A pro-Hong Kong wall at the University of Auckland draws the ire of Chinese government groups in New Zealand, sparking more concerns over NZ-China relations.
China’s domestic foreign policy has also returned to extremes of oppression familiar from the Mao years, with more than a million Uighurs detained in “re-education camps”, government destruction of churches and temples, and the silencing of China’s once vibrant public sphere.
Just as it was during the 1960s, the island territory of Hong Kong has become the scene of violent clashes between radicals and the Hong Kong authorities – but this time, the silent majority, Chinese people who voted with their feet, are out on the streets too, fighting for their eroding democratic rights.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government has also reasserted controls over the Chinese diaspora. In 2017 President Xi Jinping said the 60 million-plus Chinese diaspora must serve the CCP’s political and economic agenda. The most heavily targeted sector of the diaspora are Uighurs, along with Tibetans, and activists from the Han Chinese community. New Zealand has around 200,000 citizens and permanent residents who identify as Han Chinese, as well as small numbers of Tibetans and Uighurs.
New Zealand got a small taste of the radical turn in Chinese domestic and foreign policy, when the PRC Auckland Consulate intervened in a controversy over competing protests between New Zealand and Chinese students at Auckland University. A scuffle broke out, and Chinese students four times tried to destroy a campus Lennon Wall of pro-Hong Kong materials. On July 31, the Auckland PRC Consulate issued a statement praising “the Chinese foreign students’ spontaneous words and deeds of love of China and love of Hong Kong, and the students’ opposition to actions to split [China].”
The Consulate statement ridiculed “so-called academic freedom and freedom of expression on the [Auckland] university campus”. Academic freedom is enshrined in New Zealand law under the Education Act, as is freedom of expression in the Bill of Rights.
The Consulate said New Zealand protesters were making “smear attacks against the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, stirring up anti-China sentiment, and creating antagonism among Chinese and Hong Kong students.”
In the same week the Peaceful Reunification Association of New Zealand, the CCP’s main united front organisation in New Zealand, issued a coordinated propaganda message on the Hong Kong protests, claiming to represent the “overseas Chinese living in New Zealand”.
The Consulate and its proxies’ actions are yet another example of China’s foreign interference activities in New Zealand. More and more of our New Zealand Chinese community are speaking up on the intimidation they receive from CCP government agents in New Zealand and how unsafe they feel. The Auckland University students who demonstrated in support of Hong Kong last week have received multiple death threats and been doxxed online.
The Hong Kong protests have aroused great interest and support in the Chinese diaspora in New Zealand, as elsewhere. You won’t find any trace of this support in New Zealand’s Chinese language media, or on Wechat – all of which must follow the Xinhua line. But the CCP can’t yet control Facebook, Youtube, Twitter or the Falungong paper Epoch Times.
The Hong Kong protests are big stakes for the CCP government. 2019 is the year of sensitive dates, including the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. China’s economic growth has slowed and the Xi government is experiencing increasing international pushback for its aggressive foreign policy stance and domestic human rights abuses.
These pressures may be behind the global pattern emerging of a new style of diplomacy being followed by China. In the last year Chinese diplomats have engaged in uncharacteristically undiplomatic activity in Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and now Australia and New Zealand.
On July 24, Chinese foreign students clashed with pro-Hong Kong Australian protesters at the University of Queensland. They were publicly praised by the Brisbane PRC Consulate and soon after by the CCP tabloid Global Times. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne cautioned China against interfering in Australia’s domestic politics.
In New Zealand, Minister of Education Chris Hipkins responded to the news about the Auckland University protests by saying that “universities should be places of tolerance”. Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters said, "New Zealand values the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression, and we fully support the exercise of those freedoms”. Prime Minister Ardern told reporters New Zealand diplomats have informed China that “we will uphold and maintain our freedom of expression” on the Hong Kong protests. On the same day, she and Minister of Forestry, Shane Jones, spoke about diversifying New Zealand exports from the China market. An adjustment in New Zealand’s relationship with China appears to be underway.
Unusually for our main opposition party, the New Zealand National Party has been silent on the issue. Commentators say National have an “extremely cosy relationship with China” and that they have been engaging in political scare tactics against the Coalition government on New Zealand-China relations, sparking a “China panic” in February. But an Opposition MP from the conservative ACT Party, David Seymour, told the PRC Consulate to stop interfering in New Zealand politics.
The Coalition government is currently grappling with how to deal with China’s more aggressive foreign policy and particularly its impact on our domestic politics. Soon the New Zealand Parliamentary Inquiry into Foreign Interference will release its report after eight months of deliberations. What is needed is a non-partisan agreement among all the political parties to come up with a resilience strategy. But National – and the Coalition government – are giving every indication of wanting to brush the topic under the carpet.
The usual question that people in New Zealand raise on whether we should challenge China about its behaviour is this: if we speak up, how will it affect our economic relationship? But a more pertinent question to ask right now is: what price do we put on our democracy, and what price do we put on human rights more broadly?
New Zealand needs to engage constructively with China where we can, while setting good boundaries on unacceptable behaviour. This is no more, and no less than we would with any other state.
The New Zealand government and all the political parties must join together to collectively address the China challenge. Getting the China relationship right is going to be one of New Zealand’s most difficult foreign policy challenges in the near future.
Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s latest book is Small states and the changing global order: New Zealand faces the future (Springer, 2019).