New Zealand-China relationship: Aotearoa's balancing act of trade and human rights

At the centre of the New Zealand-China relationship is a difficult juggling act; nurturing our all-important trade while also voicing concern about severe human rights abuses occurring within the Asian superpower.

It's not a new challenge and the diplomatic tightrope we're walking is not exclusive to our relationship with China. But growing aggression from our traditional allies towards Beijing has this year reignited debate about New Zealand's stance.

While New Zealand celebrates its independent foreign policy and asserts support for human rights, two-way trade with China is worth upwards of $33 billion, making it our largest trading partner. It's an important source of tourists and international students, both critical to Aotearoa's economy, especially post-COVID-19.

The two countries' relationship is therefore significant and, as Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said in April, one "in which all New Zealanders have an interest". She said we have to be respectful of China, while also acknowledging our differences. 

But in the current volatile international environment, the question has been raised, yet again, of whether Aotearoa is too scared to criticise China out of fear of economic repercussions. 

Nicholas Khoo, a specialist in Chinese foreign policy at Otago University, says trade is certainly a vulnerability for New Zealand when it criticises China's activities and the relationship is a case where "our economic interests diverge from our political values".

"We need to take careful consideration of the political issue and the economic interests that we have at stake in the relationship because it does seem that these issues are coming to a head in a very real way, not just for New Zealand, but again for other countries," Khoo told Newshub.

"It's a very important issue and we need to make some hard decisions here."

'Clear a genocide is taking place'

While China's interference in Hong Kong's judicial system and increasing presence in the South China Sea has sparked worry - and explicit concern from the New Zealand Government - it is the plight of the Uighur minority in the Chinese province of Xinjiang that this week came to the fore for Aotearoa.

According to a large number of international reports and testimonials, around 1 million Uighur Muslims people are kept within concentration camps, subject to horrific abuse such as forced sterilisation and labour as authorities attempt to eradicate their religion and suppress birth rates.

Rizwangul Nurmuhammad, a Kiwi Uighur from Xinjiang, has told Newshub Nation about her brother, detained in 2017 and who she has not had contact with since. She has called for the Government to do more to get answers about his status and not "just turn a blind eye to this genocide."

While China has always rejected abusing the indigenous people, the United States government and several international Parliaments - including those in Canada and Britain - earlier this year declared the Uighurs are facing crimes against humanity.

It's put the spotlight on whether New Zealand will do the same. 

The issue was forced this week when the ACT Party filed a motion in Parliament asking MPs to debate whether acts of genocide are occurring in Xinjiang. However, after deliberations with the governing Labour Party, the term 'genocide' was removed

MPs ended up agreeing that "severe human rights abuses" are ongoing.

While Parliament's declaration is an important milestone - other countries have failed to gain unanimous agreement on the issue - its significance is diluted by the removal of 'genocide' and the fact the New Zealand Government has already said there is "clear evidence" of abuses.

New Zealand's Parliament this week grappled with issues in Xinjiang.
New Zealand's Parliament this week grappled with issues in Xinjiang. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Sam Vincent, spokesperson for the Uighur Solidarity Aotearoa NZ group, says it is a clear example of money taking precedent over human rights.

"It is clear that a genocide is taking place," he says. "The fact that our Government doesn't want to even discuss whether a genocide is taking place is shameful. It suggests that our export earnings are more important to the Government than human life is."

Vincent says New Zealand should stand with those countries designating abuses in Xinjiang as genocide. 

"I think New Zealand has an important part to play in getting to that point where significant pressure is being applied on China. We can make that happen."

But Mahuta explained during this week's debate that the Government hasn't declared a genocide, not due to a lack of concern, but because the concept of 'genocide' is tied to international law, with a very specific meaning, and should only come after a "rigorous assessment".

Aotearoa has consistently called on China to allow United Nations observers access to Xinjiang to ascertain what is happening there, but the Asian superpower has been reluctant to allow officials in without restrictions.

Despite not labelling the activities in Xinjiang acts of genocide, New Zealand has put out many statements, independently and with partners, expressing concern. In 2019, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took human rights issues directly to President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

Asked directly on Newshub Nation last month whether New Zealand was prioritising cash and trade over humanity and ethics, Mahuta said we have to be respectful.

"New Zealand's relationship with China is significant in terms of exporting, and there are areas that we can't agree on, but we want to be respectful, consistent, and predictable in the way that we treat China," Mahuta said.

In a speech to the NZ China Council in April, the minister said there are issues New Zealand and China "do not, cannot and will not agree".

"Matters such as human rights should be approached in a consistent, country agnostic manner. We will not ignore the severity and impact of any particular country's actions if they conflict with our longstanding and formal commitment to universal human rights."

Nanaia Mahuta.
Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Geoffrey Miller, an international relations analyst with Victoria University's Democracy Project, told Newshub that removing 'genocide' from this week's motion and having the statement mirror earlier comments was a "smart" move by Labour that showed concern but also would have kept China somewhat happy. 

"New Zealand, in a sense, is China's best friend in the West now as a result of all of this. I think it's unlikely that China will really punish New Zealand to any great extent over this motion," he says.

"There will be strong words and so on, but I think what really counts in terms of China is action, and when they want to show displeasure, they really do it through other means, and that's through trade. For a country like New Zealand, trade is where the punishment would come."

The Chinese Embassy in Wellington did respond with a blusterous statement to Parliament's declaration, but as Ardern said, that was "not unexpected"

Potential risks

Prior to Wednesday's Parliamentary debate, National Party leader Judith Collins called trade the "elephant in the room" while Trade Minister Damien O'Connor said China would retaliate if New Zealand declared a genocide.

It's something Australia has seen first-hand. 

In 2020, after calling for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and stepping up its own rhetoric towards China's human rights abuses, Australia was slapped with a number of trade tariffs by China. These were primarily on products like wine, barley and other agricultural goods. 

That's important to note, Miller says, as China hasn't put tariffs on iron ore, Australia's largest export and which he says China needs as a raw material. 

New Zealand is vulnerable as our main exports - like milk powder and wood products - aren't necessary for China, he says.

"The products that New Zealand exports to China, you know, things like milk powder. China could do without that. Ultimately, it's not a central raw material that it uses to produce other goods. It's essentially consumer goods for China.

"If New Zealand really did go there and if it passed a motion on genocide, if it spoke out, really clearly, there would be swift and severe repercussions from the Chinese side for New Zealand and New Zealanders would need to think very carefully about whether they want that."

Miller says those trade realities mean the relationship with China is certainly a "balancing act". 

"It's walking the tightrope, it's all these metaphors, but they are for good reason. And China is obviously such a big market for New Zealand."

Jacinda Ardern and Xi Jinping in 2019.
Jacinda Ardern and Xi Jinping in 2019. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Miller says Ardern and Mahuta appear to be treading the line carefully, not taking the "very pro-trade" position of the John Key and Bill English administrations nor the "pro-US" approach he says Winston Peters had as Foreign Affairs Minister. 

"I think now will be a bit more nuanced. New Zealand will have to speak out more regularly on some of these things that are going on, because there is this big geopolitical spat and tensions between the West and China, and New Zealand can't ignore that completely."

However, trade will always be a consideration, he says. 

"We have our values and democracy is one of them, human rights, freedom... But I think, in the end, trade will always win out because seeing these repercussions happening to Australia - that's terrifying the Government," Miller says. 

"It shows exactly what will happen if you poke that dragon. When things happen to Australia, it always makes it real for New Zealand."

New Zealand and China's trade relationship was improved this year, Miller noted, by our Free Trade Agreement being upgraded

Khoo told Newshub New Zealand has to very "carefully calibrate our interests and our values when it comes to dealing with these types of foreign policy issues". 

"It would be very naive for us to expect that we would totally sacrifice our economic interests, because we need to survive in the world. We need to engage in economic interactions with other states."

But Vincent says genocide is certainly worth taking a stand against. 

"When you have severe human rights abuses taking place, sanctions are justified, particularly when you have genocide taking place," he told Newshub. 

"The most important thing we have is our dignity. As we prioritise money over human life, that dignity is lost."

Trade Minister Damien O'Connor.
Trade Minister Damien O'Connor. Photo credit: Newshub.

Question of what next

With this week's debate, Parliament has made its position clear. But there are still parties - ACT, the Greens and the Māori Party - which say genocide is occurring. 

Mahuta told Newshub last week that determining a genocide is not a process the Government could undertake "lightly" and would require "complex legal and factual assessments". She's asked for more advice about the "processes and considerations" that go into this.

In the meantime, there are calls for New Zealand to consider putting a stop to importing products from Xinjiang likely made through slave labour.

"The Chinese Communist Party profits enormously off of Uighur slave labour. It's unacceptable that we should allow the Chinese Communist Party to profit off of this asset or forced labour," Vincent says. 

In April, World Vision revealed New Zealand imported more than $3.1 billion of "risky products" in 2019, making up more than 5 percent of the country's total imports. A risky product or good is one "highly likely" to be connected to forced labour or child labour. 

World Vision is among those calling for New Zealand to introduce modern slavery legislation which could require businesses to understand the risks of modern slavery in their purchasing, report on those risks and take action to address them. That would give consumers more information about what they are buying and how it was manufactured.

Earlier this year, an action plan released by the Government said New Zealand was considering a similar approach to that taken by Australia and the UK which is now requiring businesses to report on what they're doing to address slavery in their supply chains. 

However, regardless of whether that is implemented or not, New Zealand's massive trade partnership with China will continue to be significant. 

Mahuta made the point bluntly in her speech to the NZ China Council, saying that when considering long-term economic resilience, we need to "understand that there is value in diversity" and that it "is prudent not to pull all eggs in one basket".

Khoo agrees it's something we need to seriously look at. 

"To the extent that we can diversify our trade balance is something that would be very prudent to do, not necessarily because we have any particular ideological preference either way, but mainly because we do not want to be subject to pressure from other states that that actually causes us to change our policy in a way that is at variance with our values."