Simon Draper's June 2021 Update

Each year around now for more than 20 years, the Foundation has released our biggest piece of research for the year – our Perceptions of Asia report, which we launch today, Wednesday 16 June.

The survey is an important piece of work for us – and wider New Zealand. In addition to being a unique long-term dataset that is effectively a ‘temperature take’ of how New Zealanders view Asia, it informs our direction of effort as an organisation. It is also used by government organisations and policy makers to gauge where the public stands on Asia-related issues.

An Indian dancer in traditional attire standing in front of a hall of New Zealand school students

Early exposure to Asian cultures pique young people's desire to learn more

With Covid in full swing when the survey was conducted late last year, we thought we might see a notable shift in how people viewed Asia – suspecting events of the year would see more negative results than previous surveys. But encouragingly, the results show sentiment is stable or more positive over a wide range of measures. New Zealanders are telling us that Asia really counts.

The Foundation has been conducting the Perceptions of Asia survey annually since 1997 and over more than two decades the general trend has been an upward one. And results from the latest survey continued this trend – New Zealanders not only want to know more about Asia, they increasingly recognise its importance to this country’s future. What’s more, how they feel about the individual countries that make up the region has, on the whole, improved since last year.

This is encouraging indeed. It seems to show an awareness of the importance of Asia is built on robust foundations, and while Covid-19 has been a seismic event on a global scale, New Zealanders are looking beyond this to a future with strong ties to the region.

This is not to say that it’s mission accomplished – far from it. New Zealanders still feel less informed about Asia than they do Australia, Europe or North America, and while the positive trend across most metrics is encouraging, there is plenty of room for improvement – and work for the Foundation to do.

One area of work that continues for us is tackling New Zealanders’ mercantilist view of Asia – many primarily viewing the region through a prism of trade. As important as trade is, we would like to see greater depth and better understanding of the region’s diverse cultures and people. There’s a lot more that Asia has to offer than business opportunities, and even in a business context, we know businesspeople who have a broader knowledge of a country – its culture, history, politics – do better than those whose understanding is limited to the business landscape.  

So we were pleased to see that New Zealanders have a growing range of interest areas in relation to Asia – for instance, interest in music, art and literature from the region grew significantly in 2020.

A Korean band rehearsing

New Zealanders are increasingly looking to Asia for its cultural offerings

Another area where we would like to see greater diversity is New Zealanders’ tendency to equate Asia with China. In fact, when asked the first word they thought of when thinking of Asia, one third of respondents said China. So, a challenge for us at the Asia New Zealand Foundation is growing understanding of the wider region.

The report shows a decline in positive sentiment in relationship to China (as well as the US), but it also suggests that New Zealanders saw it as important to keep engaging. Asked to choose a country that New Zealand should develop its relationship with, China ranked second only to Australia.

That’s encouraging to us because China is going to play a greater role in New Zealand’s future: politically, socially, demographically, economically. While the relationship is growing more complex, we all need to work to understand China more.

Our research has shown that the more contact New Zealanders have with the peoples and cultures of Asia, the more they want to know and the more confident they feel about this country’s connections to the region. Our job at the Foundation is to provide opportunities to help New Zealanders build their knowledge and understanding of Asia and forge sustainable connections. Our Perceptions of Asia survey provides us with in-depth data to inform our decisions on where work is needed and how best to target it. I encourage you to give it a read.

Ngā mihi,

Simon Draper