belt and Road forum in Beijing. All these meetings followed a period of frostiness from China. Ardern had to put a visit planned for the end of 2018 on hold due to “scheduling issues” on China’s part.

Then the opening of the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism, scheduled for February 2019, was shelved for a month. Friction stemmed from New Zealand’s external spy agency blocking China’s Huawei from building a 5G network, partly due to concerns over spying and the company’s proximity to the Chinese Government.

Labour MP: ‘National is at Masters’ level and other parties are still doing 101’

The diplomatic ground the Coalition Government appears to have regained hasn’t impressed Chinese-born Labour MP, Raymond Huo, who on Thursday made a LinkedIn post praising Key and National. “Key’s visit, as usual, has created huge positive vibe in the Chinese community here in NZ,” he said. “And according to the community, his former National Party is the only political party in NZ that understands China (as a country) and Chinese community (as a voting bloc).

“It is a fair comment that National is at Masters’ level and other parties are still doing 101, willingly or otherwise… Key has been a master in understanding the Chinese notion of ‘Guanxi’… If you have good Guanxi you are more likely to have face and therefore command more respect (and votes). That’s why the Chinese constituents got motivated by Key’s visit: my friends who are National supporters sent me the story to declare “here we are!” Labour supporters got worried and sent me the story asking “where are you?” [I am a small potato, bro!].”

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Huo’s comments drew criticism from University of Canterbury professor and China researcher, Anne-Marie Brady, who tweeted:


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