In case anybody had missed it, Helen Clark is in China at the moment, both to build political links and talk about a free trade deal. Last night, during an interview with CNN, she was asked why New Zealand was seeking free trade with China given their attitude towards human rights. The answer, as far as CNN's asian viewers were concerned, was several seconds of blank screen, as the Chinese government censored the feed.
Clark's "offensive" comments were that
"Obviously China is not a democracy, and it is governed in a way that would not be acceptable in a Western democracy"
But I think the Chinese government more or less said that for her.
As for the wider issue of whether we should be pursuing free trade with a totalitarian shithole like China, the rest of Clark's statement - that if were only to trade with countries with similar values, it would be a very short list - has some merit, but only some. Because what's at issue is not the full western liberal democratic package, but the bare minimum we should expect from any country - things like not torturing people, not detaining them arbitrarily, and not driving tanks over them whenever they criticise the government, all of which China wantonly violates. And while it does show some welcome signs of moving in the right direction, it is still far from meeting even those minimum standards.
That said, I do not think that a small country like New Zealand can make a tremendous difference to China's attitude to human rights - that's the sort of thing that will take strong and sustained pressure from the global community as a whole. But that is no reason to not even try. China wants something from us rather badly: our endorsement that they are an acceptable international trade partner. And while I don't think we're in that much of a position to refuse - or rather, given the money involved, a refusal on principle would be ineffective; China would simply negotiate with someone else (such as Australia) - it is still not something that we should give lightly. Free trade negotiations are an opportunity to press for progress on human rights, and we should use them as such and press the hardest bargain we can. Our best way of making a difference here is not by standing aside and refusing to sully our hands, but by trying to set a pattern of linking trade to human rights improvements, so that other, weightier nations will follow suit.