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The China Council surveys New Zealanders



August 28, 2018 Michael ReddellChina

Late last week the New Zealand China Council released its first Perceptions of China survey.  The China Council, you will recall, was established by the previous government, largely paid for with taxpayer money, with boards and advisory committees stuffed full of retired and current politicians, heads of government agencies, even an active journalist, and business people with interests in China to try to keep public opinion on side, and not worry their heads about the way successive governments cosy up to a heinous regime in pursuit of another dollar, another deal.  They have a hired gun –  a former MFAT diplomat – as Executive Director, who is never shy of articulating a pro- (People’s Republic of) China story, or of downplaying or attempting to trivialise any concerns about the nature of the regime, or its activities in countries like New Zealand.  I attempted to unpick one of his speeches a few months ago.   The PRC embassy in Wellington must regard him as a considerable asset, speaking in a New Zealand idiom to normalise the abnormal, downplay the risks, ignore the evil, and so on.

But survey data are usually interesting, and if the China Council is going to have a claim on our taxes, a decent survey is less bad than some of things they could spend money on.  There were a few interesting snippets in this one.    The first question asked “Would you say your general opinion of New Zealand’s relationship with these countries is positive, negative, or neutral”

The China Council was, of course, keen to highlight that 43 per cent of respondents answered “positive” and only 14 per cent “negative”.    But I’m not at all sure what to make of the results, partly because I’m not sure what to make of the question (I’m not sure how I’d answer it) and partly because of the cross-country comparisons.

For example, who is “New Zealand” here –  the government or individual citizens?  And, on the same note, who is “China”?  And is one being asked to describe or evaluate?  From what we see and hear, the New Zealand government and the People’s Republic of China have a generally good relationship (Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and all that), but that is something that I think is inappropriate and not in the interests of New Zealanders.

But I also found it striking that the results for China were so similar to those for Japan and for Fiji.  Japan is now a stable democratic prosperous First World country, no longer any threat to anyone.  Fiji is a semi-free small state, perhaps a nice place for a holiday, but poor and also no real threat to anyone other than its own people.   And then there is the People’s Republic of China – expansionist, aggressive, brutally suppressing the freedoms (political, religious or whatever) of their own people, without the rule of law,  engaged in economic coercion of any country that gets offside with them, and so on.  But, I suppose, there is a fair amount of trade between New Zealand firms and PRC ones.      Survey responses are what they are, and readers can only try to make sense of them, but on this occasion I suspect they can’t mean much.   Perhaps much of it is just about trade.  Perhaps the China Council has just been doing its propaganda job very effectively.

These were the results of the second question

I found these results interesting, and more than a little surprising (in fact, they go against the idea that trade explains the China answers in previous question).  But again, how would I answer?   Since trade is usually (not always) mutually beneficial, that would incline me towards “equally”.  And I put no weight on the spin, beloved of the previous government, that China had somehow “saved us” during the last recession.  I suppose I would answer “China”, but that is because I think New Zealand governments are excessively deferential, scared of their own shadows when it comes to China, and are selling out the interests of New Zealanders as a whole (around the integrity of our system, and the sort of values most New Zealanders espouse) for the business interests of a handful of firms (that somehow convince governments that what is good for them is good for us).  That’s my view, but it is a bit puzzling why the survey respondents both think China does best from the relationship, and that the relationship is positive.

There are some questions about trade, in which it turns out that people are aware that, for the moment anyway, China is our largest trading partner (well, Chinese firms and New Zealand firms –  trade isn’t government to government), and know that dairy is the largest export from New Zealand to China.  More New Zealanders want trade with China to increase than want it to decrease (and I’d probably be one of them – if China were to finally remove restrictions on services exports etc it would be particularly welcome).  But then there was this surprising (to me) result, in which respondents were asked about individual export sectors.

My own view would be almost exactly the opposite of this.  Export education is substantially a rort, cross-subsidised by access to work rights and immigration points, and it and tourism are two types of exports particularly vulnerable to the sort of economic coercion the PRC is now establishing a track record for.  By contrast, if firms can sell more fruit or fish to China, good luck to them (so long as they aren’t bending the ear of government – to go quiet on the PRC –  to do so).  Slightly off-topic, it is perhaps a telling reflection on New Zealand’s overall economic underperformance, what sorts of products aren’t on the list at all (eg advanced manufacturing).

What of foreign investment from the PRC in New Zealand?

Most respondents are only happy with foreign investment from the PRC with “strict vetting or controls”, and an overwhelming majority want restrictions to prevent majority ownership from the PRC.   I’m generally much more open to foreign investment than the median New Zealander, but regard PRC-sourced investment (where all firms have to be treated as, in effect, arms of a hostile state) as different.   But even so, I can’t see a case for (say) preventing majority PRC ownership of an office block in Queen St or The Terrace, or a hotel in Queenstown, or even a milk powder plant in Canterbury. On the other hand, allowing Huawei a role in New Zealand telecoms infrastructure seems reckless.

And then, presumably in the cause of defending Confucius Institutes in New Zealand (something the Executive Director has previously championed), there was a question about languages in schools.

I was mostly surprised that Japanese still scored so highly (a language spoken in only one, large but shrinking, country).  Whether Mandarin is really more “useful” than French or Spanish is anyone’s guess –  and how one defines “useful” is surely wholly in the eye of the respondent –  but learning a foreign language, whatever it is, is generally a useful discipline.  On the other hand, very few people who do several years of language study at high school ever emerge with much more than the ability to read a menu.  But the bigger point remains the one I made in a recent post on Confucius Institutes: when we teach foreign languages in our schools we should pay for, and resource, that ourselves, just as we do with maths and science teaching, not rely for support on foreign aid from a considerably poorer country, pursuing its foreign policy agenda.

Overall, some interesting data, with a few surprises and quite a few questions. It will be interesting to see how responses change, if at all, over coming years.

As for the China Council itself, the full prostration seemed to be on display late last week when they (a body largely funded by New Zealand taxpayers) held a “Gala dinner” to welcome the new PRC Ambassador to New Zealand.   I’m sure our authorities need to have formal, but distant, diplomatic relations with the PRC, but the “gala dinner” (not even just a “dinner”) is sickening to contemplate: people apparently so willing to set aside any values, any decent morality, any hardheaded assessment of the nature of the regime, to celebrate the arrival of today’s equivalent of the ambassador from the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, late 1930s imperial Japan, Mussolini’s Italy (or a host of smaller, more modern, examples).    New Zealand once had the decency and moral sense to take some sort of stand against these regimes and their activities.  But…there is a dollar to be earned no doubt.

As often, one turns to the Chinese Embassy website for more information than one gets from the China Council.  There is no record of the speeches of the China’s Council Executive Director (or any other “worthy”), but the Embassy published the Ambassador’s speech.   Here is part of it

While we celebrate our achievements, we should also be sober-minded that the world is undergoing profound and complex changes. We need to deal with the economic and social divide in many countries, address the international divide between the existing powers and the emerging countries, and to handle the divide between 21st century realities and outdated policies. How do we respond to these profound challenges we face? What kind of vision should we have for our two countries and for our relationship? The choices we make today will not only influence our own development, but also have an impact on the long-term development of our relations and even the evolution of the world order.

China has made its own choice. The 19th Party Congress held last October drew a new blueprint for China’s development for the decades to come. China will continue to follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics. China’s development has entered a new era with the main task of addressing imbalances and inadequacies of our development, in order to meet growing needs of our people for a better life. China will continue to maintain a strong economic growth, guided by the new vision with greater emphasis on innovation, coordination, green growth, openness and inclusiveness.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up. Tremendous achievements have been made over the past 40 years. As put in his keynote speech at the annual conference of the Boao Forum for Asia last April, President Xi Jinping reaffirmed that China would adhere to its fundamental national policy of opening-up, and pursue development with its door wide open. President Xi also announced a series of major measures for further opening up.

A stronger and more confident China will be able to make even greater contribution to the international community. China will stay as determined as ever to build world peace, contribute to global prosperity and uphold the international order. China will continue to follow the path of peaceful development, implement a strategy of opening for mutual benefit and win-win outcome. What China seeks is global partnership, instead of global dominance. Our aim is to build a new model of international relations and a community of shared future for mankind.


(That last phrase is apparently one of Xi Jinping’s specials.)

Presumably the audience lapped it up or (if ever inclined to a little scepticism about this rose-tinted, not to say tendentious, description of the world as seen from Beijing) said nothing.  This the regime that is today’s Soviet Union, today’s Nazi Germany –  whether in the way it treats its own people at home, lays claim on the loyalties of ethnic Chinese in other countries, pursues expansionist agendas abroad, seeks to silence critics and so on.

Gala dinner indeed…..


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