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New Zealand China Council
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December 7, 2017

A large contingent of Mayors and business delegates from cities across China met with their kiwi counterparts in Wellington this week and a conference commemorated the progress in the relationship since diplomatic relations were established in 1972.

We in the NZ China Council think that the continuing expansion of the relationship is overwhelmingly in our country’s interest, bringing diversity to our international links, growth through trade and investment to our cities and regions and opportunities for rich cultural exchange with our Chinese friends. But, as might be expected in a robust democracy, not everyone sees this in the same way.

The past months have seen a spike in commentary about the extent of Chinese political influence in New Zealand – even the allegation that our democracy risks being undermined and that we’re letting it happen because we sell a lot to China.

As Prime Minister Ardern said recently, we should always take seriously any risk that New Zealand’s interests are being impacted by influence from foreign countries. I’m sure her predecessors on both sides of the political spectrum were of the same view.

In the case of China, the relationship is almost half a century old. Over that time, we’ve learned how to build the relationship on the basis of mutual respect, despite obvious differences in core values. New Zealand is a proud liberal democracy, while China’s political system is clearly different. Our approaches to human rights and other value-based issues are also noticeably distinct.

Both sides recognise these differences and they certainly do not stop New Zealand from living up to its values. Despite the occasional visit from a Chinese naval ship, we maintain close defence and intelligence ties with our Western friends and allies. Despite extensive and growing trade ties with China, we are close to concluding a new standard-setting version of the Trans Pacific Partnership (now the CPTPP). We have public disagreements with China from time to time. I know from my time as Foreign Minister that we discuss human rights issues. To suggest we are too scared or cautious to stand by our principles is simply incorrect.

The more specific allegations that have been made recently are that New Zealand’s local Chinese communities, institutions and individuals are being co-opted as part of a wider push by China to assert its world view, mobilise support for its policies and influence our political process.

These allegations are extremely serious, particularly where public figures are involved. As such, they require a very high standard of evidence. That community networks exist does not mean they are being used for political manipulation. Our agencies need to be vigilant. If there has indeed been misbehavior or unwarranted interference, then it is up to those agencies to take action.

Given the New Zealand China relationship has grown rapidly, especially on the economic side, it is not surprising that China’s profile is expanding in New Zealand. We are certainly seeing the effects of the use of China’s ‘soft power’ to project influence. This is the opposite of ‘hard power’ such as military might, and is something almost all countries, even New Zealand, engage in. Cultural diplomacy, academic exchanges, visits by journalists and opinion leaders can all be seen as elements of soft power.

What is at issue now is the motivation and extent of the use of that soft power. New Zealand’s democracy thrives on robust debate from all sections of our community. Journalists, academics, business leaders and citizens all have a right to take part in this process. The NZ China Council is dedicated to strengthening the relationship with China and we welcome debate and public discussion especially as the relationship expands and matures.

We might wish for the debate to be less polemical, but we understand that opinions are strongly held. Our democracy is precious and certainly worth standing up for. The relationship with China is important and also needs to be nurtured. I do not see that our values and interests need be at loggerheads. But it’s up all of us to make this work. And if there is wrong-doing anywhere, New Zealand’s institutions and agencies are more than capable of protecting our democracy from challenges without and within.

By Sir Don McKinnon, Chairman, NZ China Council

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