The open letter to Jacinda Ardern to show some spine over alleged crimes against Anne-Marie Brady feels vital in the face of a less than urgent response thus far. The professor was only a mechanic away from being another Jamal Khashoggi or Fernando Pereira
The precise words Jacinda Ardern chooses when she finally addresses the claims by University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady will be telling, but at least she has Donald Trump to look to and the case of Jamal Khashoggi as inspiration.
The Prime Minister has ducked around questions about Professor Brady, but in truth they cut deep. Brady told an Australian parliamentary committee in February that Chinese officials were trying to "silence" her research, she had been warned she would be attacked and her house was broken into and three laptops stolen. The New Zealand Herald revealed in September that the SIS and even Interpol had been investigating the break-ins, suggesting authorities here and around the world are taking Brady's claims seriously. The suggestion was that the break-in was carried out by Chinese agents.
This month Brady's claims took on an even darker hue, when she took her car in for a service. Her mechanic noted that two of her tyres had been partially let down, "indicating that possibly [the] car had been tampered with".
Think about that for a moment. If China sent people to tamper with Brady's car, she was only a mechanic and some good fortune away from being New Zealand's own Jamal Khashoggi. Or another Fernando Pereira, on the Rainbow Warrior.
That 'if' is crucial. Although the burglaries have sparked a remarkably in-depth investigation, the Prime Minister - by her own account - has not yet been told what that work uncovered. You don't go into any international spat with half the facts, let alone with our biggest trading partner and a country known for its diplomatic sensitivities. Speculation would be unwise. We need evidence, but we must also be assured that what is found is shared, not swept under any diplomatic mat.
The impression so far is that the Prime Minister is uncertain how to react despite a strong prima facie case. When questioned in interviews about China and it's influence here, so has insisted that our checks and balances are sound and insisted there's nothing to see here.
So today's letter by New Zealand academics, researchers and human rights advocates is welcome and underlines just how serious Brady's claims are; more serious I think than public discussion thus far has suggested. Open letters can sometimes be tame stunts; today's feel more vital.
It puts pressure squarely on Ardern not to flinch in the protection of some fundamental principles. Not just academic freedom, but our rights and laws as a sovereign nation. As the letter says, these are not to be "traded away".
Who would trade such things away, you might ask. You only have to look at Donald Trump's bizarre statement a week ago about Jamal Khashoggi to answer that.
The statement that famously starts, "The world is a dangerous place!", and then goes on to discuss Saudi Arabia's commitment to fight terrorism and invest in the US. Trump says that while the murder of Khashoggi by Saudi operatives at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month was a "terrible one", we may never know if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination. "Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!", says Trump, as he tries to justify his decison to stand by Saudi Arabia as a firm ally and refuse to criticise its rulers.
Trump has since said the CIA did not definitively say the Crown Prince was involved, but media reports and ranking Democrats have said the CIA concluded with "high confidence" that he was; about as strong a phrase as the spy agency can use.
'Trading away' the life of one journalist has a certain brutal internal consistency for a president who has declared independent news media "the enemy of the people". But it is a revealing as to the values underlying this administration.
Ardern should look to Trump's play as she assesses how to respond to the Brady claims. It's a classic case of how not to respond. If the claims are confirmed - or even considered probable with 'high confidence' - then this will be Ardern's first true test on the international stage. And it cannot be half-hearted or full of weasel words.
We look back at the fourth Labour government's handling of the Rainbow Warrior bombing with little pride, as France (with support from some of our supposed allies) dodged its responsiblity. Labour does not want another fail grade when it comes to standing up to power.
If China did what Brady claims, the only difference between it and Saudi Arabia is that the Saudis did not fail. The Saudis sought to stifle dissent and free inquiry. They used violence and terror (yes terror; such a murder can send only one message to other critics) to stop an independent press from asking questions and critiquing those in power. The broke another country's laws and Turkey (albeit from under the cloud of hypocrisy, given the hundreds of journalists in its jails) spoke out strongly.
Brady is no different from Khashoggi and, as she has said today, she must be safe to continue to do her work. But more than that, New Zealand must feel it has a voice amongst the mighty of the earth. Our foreign policy leans on the concept of a 'rules-based order' that puts all countries on a level playing field. If it comes to it, Ardern must use this event to reinforce that principle, not shrink from it.
It is past time our leaders - Ardern especially - made it clear just how serious these allegations are. And if the evidence is there, she must not be cowed or muted in her response. Some things are just too important.