The Prime Minister's decision to point out China's alleged human rights abuses signalled New Zealand isn't willing to engage in a "master-servant relationship" with them, a leading international relations expert says.
Addressing 500 delegates at the NZ-China Business Summit in Auckland on Monday morning, Jacinda Ardern spoke out against China's treatment of Uighur Muslims, its controversial Hong Kong security law and its reluctance to allow Taiwan to join the World Health Organization (WHO).
She noted that the two countries' economic relationship was "in good shape", but admitted we "take different perspectives on some issues".
"The New Zealand Government takes a stance where, as representatives of the New Zealand people, we think that the public has a direct and a resounding interest in the outcome," she said.
"As you know, this has come to the fore recently around developments like Hong Kong's new security law; the situation of the Uighur people in the Xinjiang province; and Taiwan's participation in the WHO. This is important to who we are as New Zealanders."
Robert Patman, a Professor of International Relations at Otago University, says Ardern's comments were a way of communicating to China that "we're not going to airbrush the differences between us".
"New Zealand is a pluralistic democracy, it's diverse, and I think many people in this country cherish that; China's a one-party state," he told Newshub.
"What I think the Prime Minister's saying is 'yes we really appreciate our strong economic relationship with you, but don't think that we're going to be engaged in a master-servant relationship'... She was also saying China's not the only show in town.
"It was a very nuanced and constructive speech, but what she was really signalling to the Chinese was 'don't overplay your hand and leverage; don't think we're not going to have our own political views, because we have'."
China's claims of interference by NZ 'convenient'
Moments after Ardern's speech, China's Ambassador to New Zealand Wu Xi gave a speech of her own to the Business Summit, in which she warned the Prime Minister against prying into Chinese internal affairs.
"Instead of trying to change or remodel the other, we respect each other," she said.
"China has always followed the principle of non-interference in others' internal affairs… Issues related to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet all touch on China's sovereignty and security, and these are all China's internal affairs."
But Prof Patman says Wu's characterisation of Ardern's comments as 'interference' is incorrect. He believes she was simply pointing out that there may be a deficit of attention given to the issues she mentioned.
"I'm not sure it's meddling, but it's convenient to say it is because that means you define sovereignty as the capacity for a country to do what it likes behind its borders - that's a blank cheque for authoritarianism," he told Newshub.
"China reserves the right to try and influence other countries - it's not above doing that even in New Zealand - [but] raising concerns about Hong Kong and the Uighurs is not meddling, it's drawing the Chinese attention to the fact there's something called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"I don't think we are meddling in their internal affairs - that's the Chinese description of the external criticism. China is fully involved in the world, and I do not think they should be indifferent to how the rest of the world sees them."
The 'tricky' situation China now finds itself in
China has come under substantial pressure to alter its stance on a myriad of humanitarian issues. Members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance - which comprises the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada - have been among China's most vocal detractors.
Mistreatment of Uighurs and security laws in Hong Kong have been the main points of contention, but Five Eyes members have in recent weeks also rejected Chinese-owned tech company Huawei and threatened to ban popular Chinese-owned apps such as TikTok and WeChat.
The US has also repeatedly slammed China for not containing the spread of coronavirus.
Prof Patman says the increased public criticism of China by the likes of the UK and the US may just be opportunistic point-scoring at the expense of a major political rival, or an effort to distract from their own failings.
However he says it presents a "tricky" situation for Chinese authorities, who will be eager to protect their economic interests and retain the trust of their citizens.
"They feel they must respond, but some within the Chinese leadership will be saying 'let's try and defuse this', because they may interrupt the social contract between the Chinese government and the Chinese people," he said.
"This is basically in exchange for being allowed to rule China, delivering economic prosperity.
"If they engage in foreign policy behaviour that endangers economic growth in China, the danger is it could be mounting discontent in China over the legitimacy of the regime."