New Zealanders overwhelmingly back promoting human rights in China, even if it damages economic ties - research

New Zealanders overwhelmingly support promoting human rights in China, even if that damages our economic relations with the Asian superpower, new research reveals.

The results come amid debate in New Zealand over how to address human rights abuses against the Uighur people in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, and as Beijing strikes out at the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Thursday also marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.

Pew Research Center, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington DC, released new survey results on Thursday on populations' views towards China and the nation's respect for personal freedoms. The results were drawn from interviews with 16,254 adults across 17 countries between February and June this year.

Critically, the survey found unfavourable views of China are "at or near historic highs", with 15 of 17 populations having an unfavourable view of China. 

That's a position expressed by 67 percent of New Zealanders. In comparison, 76 percent of Americans have an unfavourable view of the Asian nation as do 78 percent of Australians. Japan and South Korea also have negative views, while Greece and Singapore are the only countries in which less than 50 percent hold an unfavourable view.

The majority of people in all countries surveyed don't believe China respects the freedoms of its peoples, a view of 87 percent of Kiwis, Pew Research Center found.

However, while most publics say it's greatly more important to have strong economic ties with the United States over China - New Zealand's view is more split. The survey found 45 percent of Kiwis place the US over China, while 44 percent favour China. 

But New Zealand is also the country most in favour of trying to promote human rights in China "even if it harms economic relations" with the superpower. 

Eighty percent of Kiwis favour human rights, to the 16 percent who want to prioritise economic ties "even if it means not addressing human rights issues". Australia has 17 percent in favour of economic ties and 78 percent in support of human rights, while the US is 26 percent to 70 percent. Of the countries surveyed, just Singapore and South Korea want to prioritise economic relations. 

The research also found countries have changed their tune about China's response to COVID-19, with most now saying it was "good", while few have confidence in President Xi Jinping to "do the right thing regarding world affairs". 

 New Zealand is also the country most in favour of promoting human rights in China.
New Zealand is also the country most in favour of promoting human rights in China. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Despite New Zealand regularly speaking out about abuses in China - most recently regarding the closure of the pro-democracy Apple Daily in Hong Kong - it's been accused of prioritising trade over human rights by not being as vocal as some traditional allies. 

China is easily New Zealand's largest trading partner, accounting for 23 percent of our total trade with the rest of the world in the year to March 2021. Exports were worth $19 billion, while imports were worth $13.8 billion. In comparison, exports with the US were worth $9 billion and imports $7.3 billion. New Zealand has a free trade agreement with China, but not with the US.

China is notoriously protective of its internal affairs and frequently lashes out with bold rhetoric against any country that speaks its concerns, as it has done in response to issues raised by New Zealand. 

It's recently taken a more aggressive approach with Australia, imposing tough trade tariffs which are now subject of a dispute at the World Trade Organization. 

Due to New Zealand's reliance on trade with China and our main exports being mostly consumer goods, there are concerns any tangible action towards New Zealand from China could have severe repercussions, creating a tightrope for politicians to walk.

New Zealand's Parliament in May passed a motion expressing grave concerns with the "severe human rights abuses" in Xinjiang. That's weaker than recent declarations by the US, UK and Canada - that say genocide is underway - which some activists argue show Aotearoa as beholden to China. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta, however, has argued a genocide determination can only come after "a rigorous assessment on the basis of international law". 

Asked directly on Newshub Nation in April 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."

In a speech to NZ China Council in April, Mahuta hinted at the need for businesses to diversify beyond China as it "is prudent not to pull all eggs in one basket".

New Zealand has released several statements independently and with international partners about abuses in China. 

It did so last week 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 torture, 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. 

Pew Research Center's full results can be found here.