Opinion: Hon Steve Maharey -
The Asian Century Means Challenges for New Zealand

Vice-chancellor of Massey University and Foundation deputy chairman Hon Steve Maharey discusses the challenges and opportunities that face New Zealand in the 'Asian century'.

Beijing ushers in the new century

A couple of weeks ago I sat in an auditorium at the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Art in Beijing with Sir Richard Taylor watching actors dubbing part of the Lord of the Rings into Chinese. Gollum, Frodo and Sam suddenly became Chinese.

The academy is an impressive place. It not only produces actors who make English language films accessible to Chinese audiences, it also produces Nobel Prize-winning authors and world leaders in almost every art form.

Sir Richard, who is famous in China for Lord of the Rings and his other films, was impressed. The Chinese media asked him if the Chinese film industry would ever match Hollywood. His answer was that it already did in some films and with more resources the local industry would match the best all the time.

This story contains important messages for New Zealand. Since the signing of the Free Trade Agreement, China has become our fastest growing market. We tend to look at China from an economic point of view. China is, according to The Economist, the largest economy in the world with huge potential for growth. This is the Asian century and China will be at the centre of the world’s economy, as it was two centuries ago.

But there is more to China than its economy. And there is more to being the world’s leading economy than trade.

Think back to the last two nations that could claim to be the most dominant economies in the world – Britain and the United States of America. Everything about these nations spread around the world as part of their economic dominance. We speak English because they did. Our way of life reflects their way of life. It will be no different as this century unfolds and China consolidates its position of leadership. Especially for a country like New Zealand that has aspired to be an Asia Pacific nation over recent decades.

The “Asian” century is likely to be a little more complicated than those dominated by Britain and America. While China is emerging as the world’s leading power, the century ahead is also going to be a multipolar because the United States is not going to lose its position of leadership completely and other nations like India, Brazil, Germany, Russia, Indonesia and Nigeria are going to occupy positions of considerable influence.

But unless something unanticipated happens, China will lead the way. Is New Zealand ready for this? The answer has to be no. Until relatively recently New Zealand was very much a “Western” nation most comfortable with Britain, Australia and the United States. Its education system was shaped by the British (notice the Cambridge exams enjoy an odd position of privilege in New Zealand schools) and still reflects that heritage.

At one level this is not a problem. New Zealand has developed a world-leading education system. But at another level it is a significant problem because we do not have the capacity to prepare the coming generations of learners for the world as it is rapidly taking shape. The obvious example is languages. New Zealand educational institutions teach few students Chinese or any other major Asian language.

As a preview to the NZ Principals’ Federation Conference in Wellington, the Asia New Zealand Foundation brought together principals to discuss their role in ensuring students have the skills to thrive in their future with Asia.

Learning a language is important but of less use if the student has little familiarity with the relevant culture. Culture is context.

Is there a way forward? The answer is yes. New Zealand has a future-focused school curriculum that can readily adapt to new demands. It focuses on the learning, skills and values a young New Zealander will need but leaves the content up to professional teachers. It would take little for schools to include a greater focus on Asian nations.

Language is more difficult. New Zealand briefly had a languages policy and this needs to be revived. The training of language teachers should become a national priority. In the meantime other strategies could be used. Over recent decades New Zealand has welcomed migrants from many Asian nations. These communities have many people who know the languages and cultures New Zealand needs to become familiar with. It would be a powerful move to invite these communities into schools to contribute to development of languages and understanding of cultures.

Other strategies include ensuring more teachers and other professionals travel to Asian countries. The Asia New Zealand Foundation’s initiatives have already seen hundreds of New Zealand teachers and principals travel to Asia and gain new knowledge to pass on to their students.

In higher education, more students could attend Asian universities as part of their studies. And the news and culture of Asian nations could be more readily found in New Zealand media.

The one thing we cannot do is assume it will be enough to build economic relationships. Nations are more than the business they do. They are a whole rich way of life that demands to be known and understood.

Steve Maharey is the Vice Chancellor of Massey University and a Deputy Chair of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

This article was first published in the Dominion Post on 14 July 2015: Stuff website - We must do more to prepare our kids for Asian Century