China seems set to be a leading issue in New Zealand politics this year, but our relationship with China still isn’t being properly debated. That’s partly because our politicians would rather not venture into such fraught territory.  Bryce Edwards argues that if we cede the field and refuse to engage in a serious and sophisticated debate, then we risk what debate there is being dominated by reactionary emotions.

Issues relating to China continue to escalate in New Zealand politics at the moment, and many politicos have put it near the top of their list of issues they predict will dominate the year ahead.

This should not be surprising – after all, 2018 saw a much-increased focus on various China-related hot issues, ranging from the allegations of Canterbury University’s Anne-Marie Brady through to the Government’s decision to exclude Huawei technology being used in the next generation telecommunications network.

These, together with a number of other sensitive issues, have come after years of concerns about increasing Chinese investment and immigration to New Zealand. And now, internationally, a looming trade war between the US and China threatens at times to spiral into possible military conflict.

But is New Zealand really ready for this escalation? Definitely not, given the paucity and nature of the public debate that occurred in 2018. New Zealanders are often disinclined towards issues of conflict or complexity, and it can be uncomfortable dealing with the China-related topics of racism, money and power. With good reason, New Zealanders fear being accused of racism – especially given our history, involving all sorts of discrimination towards Chinese in New Zealand.

A larger reason for this is there is simply no political leadership in this area. In fact, politicians are actively avoiding the topic, almost without exception. I wrote about this for Newsroom back in December 2017, saying “Labour and National are in consensus over the need for diplomacy rather than debate about China, and understandably see good reason to keep trading partners happy. Even New Zealand First might be seen to have joined up to that consensus now that Winston Peters is Foreign Minister”.

Nothing has changed since then, and this overly-cautious approach means debate is effectively suppressed. Perhaps politicians hoped the China issues would just go away.

Eventually, of course, “debate” is inevitable. Assuming issues relating to China do become one of the big conflicts and difficulties in New Zealand politics this year, then the public might form overly-simplistic opinions, and they might also demand that the politicians respond with anti-democratic actions, as has happened in Australia. That’s the scenario in which things could get ugly, illiberal, and unsophisticated.

It’s much better to pre-empt that happening by having a better quality debate about the issues right now. Obviously, we can’t rely on the politicians to lead that – they’re too compromised, and they’re just too inclined to suppress the discussion. Instead it has to be other parts of the public sphere – especially the media and other public figures – that needs to step up to examine and discuss the issues.

What are the issues? At the political level, some of these are fraught – for example the allegations about MPs such as National’s Jian Yang and Labour’s Raymond Huo, and allegations relating to National and Labour accepting donations that might be derived from foreign sources.

The research of Anne-Marie Brady about foreign state influence on the Chinese community here needs to be taken much more seriously. But it also needs to be rigorously tested and challenged. And what can we make of those reported break-ins at Brady’s home and office?

The Government’s apparent foreign policy shift away from Beijing and towards Washington needs to be examined in much more detail. Does New Zealand really want to endanger its trade relations with China in order to get into the good books of traditional western allies?

Is the Huawei company’s telecommunications technology really a security threat to New Zealand? Or was the Government’s decision to ban it just part of appeasing our Five Eyes partners?

What impact does foreign investment and immigration – including Chinese – have on New Zealand economy and society? What are the pros and cons? Much of this debate is still not out in the open.

To see what an illiberal debate about China might look like, we just need to look at how Australians have navigated these issues over the last two years. Much of this has resulted in ill-feelings, bad relations with China, and some reactionary solutions being proposed and accepted.

But can New Zealand really pride itself in having done any better than Australia? Not really – because we simply haven’t had the open debate that has occurred over there. At least in Australia they have been brave enough to confront the big issues. That needs to be done here, urgently.

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