Sir John Key dollops praise on China in Chinese state media

Former Prime Minister Sir John Key has dolloped praise on China in comments to Chinese state media published as Xi Jinping's Communist Party holds a historic national congress.

One Asian Studies academic is astounded the former New Zealand leader was willing to speak to a "[People's Republic of China] propaganda outlet" while another China expert has described Sir John's comments as "classic Chinese government talking points".

His remarks feature in a Global Times article alongside other international politicians, including a Russian sanctioned by the New Zealand Government after the invasion of Ukraine. 

Sir John has confirmed to Newshub that the publication approached him for the comments, that the outlet chose them from a "long and wide-ranging interview" and that they have been relayed accurately.

It comes as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) holds its 20th national congress this week, a meeting of the country's top brass where Xi is expected to be granted a third term as leader.

The editorial article Sir John's comments appear in boasts of the "historic achievements" realised in China over the past 10 years under Xi. That's in contrast, it said, to the United States and the West which have become a "source of instability". 

The piece collates summaries of interviews the Global Times, a state-run Chinese tabloid, conducted with "global leading thinkers". They include Sir John, Pakistan's Prime Minister, a former United Nations official, the former President of Slovenia, and a member of the Russian Duma who New Zealand has sanctioned.

In his contribution, Sir John said China's "scale and size…makes policy development very difficult". But, despite that, he said "the bureaucracy in China has done a very good job of largely navigating some difficult challenges".

"Overall, in the last 10 to 20 years, China has done a good job of lifting a huge part of its population out of poverty".

The CCP has had a "very strong focus" on lifting people out of poverty and economic growth, Sir John said, as well as on improving opportunities for the "least well-off in China". 

"China has also been very focused on what is required for growth to take place. And it's very difficult," he said.

"To do that you should have the infrastructure to support it. The Belt and Road Initiative has been quite an important initiative, not only because it links China with Europe, but also because their infrastructure is critically important to allow non-inflationary, highly productive growth to take place."

He also said China has concerns about "growing inequality and the social unrest borne with it" when looking at the West.

Sir John met with Xi during a personal trip after leaving office.
Sir John met with Xi during a personal trip after leaving office. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Catherine Churchman, a lecturer in Asian Studies at Victoria University and commentator on China issues, was shocked by Sir John featuring in the piece. 

"Oh my goodness. Why is he doing that? Look at the people he's got himself in, who are accompanying him in the article," Churchman told Newshub.

"What he's saying is, it's not untrue. China is much richer than it was and Chinese people are much better off and richer than they were in the past. But to go and say that kind of thing where you can be used in a PRC propaganda outlet as an example of international support, that's either calculated or naive."

Churchman said Sir John's comments ignore how it was the Communist Party that put many Chinese citizens into poverty in the first place and that it's currently persecuting the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang and cracking down on democracy in Hong Kong. 

"The really, really glaringly obvious thing is that it plasters over all of the people who got stomped on by the Communist Party. There's not even any mention of those things… basically, why would you want to do that?"

As China is New Zealand's largest trading partner, Churchman said there are a lot of people in the business community "who'd love for us to just shut up and trade and not do anything about [human rights issues]". Sir John is a "manifestation of that mentality", Churchman said.

But Sir John told Newshub on Monday that he's previously raised human rights issues with the Chinese leadership and it's not a new issue.

"In essence and on numerous occasions, I have made the point that China and their well-documented issues such as human rights or the plight of the Uighurs are not new and were well canvassed with the leadership when I was PM.

"That doesn't take away from the fact that one of the key focuses of President Xi has been to lift many tens of millions of citizens out of poverty and they have achieved that 

"As I pointed out in the interview China's economy faces some considerable challenges now and the task for the President assuming he secures a third term will be challenging."

The CCP's national congress is underway.
The CCP's national congress is underway. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Jason Young, the director of the NZ Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, told Newshub Sir John's comments "are pretty vanilla" and "classic Chinese government talking points". 

"Based on [his comments], we would assume that John Key supports what they're doing and wants to contribute either because he's very supportive of China's development over the last ten years… or perhaps he sees it as many politicians did when he was Prime Minister and even before that, that this is a way that you maintain relationships in China."

While Sir John could provide comments to whatever organisation he wanted, Young said "it's notable that not a lot of other former Prime Ministers from liberal democracies had contributed". 

"That's because most people know and understand how Global Times works and that its job is to promote a China-centric narrative about China in the world," he said.

He said the Global Times editors would have known the story they wanted from the start and then just would have found international figures that supported their views. 

Young said he doubted Sir John would have known how his comments would have been used, but they were "all the types of things that the Global Times would want" to present China in a fashionable light.

In 2019, another former New Zealand Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, said she didn't write an opinion piece praising China that appeared in the country's state-run People's Daily newspaper with her byline. She said they were based on comments she made in an interview.

Sir John told Newshub his quotes in the article published on Monday "are accurate". 

"But as you can imagine it was a long and wide-ranging interview so these are the ones they choose to use," he said.

Sir John spoke last month with two Australian newspapers, in which he said he didn't view China as "the aggressor" and warned that New Zealand needed to think very, very cautiously" about what it says about the country. 

The former Prime Minister has done a number of interviews in recent years on how reliant the New Zealand economy is on Beijing. 

Since stepping down as Prime Minister, Sir John a personal trip to China to meet with Xi. The former Prime Minister later told RNZ the Chinese President considers him a friend and sends him Christmas cards.