New Zealand’s China quandary — Q&A with Jason Young

Foreign Affairs

What to do about China? That’s a question heard almost daily by Jason Young, who heads up New Zealand’s most important center of China studies as the island nation balances between the enormous economic benefits and the real potential for everything to go wrong in its relationship with the Asian giant.

Illustration by Nadya Yeh

Of the Five Eyes countries, little New Zealand has had the least trouble with big China. Wellington signed a free-trade agreement with Beijing in 2008, and the country’s economy has been booming thanks to exports of agricultural goods and foods to China, and to Chinese tourists and students who come to the Land of the Long White Cloud, or Aotearoa, as it is known in Māori.

But although New Zealanders pride themselves on their ability to say no to Uncle Sam — famously in 1984, the country banned nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships from docking at its shores, thus excluding the U.S. Navy’s most important vessels — they are increasingly finding themselves having to make uncomfortable political and moral decisions about their country’s relationship with China, and with America.

To understand how New Zealand is thinking about its future relationship with China, I chatted to historian, Sinologist, and international relations scholar Jason Young. He is the director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University in the nation’s capital city of Wellington.

We spoke by video call. This is an abridged, edited transcript of our conversation.

Jeremy Goldkorn


I was just in New Zealand, where you kindly invited me to talk at the China Centre, and I got some sense of the debate in New Zealand about China. My sense is that there hasn’t been much of a debate, but maybe that’s starting now? Generally, New Zealand seemed fairly complacent about its relationship with China and the potential problems it may have. Is that accurate?

Actually, the fact that so many people came to your talk and were interested in what you had to say suggests that there is a lot of interest in China, and that there is a debate.

From the outside, I guess, it does look as though New Zealand’s debates about many things are quite muted. Part of that, I think, is that we’re a small country. There’s a limited number of journalists. There’s also a limited number of pundits who write op-eds in the media. We don’t have a strong think tank culture.

We have universities, and universities have academics who will make comments. And there’s some very prominent academics in New Zealand, such as Professor Anne-Marie Brady, who have contributed a lot to the debate and raised a number of issues that have, I think, shifted how the public think about China, including around 2017, raising the very important discussion of foreign interference, perhaps even earlier than a number of countries. But also, I think the China debate does seem muted, perhaps reflecting a New Zealand disposition. A lot of debates happen behind closed doors and don’t play out as aggressively in punditry or in the media.

The contrast is remarkable to me, living in 2022 in the United States, where the national sport is beating each other up on Twitter!

I grew up in a small town. One thing that you learn very, very quickly is that a small town is not big enough to have only your team and only play for that team, no holds barred against everyone else. You have to be a community. So, in that sense, even though there are clear positions from a number of different people, there’s also a sense of community, that we’re all in this together. It’s not one against the other.

In terms of what the debates are about, which I think you’ll be well aware of from your visit, the economic relationship has now grown to the point where the success of it is raising questions about whether or not that puts New Zealand in a position of dependency on China.

Right.

And what would that mean, or what does that mean in terms of New Zealand’s independent foreign policy, or the potential risks of political blowback for the New Zealand government raising, for example, human rights concerns, or some wayward politician talking about the country of Taiwan as an independent country? And then there’s balancing this with the growth of strategic competition between the U.S. and China, and the deterioration of the relationship between Australia, New Zealand’s closest partner and ally, with China.

There’s now more awareness of the sensitivities around technology and tech collaboration with China, both through universities, but also in businesses. There are already export controls on potential dual use technology, but there’s also a broader understanding that, in terms of tech, if you choose to go to a Chinese company, then potentially that limits the ability to engage with an American company or with an Australian company. This has created some pretty sharp decisions that companies have needed to make. And I guess the clearest example of that is New Zealand’s burgeoning space industry which is heavily dominated by U.S. companies, including companies like Rocket Lab, which is a highly successful New Zealand-U.S. collaboration.

The other side of the trade dependency debate is around questions of commodity exports, because that is most of New Zealand’s trade with China, which has grown from less than NZ$4 billion ($2.5 billion) in 2008 to about $20 billion ($12.49 billion) today.

We’ve seen rapid growth in exports following the free trade agreement (FTA) that was signed in 2008 and was recently upgraded in 2021. This has locked New Zealand into being an agricultural producer, a food producer, much as we once were for Britain. And because Chinese consumers and Chinese businesses have paid the highest dollar and we don’t have the same access to, for example the U.S. market, a large swathe of New Zealand commodity exports have gone to China.

Some companies are now highly leveraged with the Chinese market. I think you have used the example of lobster exports, where 90% of the crayfish market goes to China, and that’s potentially very risky.

Americans are very sensitive about the confusion between crayfish and lobster. Crayfish is…I’m not actually sure what exactly New Zealand is exporting?

I think we’ve also started calling it lobster because it comes from saltwater but I still call it crayfish in my hometown.

I interrupted…

Yes. The growth of commodity exports has led the business community, first in 2017, 2018, to become very worried about the New Zealand government’s more forward leaning and outward criticism of Chinese policies, particularly issues around Xinjiang and the internment of Uyghur and Kazakh people there, raising concerns, joining with other countries to write joint letters, joining moves at the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and publically raising these issues.

The crackdown on the democracy protests in Hong Kong has also had a huge, huge impact on public opinion in New Zealand. Issues like the South China Sea, and concerns around UNCLOS and China’s behavior in the South China Sea, have been raised by the government, as well as concern over China’s refusal to call out Russian aggression in Ukraine.

The business community at first became very critical of the government raising these kinds of concerns, saying that, “It’s bad for business. It’s risky. Why does the New Zealand government do this? We should just keep our head down.”

But if the New Zealand government didn’t raise concerns when warranted, we would get criticized by media and officials in other countries. It became quickly obvious that the simplest thing to do is for New Zealand to have a principled position, and to stick with that principled position, irrespective of whether or not it would be criticized by China or by other countries.

And so, the business community — I think — have now become more comfortable with the idea that, politically, New Zealand will have to take positions which rub against Chinese positions. And it seems that the number of positions that the New Zealand government is taking that rub against Chinese positions is increasing, and the business community just has to live with that.

Therefore, the question of risk has been raised. And there’s been a big government effort to encourage businesses to diversify their export exposure, but they talk about China and other markets, not moving fully out of the Chinese market.

Have you got any sense of how the ethnic Chinese population in New Zealand fits into all of this? As I understand it, it’s something around 5% of the population. And I have to say, when I was in New Zealand recently, most of the time I spent in Auckland and not a day went by when I didn’t hear Mandarin spoken around me by multiple people.

There’s an older Chinese community, but it’s also very noticeable that many of the ethnic Chinese people are northern Mandarin-speaking new arrivals. Are they a part of the debate and are they finding themselves in an uncomfortable position akin to many ethnic Chinese in the United States — torn apart essentially by the geopolitical tensions?

There are similarities. Similar to the United States, New Zealand’s Chinese community has been part of New Zealand since the 19th century. And there’s been wave after wave of Chinese migration to New Zealand, just as there has been wave after wave of European migration.

And you’ve never had a “keep New Zealand white policy” like Australia or a Chinese Exclusion Act, have you?

I would love to say we haven’t, but in New Zealand, there was. It wasn’t explicitly called a white New Zealand policy, but it essentially was.

You can read through the parliamentary debates in New Zealand from the 19th century, and it’s truly atrocious the way that New Zealand politicians talked about non-European, or non-white people, with similarly apalling comments and policies for indigenous Māori. New Zealand implemented a poll tax, which was basically a law that every migrant from China would have to pay 100 pounds to get access to the country. This severely limited the number of Chinese migrants that came here at that time, and degraded their treatment. At the turn of this century, around 2001, then prime minister, Helen Clark, made a formal apology to Chinese New Zealanders and their descendants for this and other discriminatory and unjust laws.

From the 1990s, Chinese migration patterns changed. Previously a lot of migration came from diaspora communities in Southeast Asia or from Taiwan and Hong Kong. From the 1990s, we started getting more migration from the People’s Republic of China, and also more affluent migration. And so, the growth of the Chinese population in New Zealand now largely comes from newer migration from the People’s Republic of China, which means today there’s roughly a 50/50 split between those newer PRC migrants and a more diverse group of, ethnic Chinese diaspora from Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world.

So, it’s an incredibly diverse community with lots of different community associations and organizations that represent different strands of that community. Traditionally, the New Zealand Chinese community has not been outspoken in New Zealand politics or New Zealand foreign affairs. There appeared to be a view that it would be unwise to be too outspoken, particularly during periods of heightened tensions like during the Cold War. That view, coupled with the scrutiny Chinese officials place on diaspora communities, has impacted the ability of the Chinese community in New Zealand to be part of the debates on China.

A broader problem with the debate is that if, for example, I talk about Hong Kong and the New Zealand government’s position on the introduction of the National Security Law from the People’s Republic of China government, then I will, because I’m trained to, be very careful to define who I’m talking about. I’m talking about the government and the government position. I’m not talking about “the Chinese.” However, I don’t think that the broader public has the same consideration and carefulness to delineate the actions of the PRC government and the Chinese community.

As in the United States, as we’ve seen the relationship with the PRC become more contentious, and as there are more issues and we see more and more concerning news about Xinjiang and Hong Kong, or we watch Yáng Jiéchí 杨洁篪 berating the United States in a very aggressive tone, or read about the sort of heightened polarization in the world, there has been an uptick in racism in New Zealand, and that’s very concerning.

At the same time, we’ve also seen in the broader population a huge drop in positive views about China, and about the number of people seeing China as a friendly country. As the Asian New Zealand Foundation survey showed, the number of people viewing China as a threat has grown to a record high of 58% of people surveyed. That’s also very concerning, in terms of the possibility for engagement, but particularly considering that for some people it’s hard to distinguish between the actions of a government and a community, most of whom have absolutely nothing to do with that government.

Right. Many have been in New Zealand for a century, or have come from Southeast Asia.

Exactly. Peter Chin, for example, was mayor of Dunedin and is a fifth-generation New Zealander. Our current race relations commissioner, Meng Foon was a long standing mayor of Gisbourne and is fluent in Māori. These examples show simplistic conflations of ethnicity and politics are incredibly problematic and something we all need to be careful of.

Is there much of a gap between the two main parties? The sense I got when I was in New Zealand was that, despite Jacinda Ardern, in some ways, being a globally popular political leader, things may not be looking so good for the Labour Party in the next election.

There seems to be a lot of grumbling. And not just from right-wing types or the usual suspects, but even in Wellington, left-leaning people I spoke to were like, “Ah.” There seems to be a sense that…Jacinda’s time is…The clock is ticking.

Is there much of a difference between the two parties when it comes to China, or is it difficult to tell?

I would argue no in the sense that, when it comes to foreign policy and even trade policy, which is an important part of the foreign policy of a small country, there has been, since the 1980s at least, an alignment. Because we’re a small country and because we’re talking about China, which is a country that has a consistency and a uniformity in its foreign policy because it doesn’t have a multi-party system, there has been an effort both by the public sector and by political elites to agree that there should be a commonality of position on foreign policy towards China. There have been moments when, for example, the previous National government strongly emphasized economic engagement with China, but the previous Labour government before them were also responsible for the free trade agreement and were very much focused on economic engagement.

After 2017, when the Labour-led coalition government led by Jacinda Ardern took office, there was a noticeable shift in the tone on China and in the focus of relations. I would argue that that was more about geopolitics and changes in China, and that it would have happened irrespective of whether it was a Labour-led government or a National-led government. Early on, the National Party did publicly criticize the government, arguing they were mishandling the relationship and that they ‘didn’t understand China’, but that soon ended. If the National Party gets in next election, there will likely be a consistency in New Zealand’s approach to China that would involve calling out issues where they exist and trying to develop “a mature relationship”, the ability to disagree without derailing relations.

This echoes Geremie Barmé’s proposal for Australia to pursue a relationship of zhèngyǒu 诤友 with China [which was articulated by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008]. This is the idea of being a true friend that is not going to lie but rather tell it how it is. At the same time, at least in the New Zealand case, it is a relationship that continues to engage with China diplomatically and with respect.

Not sure if Beijing ever liked that zhengyou idea!

No, it didn’t really fly. But I still think it is a good approach because in the ‘90s and early 2000s there was a view that we should treat China with cotton wool and never offend it. That was viewed as important because Chinese culture prioritized face and guanxi, so we should prioritize that. Basically, it boiled down to the argument that China’s different from other countries, so we need to treat it differently. I think that approach is a dead end.

I think we need to develop, as best we can, a meaningful relationship with Beijing where differences can be aired because we’re just not going to agree on a number of issues. But at the same time, there needs to be a basis of respect within the relationship that should be mutual.

Now, in saying that, the National Party has traditionally positioned themselves as the party of business, so they could return to the prior approach. At the same time, there is a wing of the National Party that is similar to the Tories in the UK and is socially conservative. This is not the same dynamic as in the Republican Party. As Thomas Friedman noted when he visited New Zealand, the two major political parties here would easily fit inside the Democratic Party.

Right. People in New Zealand said to me that the thing about New Zealand politics is that both major parties want the same things. They just think there are different ways of doing them.

I guess from a Republican party perspective, New Zealand is a socialist country. We have government-funded healthcare, government funded education, and social welfare. The National Party is unlikely to come in and privatize all of that. But at the same time, we have a very liberal market economy as well. We always score very highly on ease of doing business surveys. Politics here is a question of how much you fund the public sector and how much you try to unleash the potential of business.

New Zealand is very centrist in terms of those debates. But the conservative wing of the National Party could, if I look at other countries, flip to a more traditional, Western-focused view of the world that talks of democracy and the free market, that argues for strengthening relations with traditional allies and partners, and that views China’s more assertive foreign policy as outrageous. I think this is the flip we saw in Australia, and the resultant focus on security.

The thing that’s currently missing from New Zealand’s public debate is the security implications of the rise of China. We saw it a little bit with the Pacific and the security and policing agreements China signed in the Solomon Islands, which New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described as “gravely concerning,” and around concerns about militarization of the Pacific. We see it in concerns about militarization of the South China Sea. And we see it in discussions of U.S.-China rivalry.

But to date the New Zealand government, and media, have not presented New Zealand as being in “strategic” competition with China.

Yet!

Yet.

You mentioned at the beginning Anne-Marie Brady and her work on influence operations in New Zealand. Is that still a concern amongst the public, or at least in the government in New Zealand, that China is trying to influence New Zealand’s politics? Five years after Anne-Marie Brady first sort of shocked the nation with her scholarship on this.

Is that something people are talking about and worried about?

In the public, I think the debate is not as prominent as it once was, but I think that there is now, in business and in universities, and in the public sector, and in parliament, an awareness of the importance of the issue. And we’ve seen the next step in thinking, asking what is the nature of the People’s Republic of China? How is it organized? How is it structured? And then distinguishing between the types of influence, which are open and transparent, a part of diplomacy, and the types of influence which are hidden, coercive and should not be allowed. We’ve seen, with this awareness, changes that reflect concerns that this type of influence could have negative impacts on New Zealand.

This has, of course, occurred in a country-agnostic manner through a tidying up of education links, more awareness from companies of who they’re doing business with and what their potential links are. There is a growing understanding of organizations like the United Front Work Department and an understanding that Chinese government officials are usually also Communist Party members. I think there is a growing awareness but there hasn’t been a loud outward debate or discussion.

Just recently, there was a trial by the Serious Fraud Office of Chinese business people donating to political parties, who are accused of election fraud. There’s been a tightening up of the rules around funding political parties. There’s also been high profile controversy around two former MPs from the National Party and the Labour Party, Yáng Jiàn 楊建 and Raymond Huo (霍建強; pinyin: Hùo Jiànqiáng).

There is an ongoing effort to better understand how the Chinese system works to ensure that our institutions are set up in a way that does not target China, but that can capture the activities of a perhaps not unique but still very different Chinese state.

Last quick question: What are you working on now?

To give some background, I studied Chinese in Taiwan for four years and have always thought that China studies in the New Zealand social sciences lacks scholars who go the extra mile and try to learn the language and consult Chinese sources and engage with Chinese concepts and ideas.

Over the last few years, I’ve been dragged into the New Zealand debate through running a research center on China, but I’ve recently been given a period of research leave. I’ve become very interested in the study of power. In international relations, which is my discipline, power is a big debate. The debate ranges from material understandings of power and security, discussions of coercion, forcing one country to do what you want, to more institutionalized or ideational forms of power. I think there’s a gap, which I’m pursuing, by trying to articulate how Chinese scholars and officials conceptualize ideas of power and authority internationally.


Invited to Tea with Jeremy Goldkorn is a weekly interview series. Previously: 

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