Jacinda Ardern's 'grave concern' for Uighurs: New Zealand-China differences 'becoming harder to reconcile'

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has for the second time expressed her "grave concern" for the Uighur people in China's Xinjiang region over alleged human rights abuses. 

In a speech to the China Business Summit on Monday, Ardern said the differences between China and New Zealand "are becoming harder to reconcile with" and reiterated her "grave concern" for the Uighur people. 

Ardern expressed "grave concern" for the Uighurs in February after the BBC gathered testimonies from women who spent time in Xinjiang detention camps, detailing allegations of gang rape and sexual abuse. 

It's also the second time Ardern has used her speech to the China Business Summit to speak out against China's alleged human rights abuses. Her speech in July last year also touched on the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong and China's reluctance for Taiwan to become a member of the World Health Organisation. 

Speaking to the China Business Summit on Monday, Ardern said China's geostrategic relevance "is a reality that no country can ignore" but she said New Zealand will continue to speak up when it comes to issues human rights issues. 

"It will not have escaped the attention of anyone here that as China's role in the world grows and changes, the differences between our systems - and the interests and values that shape those systems - are becoming harder to reconcile," Ardern said. 

"This is a challenge that we, and many other countries across the Indo Pacific region, but also in Europe and other regions, are also grappling with."

Ardern's speech comes amid tension over China's relationship with the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance, which includes New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the UK and United States. 

New Zealand came under fire last month after Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said the Government was "uncomfortable" with expanding the scope of the Five Eyes beyond intelligence sharing, which is what it was originally created for. 

While Mahuta insisted New Zealand respects the Five Eyes and intends to remain part of the bloc, it didn't stopped politicians and commentators from across the group speculating that New Zealand had sold its soul to China for economic gain. 

Ardern said in her speech that while it's important to acknowledge differences, it "need not derail" New Zealand's relationship with China, particularly with two-way trade now well in excess of $30 billion per year. 

"Areas of difference need not define a relationship. But equally, they are part and parcel of New Zealand staying true to who we are as a nation," Ardern said. 

"As a significant power, the way that China treats its partners is important for us. And we will continue to promote the things that we believe in, and support the rules-based system that underpins our collective well-being."

Ardern said she hopes China "sees it in its own core interests to act in the world in ways that are consistent with its responsibilities as a growing power, including as a permanent member of the UN Security Council".

It's estimated more than a million Uighur people - a mostly Muslim Turkic minority group that number about 11 million in Xinjiang - have been detained in camps, which have been widely condemned as akin to prisons. 

A New Zealand Uighur woman, Rizwangul Nurmuhammad, told Newshub Nation last month her brother was detained in Xinjiang in 2017 and she hasn't heard from him. Former detainees have spoken of torture and brainwashing at the facilities, and women being forcibly sterilised.

After initially denying the existence of the camps, China now describes them as re-education centres offering classes on Mandarin, laws, regulations and vocational skills, as well as counter-terrorism training and psychological counselling for those affected by "extremist thoughts".

The Chinese Embassy hosted a Zoom conference on Friday to portray the "real situation" of Xinjiang to New Zealand. The presentation included several pre-recorded videos, which China expert Anne-Marie Brady described as "propaganda"

ACT has filed a motion to debate in Parliament whether China is committing genocide against the Uighurs, as the UK Parliament has done. Labour, which holds a majority in the House, will discuss their position on Tuesday at their caucus meeting. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is in discussions with Beijing about sending officials to Xinjiang to investigate the situation.