Broadening our conversations on China

New Zealand must have open and honest conversations about its relationship with China that allow for nuanced perspectives on a country that is playing an increasingly important role in world affairs, says the Foundation's executive director Simon Draper.

While China, like all other countries, remains focused on its Covid-19 response, it has also been busy looking ahead. In early March, it announced changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system. Then, at its National People’s Congress in Beijing, the Communist Party leadership unveiled its next five-year plan, which sets out its aims for social and economic development though till 2025 and covers topics like innovation, domestic economic growth, carbon emissions, and national security. And the Party is also looking forward to celebrating its 100th anniversary in July.

In New Zealand, topics such as the human rights issues in the north-western province of Xinjiang (and particularly the situation for the Uyghur people); developments in Hong Kong; and the future of our relationship with China – often painted as a tricky balancing act — capture news headlines.

The Foundation’s Perceptions of Asia research tells us that New Zealanders strongly associate Asia with “China”. It also shows New Zealanders views tend to focus either on the opportunities China's economic rise has provided New Zealand business or concerns about the political and security implications of the Chinese Government having increased international clout, as well as human rights issues.

As an organisation that works across Asia, we know from our discussions with partner organisations that many countries are confronting similar issues, and China’s role in the region continues to be watched closely.

An infographic showing words New Zealanders most associate with Asia

The Foundation's Perceptions of Asia survey shows that when New Zealanders think about Asia, China is at the top of mind

China is going to continue to play a greater role globally and in New Zealand’s future: politically, socially, demographically, economically. To navigate this successfully, New Zealand needs to have an understanding of the country that goes beyond quick soundbites. This means a conversation that is not dominated by either trade or political issues alone but takes in the full range of the relationship.

Against that backdrop, the Asia New Zealand Foundation has been planning a series of roundtables and events over the course of 2021, to help develop a better understanding of some of the more complex and challenging issues.

We started with a half-day workshop for New Zealand media, bringing together journalists and experts to discuss some of the issues and challenges around reporting on China, some of the tricky topics in the New Zealand-China relationship — and also looking ahead to some of the major themes to watch in the months and years ahead. In particular, we heard that China’s rapid tech developments are a major area to watch – something that we don’t hear much about in the usual media coverage.

This workshop was just a start; we’re looking forward to future activities across the organisation that allow Foundation stakeholders to share perspectives and grow their knowledge of contextual issues, emerging topics and trends.

Since 2020, sources of information about China in New Zealand have become narrower, as COVID-19 has left two-way tourism, business travel, education exchanges and other people-to-people contact off limits.

In an average year pre-Covid, the Asia New Zealand Foundation would have supported a range of activities in and with China — journalists on independent reporting projects, artists on residencies, and university students and graduates on business internships, to name a few. And that’s just the Foundation’s work.

But right now, New Zealanders are instead relying on easily accessible sources of media and online information. A lot of this content is sourced from other western countries with their own strained relationships with China. Content can represent a Eurocentric view and tends to focus on political and sensitive issues. On the other hand, New Zealand media also underline China’s importance as New Zealand’s largest export market.

Outside these repeated themes, there are very few windows into the kaleidoscope of fast-evolving social trends, innovation and interesting people that also characterise contemporary China. If New Zealanders are to be equipped with knowledge and perspectives to engage confidently with China, we must open these windows.

We all need to understand China more, including the broader relationship New Zealand has with the Chinese people, society and culture. And we need more context on difficult issues and more perspectives on how to solve these.

New Zealand’s views and values differ from China’s on key issues such as human rights, but we have nonetheless sought to discuss those differences respectfully. It’s important to continue to engage and to have honest conversations about our values and interests, no matter our size difference.

This is important because our relationship with China is essential for New Zealand to get right. It’s also important because a change in perceptions of China can affect perceptions of the Chinese community in New Zealand. This diaspora community includes not only migrants from the People's Republic of China, but also Chinese migrants from other parts of Asia and New Zealand-born people of Chinese heritage.

The worst thing we can do as a country is not to talk about all these issues. We want New Zealanders to know more about China, so we can all have better informed conversations.

Simon Draper