Kiwis increasingly view China as a threat - survey

Chinese President Xi Jinping's push for a "loveable and respectable" image doesn't appear to be working, at least on Kiwis.

We're increasingly seeing the world's most populous country as a threat, a new survey has found, and fewer of us consider China a friend to New Zealand. 

The Asia New Zealand Foundation on Wednesday released its latest Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples report, based on a survey of more than 2000 New Zealanders. While it found Kiwis are increasingly warming to Asian nations, China is bucking the trend. 

Just 31 percent of us considered China a friend in October 2020, when the survey was done - down from 40 percent in 2019; and 35 percent of us now consider the Middle Kingdom a threat, up a whopping 14 percent in one year. 

The only other nation to come close to China's slide in perception was the US, which lost 7 percent support as a 'friend (from 57 to 50 percent) and rose 8 percent as a threat (from 12 to 20 percent). 

China's relationship with the West has become increasingly strained lately. The one-party state has been criticised for its "increasingly aggressive" approach towards its democratic neigbour Taiwan, clamping down on democracy in Hong Kong and its treatment of the Muslim Uighur minority. It's also the likely source of the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic, and there have been serious questions raised over whether China did enough to stop it spreading internationally.

New Zealand has walked a difficult tightrope navigating these issues - China is our biggest trading partner after all. 

The Asia New Zealand Foundation says despite the growing distrust, Kiwis are still keen to improve ties with the region as a whole. Seventy-three percent said we should further develop ties, up from 67 percent in 2019. 

"It's interesting to see that New Zealanders also named China, alongside countries such as Australia, the US, India and Japan, as a key relationship that New Zealand should put extra effort into building," said executive director Simon Draper. "They recognised the need to keep engaging."

How Kiwis view friends and foes, from the latest Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples report.
How Kiwis view friends and foes, from the latest Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples report. Photo credit: Asia New Zealand Foundation

Jinping earlier this month said he wanted an image of a "credible, loveable and respectable China", state-run media Xinhua reported. 

The nation most widely considered the biggest threat to New Zealand is China's ally North Korea, followed by Russia, China, Pakistan, the US, Myanmar, Indonesia, South Korea, India and Bangladesh. Oddly, 1 percent of respondents named Canada as a threat, and 2 percent, Australia. 

Australia was named as a friend by 87 percent of Kiwis, followed by the UK, Canada, Japan, Germany, South Korea, the US, Thailand, India and the Philippines. Eight percent named North Korea as a friend. 

Seventy-two percent of Kiwis said Asia was important to New Zealand's future, second only to Australia, and above the UK, south Pacific, Europe and North America. North Asia - China, Japan, Taiwan and the Koreas - were rated as far more important than southeast Asia (Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand etc) and south Asia (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh). 

"The more New Zealanders know about Asia, the more they consider it important," the survey said. 

Also in the survey:

  • asked for the first word that came to mind when someone said Asia, the most common response was 'China', followed by 'food'
  • one-in-five Kiwis can speak an Asian language - mostly Chinese (Mandarin and/or Cantonese) followed by Japanese, Filipino, Korean and Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia and/or Javanese)
  • only 41 percent of Kiwis can recall "having seen, read or heard anything Asia-related in the news" in the previous three months, but there was a spike to 74 percent in March 2020 (as New Zealand went into lockdown)
  • more than a third of New Zealanders (36 percent) think we should open the borders to other countries in Asia that have "effectively managed" the pandemic, particularly Singapore and Japan, but 44 percent think they should stay closed
  • a quarter of Kiwis want to learn an Asian language - mostly Mandarin and Japanese
  • a quarter also said the COVID-19 pandemic had negatively impacted their views of Asia, while 41 percent said it had not
  • only half of Kiwis could locate the Philippines, Sri Lanka or Pakistan on a map. Even fewer - just 42 percent - could point out Thailand, while 56 percent know where South Korea is.