Chinese Premier's NZ visit prompts heated exchanges between protesters, supporters

By Lillian Hanly of RNZ

A crowd has gathered at a central Wellington hotel ahead of the Chinese Premier's visit to New Zealand.

Premier Li Qiang's visit is the first by such a high-ranking Chinese political leader since 2017.

About 200 people were outside a hotel in central Wellington with flags and banners to support the visit.

Retired geophysicist Hai Zhu said the trip marked both countries' emergence from the pandemic and a return to better relations.

"It's some kind of big event for the two countries. It basically maintains the connection between the Governments, and also the people."

A smaller number of protesters also gathered to denounce the Chinese government for its oppression of minority groups and the two groups have been having a heated exchange.

RNZ reporters at the scene said young men attempted to block a protester's banner with Chinese flags, while the protesters argued their right to be there.

Retired geophysicist Hai Zhu said Premier Li Qiang's trip marked both countries' emergence from the pandemic and a return to better relations.
Retired geophysicist Hai Zhu said Premier Li Qiang's trip marked both countries' emergence from the pandemic and a return to better relations. Photo credit: RNZ / Bill Hickman.

Trade on the agenda

Premier Li Qiang will be hosted by Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, who will be eyeing any opportunity to grow trade while balancing relationships in an increasingly unstable global environment.

China's free trade deal with New Zealand underpins the relationship, described by Luxon as "significant, complex, and resilient".

The premier's visit will include a ceremonial welcome, bilateral talks, an official dinner and engagements in both Auckland and Wellington.

It will also mark 10 years of the New Zealand China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, an agreement to cooperate where possible, while acknowledging the two countries' different political systems and cultural traditions.

"A line from a classical Chinese poem reads, 'Good friends feel close to each other even when they are far apart,'" Li said in a statement. "Though separated by ocean, China and New Zealand enjoy a long history of friendly interactions, and our peoples have forged a bond of friendship based on mutual understanding."

He said China and New Zealand's "cooperation" has resulted in "fruitful outcomes" in trade, investment, tourism, science and technology, a "win-win" for both countries.

"I am confident that with the joint efforts of both sides, China-New Zealand relations will embrace an even brighter future, bring greater benefits to our peoples, and contribute more to world peace, stability, development and prosperity."

Luxon said New Zealand should cooperate with China where there was common interest. He also said there was room to continue expanding the relationship, particularly "in the areas of trade and energy and climate" and "people-to-people connections".

"It's quite right that we have differences and disagreements, and where we have those, we shouldn't be afraid to be able to talk to those."

He described it as a "longstanding relationship of 50 years - one where we have been predictable and consistent in raising the concerns and differences that we have".

The New Zealand-China Free Trade Agreement - signed in 2008 - was this country's biggest trade deal since the Closer Economic Relations agreement with Australia in the 1980s.

It was upgraded recently, with some New Zealand goods getting faster access to Chinese markets and a reduction in tariffs for some products.

People gathering to welcome the Chinese premier.
People gathering to welcome the Chinese premier. Photo credit: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone.

Trade liberalisation a priority for govt

Trade Minister Todd McClay has been clear that liberalising trade with China was a priority for the coalition government

He has been to China already, the first ministerial visit under this administration, for meetings with counterparts in commerce, agriculture and forestry.

"We think there are opportunities to upgrade the FTA around services that will deliver for Kiwi exporters into the Chinese market."

Luxon wants trade with China to grow to help meet the government's goal of doubling the value of New Zealand's exports in the next decade.

"We look at China and we say: 1.4 billion people, rapidly rising middle class; yes, running into some economic headwinds as it deals with a few challenges, but at the end of the day, still huge segments of consumers that are actually very discerning and open for New Zealand products and services."

The premier is the second most powerful official in China, and the last to visit was former Premier Li Keqiang in 2017.

Former Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta visited China last year - the first since face-to-face visits had been suspended through the initial years of the Covid pandemic.

Former Prime Minister Chris Hipkins visited last year as well, within six months of taking on the top job.

Li will also spend time in Australia this week, which has been navigating tensions with China over the past few years.

'We have differences'

New Zealand pondering the possibility of joining Pillar 2 of the AUKUS security pact will be another point of friction.

Just last month, China's Ambassador to New Zealand warned that could be seen as "taking sides".

The prime minister acknowledged it would come up in the conversations he would have with Li this week.

"We happen to think AUKUS is good from a security point of view-providing security into the Indo-Pacific - and we think it's entirely appropriate that New Zealand explores potential options under Pillar 2 and makes a decision to or not to participate," said Luxon.

He was in Niue and Fiji last week, and discussed New Zealand's role amid the increasing geostrategic competition in the Indo-Pacific.

When pushed on which powers he was referring to, and whether specifically it was China, Luxon said there were "a number of powers that are doing more activity within the region".

He rejected the suggestion he was afraid to say 'China', saying: "No, no, there's as I said more geostrategic competition whether it's China, whether it's the US, whether it's other powers as well". ]

Luxon said he would be "raising all the areas of difference that we have", such as China's human rights record.

"We have differences. We raise those differences very predictably, very consistently, both publicly, as you would've seen recently with cyber-issues, and also privately."

He said he was keen to visit China, potentially early next year.

It has been a decade since President Xi Jinping visited New Zealand.