Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters says that before judging China on questions on freedom, the West would do well to look at how many people the country's lifted out of poverty.
Mr Peters went off-script to make the comments during his first major speech as Foreign Minister at an event marking the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and China.
On the question of civil rights, Mr Peters said New Zealand and China "do not always see eye to eye", but issues are raised cordially.
"We should also remember this when we are making judgements about China - about freedom and their laws - that when you have hundreds of millions of people to be re-employed and relocated with the change of your economic structure, you have some massive, huge problems," Stuff reports Mr Peters saying.
"Sometimes, the Western commentators should have a little more regard to that and the economic outcome for those people, rather than constantly harping on about the romance of 'freedom' or, as famous singer Janis Joplin once sang in her song, 'freedom is just another word for nothing else to lose'.
"In some ways, the Chinese have a lot to teach us about uplifting everyone's economic futures in their plans."
According to the World Bank, 800 million Chinese have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1978. It is now considered a middle-income country.
But the country is still subject to criticism on human rights. Amnesty International says, in 2016/17, there was a continued crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, who were systematically subject to "monitoring, harassment, intimidation, arrest and detention".
It is also concerned about religious repression, and state control of the internet, media and academia.
During the speech, Mr Peters did not indicate any major changes to New Zealand's relationship with China. He said both countries share a commitment to "trade liberalisation", which would be evident in reduced trade barriers in the "upgrade" of the Free Trade Agreement, currently being negotiated.
He said both also shared a commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change issues.