This week’s five-yearly meeting of the Chinese Communist Party signposted China’s economic and foreign policy for the foreseeable future under President Xi Jinping. That’s a big deal for trading nations like ours, but propaganda, vested interests and media restrictions make the coverage difficult and confusing.  
TVNZ’s coverage of the 20th National Congress of the China’s Communist Party Peoples Republic of China. Photo: screenshot / TVNZ 1 News
Sir John Key raised eyebrows recently – and made headlines –  when he claimed he would have voted for Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election and he would vote for Bolsonaro in the current one in Brazil if he could. 
The former PM explained that he just wouldn’t vote ‘left’ on principle. 
But this week Sir John endorsed the Communist Party of China’s achievements – and those of its leader – in the state-controlled outlet The Global Times. 
In an article headlined ‘A new journey to the next glorious century,’ John Key said the bureaucracy in China had “done a very good job lifting people out of poverty.” He also said China’s Belt and Road Initiative was “crucially important to growth around the world” and China had concerns about “growing inequality and social unrest“ in the West. 
That chimed with The Global Times itself: “The US and many parts of the Western world are stuck in a plight of governance to the extent that they have become a source of instability for the world.”
There’s no question who governs in the People’s Republic of China. 
The director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University in Wellington, Jason Young, told Newshub that Sir John’s comments were “classic Chinese government talking points.” 
“It’s notable that not a lot of other former prime ministers from liberal democracies had contributed,” he said. 
The reason China’s state-controlled media was calling Sir John Key and other allies this week was the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. 
Xi Jinping secured an unprecedented third five-year term in power, making him China’s most entrenched leader since Mao Zedong. 
Policy-setting gatherings of the party are so big that the Chinese state news agency Xinhua developed an AI-driven research and reporting tool called Media Brain to scan the reports, speeches, images and data. 
But the rest of the world needs analytical journalism to interpret such globally significant events. 
TVNZ has reported the Congress this week under the banner ‘China – Emerging Empire,’ but Cushla Norman was reporting from neighbouring Taiwan – a democratic and fiercely independent territory that the PRC still regards as part of China. 
Taiwan fears China could take over by force under Xi Jinping – something that would be a major global diplomatic flashpoint. 
During this week’s Congress, Taiwan was on alert for hints from Xi Jinping on how aggressively he might pursue China’s claim on the island. The tension was vividly illustrated in Cushla Norman’s TVNZ reports. 
But some critics reckoned it was wrong to report on China from the nation that is the biggest thorn in its side.  
“Utterly bizarre. [It] shows lack of depth and TVNZ capacity to understand [the] world – [but] not surprising given low priority given to covering international affairs through NZ eyes,” former Prime Minister Helen Clark said on Twitter
“The whole thing is wrong … covering the Congress from Taiwan,” said Politik editor Richard Harman, who also objected to outside funding for coverage of a political issue. 
Why did TVNZ report on China from the nation that is the biggest thorn in its side? 
TVNZ 1 News viewers were told this was because “travel to China is restricted” and that her trip was supported by funding from the Asia New Zealand Foundation. 
The foundation has for years given small grants to news organisations for reporters to travel overseas and “demystify Asia for New Zealand audiences.”
TVNZ head of news Phil O’Sullivan told Mediawatch the purpose of the six-day trip was to report on Taiwan’s relationship to New Zealand but it was also timed to coincide with the CCP Congress, given the likelihood President Xi would address the issue of Taiwan. 
The fact that he did validated that decision, O’Sullivan told Mediawatch
He said going to Beijing itself was “logistically and financially prohibitive” because of visa rules and restrictions on movement. He said ANZF was “not currently funding projects that involve international travel to countries that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has advised against travelling to”. China still has mandatory 14-day quarantine and MFAT has since February advised New Zealanders not to travel there.  
It would have “limited editorial value” anyway given restrictions TVNZ believed would be in place within Beijing during the Congress, O’Sullivan said. 
Cushla Norman in Taipei with ads for pro-Taiwan politicians over left shoulder – and pro-China ones on the right. Photo: TVNZ 1 News
Before TVNZ’s Cushla Norman left for Taiwan, she interviewed Ambassador to NZ Wang Xiaolong. Raising theory issues like “the crushing of dissent” in Hong Kong and Xinjiang province. She also bluntly asked the ambassador if Xi Jinping would invade Taiwan in his third term as president. 
The embassy of the PRC has posted a full transcript on its website, but only snippets have appeared in two of the four reports from Taiwan this past week. 
Last Thursday’s report also included Wang saying China was willing to work out a solution “on the basis of One Country Two Systems” as in Hong Kong. 
But Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, told Cushla Norman they would not cave to pressure from China and they were inspired by international support for Ukrainians standing against Russia.  
Taiwan’s Economic and Cultural Office in New Zealand was pretty pleased with that TVNZ report tweeting it out with the hashtag #Stand with Taiwan. Taiwan’s foreign affairs ministry in Taipei also shared TVNZ’s report online. 
That sparked further concern from critics that TVNZ could be seen to be taking sides on the sensitive subject. 
“If people are thinking that it’s biased … that’s because they really don’t understand what’s going on inside the PRC now and just how difficult it is for a journalist to do their job there properly,” Catherine Churchman, lecturer in Asian Studies at Victoria University of Wellington told Mediawatch
“Lots of international media companies and foreign correspondents have moved from Hong Kong, and from China … to report on China from Taiwan now. In Taiwan, they have been observing the internal politics of the PRC since its foundation, and it’s perfectly legitimate to send a journalist to report (from there) on China.”
“Twenty years ago or even ten years ago, I’d say that would be unusual. But unfortunately increased autocracy and decreased freedom of speech mean there’s a lot more fear among Chinese people to actually talk about what they really think,” she said. 
Some foreign journalists have been reporting from Beijing on the backdrop to the Congress. The BBC’s China correspondent Steven McDonnell recently reported on the government’s strict Covid suppression strategy.
“Many people feel that ‘zero Covid’ has become as much about politics as it is about science – and that this stems from Xi Jinping becoming China’s most powerful leader since Chairman Mao,” McDonnell reported. 
Last week McDonnell also visited Zhangbei in northern China, where President Ji recently dropped in with state media in tow to suggest its farmers should grow a smaller type of spud. (A roaring success, according to state media reports.)
But even if correspondents did go to the trouble of going through the Covid restrictions and quarantine to be in China during that 20th Party Congress, would it actually be worth it? 
Dramatic moments like this were thin on the ground.
“It’s not a really a fun place for journalists to work anymore, especially if they don’t have Chinese (language). 
“Cushla Norman did the interview with the ambassador of the PRC in New Zealand as well so it’s not like she was only interviewing people in Taiwan,” she said. 
“I think it’s a corrective to years of focusing on what’s going on in English speaking countries, to the detriment of looking at is what is going on in countries where … we can’t just take media reporting directly from them. It was a very good thing to do and important for New Zealand as well. If you have a trading partner the size of China, we really need to be paying attention to their internal politics more,” Catherine Churchman told Mediawatch
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