Key needs to find his moral compass during his China talks.

'Trade is a freedom. It should not be used by government as a weapon," said Jack Ma, China's Alibaba billionaire, more bravely than any New Zealand politician at the Beijing trade talks.

Certainly you won't hear a peep out of our Prime Minister - he's in Beijing to make a deal.

New Zealand is a country with two moral basics: democracy and free speech. China has neither.

Free speech is illegal in China, punishable by disappearance. In China, you cannot legally access Facebook. News stories are censored. Good luck Googling Tiananmen Square or Tibet or the Umbrella protests in Hong Kong. You'll be lucky to find directions on a map.

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How does China justify its lack of democracy? Well, look, it will say, nobody in China is protesting. There are no rent-a-crowds like the ones that plague John Key. Obviously everyone in China is perfectly happy not to vote.

China doesn't have talkback radio. Why would it? There is no talking back. There is only enthusiastic agreement, or silence. Hence a state news agency, otherwise a contradiction in terms, makes sense. Other countries that want to silence dissent have to come up with cleverer ideas, like reality TV.

And since China has no freedom of speech, it didn't seem crazy for its state news agency to tell Key, another country's elected leader, to shut up about China expanding its territory.

China expects people to shut up when told to - this is the totalitarian way. And it works: people who consistently don't shut up vanish.

In the case of Liu Xiaobo (Google him - you should be able to as long as you're not in China), people who don't shut up don't even show up to receive their own Nobel Peace Prize. (Well, obviously, he didn't really want it.) And if Liu was genuine about his opinions, why has he been so quiet for so long? What a bourgeois snob.

In a country where dissent is more difficult to access than porn, Key wouldn't want to cause any offence to his Beijing hosts by flaunting any daring hemlines of Western free speech.

Not that he's a million miles from their standards. Under his leadership, we've seen police seize Nicky Hager's computer, and police raiding newsrooms for the Teapot Tapes. Key often finds silence golden.

But human rights can be at direct odds with commerce. I'm sure the American economy did very well when slavery was legal. When you didn't have to pay your labour force, (and indeed, you could just import them, and own their offspring forever) the profits trickled down without having to trickle down so much as to sully their shackled hands.

The radical shift away from slavery - just imagine how radical that was! - certainly pushed up the overheads for cotton. Down the supply chain, frilly fronted shirts became rampantly more expensive. But even though it took a war, humanity agreed to wear the price rise, for what is, in retrospect, morally obvious.

Was slavery too big to fail? Did it cause a hit in a lot of plantations' quarterly forecasts? Should non-slave countries have shut up about slave states, because it was a domestic issue?

I'm sure these were the arguments from people who wound up on the wrong side of history.

If, for the sake of trade, we sign an extradition treaty with a country where it's a crime to express disagreement with government policy, we are endorsing a backward step for human rights.

We gave a sheep farm to Saudi Arabia, where everything decent is illegal. We as a nation gamed the carbon credit system rather than planting actual trees. Our rivers are unswimmable, but a company with ties to the Cabinet is plundering water for free, to sell overseas for profit.

Key's critics and haters often insult him with the slur that he has no moral compass. He would probably point to his expensive watch, and tell you that among its many functions and apps is all sorts of compass, and probably a spirit level, but goofy old him, he hasn't got one of his kids to explain how to use it yet. Tsk, just like the clock on his VCR. It still just flashes 00:00, which is why he's so relaxed at the end of the day. It always seems to be the end of the day!

Do we have to hark back all the way to David Lange, on the morality of nuclear weapons, when New Zealand took an economic hit to show the world moral leadership?

We are a small country, but what we have is a voice and a platform.

Let's not climb the platform just to better suck up.

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