Opinion: Worst could be yet to come for New Zealanders' perceptions of China

  • 16/06/2021

By Geoffrey Miller of the Democracy Project

New Zealanders' hostility towards China is growing rapidly – but the worst may be still ahead. International analyst Geoffrey Miller examines the latest survey results on how this country feels about China.

The latest "Perceptions of Asia" survey from the Asia New Zealand Foundation, released on Wednesday, shows a sharp rise in the number of New Zealanders who view China as a threat.

35 percent of New Zealanders surveyed in the study saw China as a major threat or threat – up from 22 percent the previous year.

But the survey was conducted in late October and early November 2020 – which means it will not have taken into account any of the many China-related headlines since then, including:

  • China's announcement last November that it would impose tariffs of up to 200 percent against Australian wine exports

  • Trade minister Damien O'Connor's comments – later softened – in January that Australia needed to "show respect" to China

  • Foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta's remark that she was unwilling to sign up to future 'Five Eyes' statements criticising China

  • Jacinda Ardern's warning in May that differences with Beijing were becoming "harder to reconcile"

  • The widely-publicised Australian '60 Minutes' TV programme which asked whether New Zealand was becoming 'New Xi-Land' and the subsequent Queenstown summit between Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern, where China dominated discussions

  • Reports that the retirements of former MPs Raymond Huo and Jian Yiang were organised in a deal between Labour and National after concerns from intelligence services were raised about the pair's connections with the Chinese government

  • Joe Biden ordering an intelligence investigation into the origins of COVID-19, after media reports suggested there was growing evidence that it could have come from a Chinese lab

The trends revealed by the Asia NZ Foundation survey echo a deterioration in perceptions of China from other Western countries recorded by the Pew Research Center in 2020.

That study found that 81 percent of Australians viewed China in unfavourable terms –an increase of 24 percentage points over the previous year. Nearly all of the 14 Western countries included in the survey recorded unfavourability scores of over 70 percent.

However, it would be wrong for the NZ government to breathe a sigh of relief that the Asia NZ Foundation's figures are not at the same level.

Throughout the first half of 2021, Wellington has been trying to strike a balanced position on China that would keep both Beijing and traditional Western partners happy.

But the new survey findings are a reminder that the government also needs to pay attention to voter sentiment regarding China as it continues to walk this diplomatic tightrope.

While anti-China sentiment was on the rise even before COVID-19 in other countries – particularly the United States and Australia – it is largely a new development for New Zealand.

Previously, successive NZ governments had been able to ride a wave of optimism towards China – driven by an export boom.

But the Asia NZ findings show that sentiment towards China deteriorated sharply in 2020, despite high Chinese demand for NZ's primary products helping to shield New Zealand from the worst of the pandemic's after-effects.

For now, it is true that Wellington's relationship with Beijing is in a markedly better state than Canberra's. Australia's relationship with China has been going downhill at a rapid pace ever since Scott Morrison called for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19 in April 2020.

But the wider debate over the state of the NZ-China relationship that been developing in 2021 – and an ever-growing number of negative headlines on China – mean that voter sentiment is likely to deteriorate even further.

Democracy Project

Geoffrey Miller is an international analyst at the Democracy Project. He has lived and travelled extensively in the Middle East and is a fluent Arabic speaker.