Q&A: Young leaders discuss the future of NZ-China relations

Together with the New Zealand Consulate General in Shanghai, the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono recently hosted the 8+8 Shanghai-New Zealand Young Leaders Dialogue. This online exchange marked 50 years of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and the People’s Republic of China by bringing together a diverse range young New Zealanders with an interest in international relations to explore the bilateral relationship - past, present and future.

The Foundation’s Senior Adviser (Research and Engagement) James To asked two of the participants – Anna-May Isbey and Marianne Gilchrist – for their take on on the discussions.

A photo combining an image of Marianne writing on a piece of paper and a photo of Anna-May wearing a Chinese qipao and holding a Chinese lantern

Marianne (left) and Anna-May

What was the key highlight of the dialogue for you?

MG: As a relative newcomer to the diplomatic space, I was struck by the energy and cohesion of views expressed during the dialogue. Stripping away the politics, there’s more commonality than difference among young leaders. The exchange gave me renewed hope that the Aotearoa New Zealand-China relationship can withstand issues experienced at the Track I (official government) level - provided we foster and grow relationships at the Track II (informal, unofficial) levels and beyond. As an outsider looking in, this might be relatively optimistic, but my view is that influence is best exerted at all levels when relationships exist, and shared values can be identified.

AMI: Despite the differences in locations and backgrounds, some common themes came up from both sides – our Shanghai-based and New Zealand-based colleagues emphasised the need to ‘demystify’ China in New Zealand and how that demystification might contribute to a growth in people movements from New Zealand to China - which historically has been predominantly the other way around. In any case, more exchange is something which those of us in Shanghai would like to see develop.

MG: The importance of storytelling in building those shared connections and flipping any negative narratives/misconceptions was something that stood out for me as well. With the varying, and often negative, media coverage on the Track I relationship, I felt that we all agreed that young people with roots and experience in both Aotearoa New Zealand and China have a responsibility to share their stories to help build understanding.

The dialogue looked at the evolution and future of the bilateral relationship – what resonated for you when we talked about the social and community aspects when it relates to Tangata/people?

AMI: We discussed the cultural and people-to-people links that sit at the centre of the relationship: traversing the early Chinese migration since the mid-1800s and its contribution to the multicultural fabric of New Zealand; the importance of New Zealand as an education destination for international Chinese students for developing people to people links; and the necessity of cultural and arts sharing across both China and New Zealand, which help grow understanding across cultures.

MG: I thought the theme of Tangata/People elicited the most dynamic part of our exchange. The importance to people-to-people relationships is easy to promote – it’s low hanging fruit as it engages our ‘hearts and minds’ while reducing the ‘othering’ of those that are different. While we were invited to think beyond the issues with travel restrictions imposed by COVID, the pandemic showed the power and effectiveness of virtual engagements, too. In Aotearoa New Zealand, examples such as the Chinese Lantern Festival were great ways to engage people in Chinese culture and challenge negative perceptions that may be held in the community.

No youth dialogue is complete without mentioning how we might address increasingly pressing environmental issues. What were some of the ideas you heard in our session about Aorangi/Planet, where you felt New Zealand and China might be best placed to make some headway together?

AMI: Both countries have committed to net zero emissions and how this presents opportunities for collaboration. But the dialogue also highlighted the different strengths that New Zealand and China bring to achieving net zero. For example, New Zealand demonstrates comparatively strong natural resource management and a deep cultural commitment to sustainability and kaitiakitanga, while China demonstrates leadership in the global EV market and efficient urban planning. Though environmental protection looks very different across both countries, the varying strengths provide a massive opportunity for China and New Zealand to collaborate on R&D and increase trade and investment in areas that achieve global climate goals.

A screen shot of the online meeting showing the faces the young leadersEight young New Zealand leaders met online with eight young leaders from China

How was the issue of economic diversification, alongside other approaches to sustainable trade practices, addressed at the dialogue?

AMI: The importance of Tonuitanga/prosperity in our bilateral relationship is well known and it was interesting to discuss perspectives on the ‘China+1’ strategy: where businesses can strengthen supply chains while getting ready for new markets; while for New Zealand, it offers the opportunity to view its relationship with China through a multilateral lens, its role in the Asia Pacific, and its level of engagement with the Belt and Road initiative.

MG: For me, it’s about the role that businesses in the respective countries can play in sharing new technologies and market opportunities for environmentally friendly products and services. This embodies my overall reflection of the dialogue, which is that the Aotearoa New Zealand-China relationship is so much more than simply economic - both sides can benefit from increased people-to-people relations across the board.

Thanks for your thoughts about our 8+8 Dialogue Anna-May and Marianne. In closing, what was the one big message you took away from our discussions?

MG: While worlds apart geographically, Aotearoa New Zealand and China have a long-standing shared history covering both individual and economic interests. While the permission space was present, I think deepened relationships among the young leaders participating would provide the comfort zone to discuss as free and frankly, a broader range of topics in the future.

AMI: The 8+8 Shanghai-New Zealand Young Leaders Dialogue was incredibly valuable, providing a platform to share perspectives, experiences and useful ideas. Given the travel difficulties over the past three years, occasions like these are increasingly valuable to provide connection, shared insights and understanding. As a young New Zealander based in Shanghai, I’d like to see similar opportunities present themselves, particularly engaging the next generation in the wider dialogue, as they will become future leaders in this relationship.

Anna-May Isbey grew up in Auckland and has spent the majority of her adult life living and working in Shanghai. Currently she is senior event and communications manager at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and was previously at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.

Marianne (Dutkiewicz) Gilchrist is a Leadership Network member and a New Zealand-based lawyer who consults to a range of clients on legal, policy and people and culture matters. She is currently creating global partnerships and convening multi-stakeholder coalitions to advance sustainability and gender equality through the Arizona State University’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.