Nanaia Mahuta raised Xinjiang, Hong Kong concerns in 'very general nature' with Chinese Foreign Minister as New Zealand signs critical statement

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta says she raised the human rights situations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong "in a very general nature" with her Chinese counterpart during a virtual meeting on Tuesday. 

The dialogue came as New Zealand signed a statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council expressing grave concern about the abuses and calling for "immediate, meaningful and unfettered access" to Xinjiang for independent observers. 

Mahuta on Tuesday night tweeted she had spoken to Wang Yi, China's Foreign Minister, about COVID-19, trade and climate change, while also emphasising the "importance of constructive support to the Pacific, and our concerns on human rights in Xinjiang and political freedoms in Hong Kong". 

She wouldn't go into detail on Wednesday about the exchange but said a lot of ground was covered by the pair.

It included Mahuta expressing "it was important for New Zealand to uphold our values and interests in relation to issues we feel really strongly about, in particular we continue to voice concerns about Xinjiang and Hong Kong".

"In a general sense, because we have a respectful approach to the nature of the relationship with China, we also covered off topics in relation to APEC, COVID-19 response, trade and other matters."

Asked if she expressed concern about recent raids and arrests at pro-democracy media outlet Apple Daily in Hong Kong - something other countries, like Australia, have spoken out about - Mahuta again wouldn't go into specifics. 

"The concerns that were raised in particular to Xinjiang and Hong Kong were in a very general nature and I am not going to go into any more detail," she said. 

"I think the response from China in relation to the issues that we raised, they understood. We have been very consistent on this front, right from the Prime Minister to myself to chief executive level."

In a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) readout of the video call, it says the pair also discussed their "respective responses to COVID-19 and the importance of a rigorous science-based investigation into its origins". 

"Minister Mahuta emphasised that Chinese leadership and ambition would be critical to achieving success for the global response to climate change. She outlined the importance that New Zealand places on the international rules-based system, and the values-based approach that New Zealand takes to its foreign policy."

Nanaia Mahuta raised Xinjiang, Hong Kong concerns in 'very general nature' with Chinese Foreign Minister as New Zealand signs critical statement
Photo credit: Nanaia Mahuta

The meeting was covered across Chinese state-owned media overnight, with CGTN reporting Wang as wanting the New Zealand-China relationship to act as a "model for international relations based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation". 

Chinese media frequently boasts about the country's relationship with New Zealand, contrasting it to its relationship with other countries, like Australia, with which it has strained ties. 

In May, while visiting Queenstown, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called out those who seek to divide New Zealand and Australia in likely a reference to China. 

"There would be those far from here who would seek to divide us and they will not succeed."

The Global Times on Wednesday cited Wang as saying China "attaches great significance to its ties with New Zealand and cherishes the mutual trust built between the two countries". It also reports Mahuta as congratulating China on "poverty relief, sustainable development and containing COVID-19 and opposing the politicalisation of the pandemic. 

The article says Wang believes it is the people of a country who "are the best to judge if human rights are protected and democracy is promoted". 

Journalists who have attempted to visit Xinjiang to interview members of the community about their experiences often face difficulties in gaining access and are followed by officials. 

The Global Times also says Wang wants to "work out specific cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative". 

Mahuta said on Wednesday the pair "spoke very generally about a number of areas where there is potential to work together", such as on climate change and COVID-19. 

New Zealand's relationship with China has been the subject of significant interest this year in light of Aotearoa's traditional, Western partners stepping up their language towards the Asian nation. 

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, trade with China continues to be strong, with a roughly $5.1 billion trade surplus in the year to March. It accounted for 23 percent of New Zealand's total trade with the rest of the world.

The magnitude of the trading relationship has led some to suggest New Zealand is beholden to China and less willing to criticise the superpower's human rights breaches in fear of retaliation.

However, those concerns have been exaggerated - particularly by international media - as New Zealand has released statements independently and with our partners about issues in China.

It did so on Tuesday as one of 44 countries to sign a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council about the situation in Xinjiang. It mentions there are credible reports of more than 1 million Uighurs detained in the region, subject to tortue, forced sterilisation and forced separation from their child. 

"We urge China to allow immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers, including the High Commissioner, and to urgently implement the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination's 8 recommendations related to Xinjiang, including by ending the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities."

The statement also mentions concerns about the "deterioration of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong under the National Security Law" and the human rights situation in Tibet. 

While the Chinese government has said it supports having officials visit Xinjiang, it has a number of conditions and does not believe the "purpose of the visit should not be an investigation or accountability with the presumption of guilt".

That comment from Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand Wu Xi in April came ahead of parliamentarians in Aotearoa passing a motion saying there are severe human rights abuses underway in Xinjiang.  

In May, during a speech to the China Business Summit, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said differences between China and New Zealand "are becoming harder to reconcile with".