Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has reconfirmed her plans to visit China before the end of the year, after a visit from a high-ranking Chinese official.

An increasingly frank New Zealand line on China reportedly did not create friction during Ardern’s meeting with Li Xi, the Party Secretary of Guangdong Province, although human rights differences between the two countries were again highlighted.

Li is also a member of the 25-member Politburo which oversees the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The meeting with Li ran nearly twice its anticipated 30-minute length, with Ardern saying the talks focused primarily on economic ties: Kiwi companies Fisher and Paykel, Zespri, and Fonterra all have offices in Guangdong, while she said the province was responsible for roughly 17 percent of New Zealand’s trade.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative was not raised “in great detail”, with officials still working on New Zealand’s engagement with the massive soft power project.

Ardern said she hoped to visit China before the end of the year, with the dates for a potential trip still under discussion.

Although Li did not raise any concerns about New Zealand’s policy positions on China, including the recently-released defence policy statement which was explicit about the threat posed by an “increasingly confident” China, there were clear points of difference – including on human rights.

“We acknowledged of course we are both countries on different development paths, that the nature of our political systems, but that we’ve always as our two countries found ways to discuss those differences in a way that works for our relationship, and I put human rights under that category,” Ardern said.

The detention of Uighur Muslims in Chinese “re-education camps”, the subject of concern by a United Nations panel, was raised under that banner, Ardern said.

Also discussed was “a particular case that we tend to raise consistently because of our view on criminal justice matters”. Ardern later confirmed she was referring to Peter Gardner, a Kiwi facing the death penalty for trying to smuggle 30 kilograms of methamphetamine out of China.

Asked of Li’s response to the human rights issues, Ardern said: “It was heard and received.”

The Guangdong province is also home to Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, which has been banned from building 5G mobile networks in the United States and Australia due to concerns about possible spying.

Ardern dismissed a question about whether New Zealand would take a similar stance on Huawei, which has already built 4G and ultra fast broadband networks here, saying “It’s a hypothetical for us at this point.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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