Opinion & Analysis

Why we need more voices on China

If we don’t have robust conversations about China in New Zealand, we risk sleep-walking into a relationship with a nation we don’t fully understand or ruining one of our most important international relationships, writes Pip McLachlan.

OPINION: I am a “Hu Jintao girl”. I lived in Beijing from 2010-2013, working at the New Zealand Embassy. I arrived in the era of President Hu, who presided over a relatively stable period in China and was also known for being a bit dull.  I can’t claim to speak with much authority or authenticity on China. I have it on good authority my Mandarin language abilities are like a three-year-old’s.

When I left China, President Xi Jinping had been at the helm for six months. I’ve returned since for brief visits and I have been staggered by the changes that have taken place (a common refrain for people who have lived there).

Construction in Beijing3

Beijing under construction, 2017. Photo credit: Collette Devlin, Stuff.

Landmarks I previously used to navigate my way around the city have disappeared. In terms of day-to-day living, cash is no longer king. The mobile phone has ascended the throne, and with it electronic payment platforms such as Alipay and WeChat Pay. Good luck trying to pay for a taxi fare in cash now.

And then there’s the political philosophy of Xi Jinping. While in the 1980s, former president Deng Xiaoping was famous for using the phrase “keep a low profile” to describe China’s foreign policy, today there is no more “hiding and biding”.

China is now an assertive global player and, in some cases, a rule-maker, not just a rule-taker. The term limits instituted by Deng after Mao Zedong’s three-decade rule have now been set aside, with President Xi now the “People’s Leader”.

Given this rapidly changing picture, there are plenty of reasons why I second-guess my knowledge and understanding of China.

But not being totally immersed in matters China can sometimes be a good thing. When I first arrived in Beijing, a senior colleague gave me some sound advice that gave me the much-needed confidence to do my job – basically, if you’ve been covering China for a long period, you can stop noticing the points of difference, or you become invested in particular perspectives. He saw having a fresh set of eyes as being a useful addition to his team.

Plenty of New Zealand-based academics, businesspeople and officials have spent a good portion of their careers studying or tracking China. I’m not just talking about the foreign policy types – but also those who can help demystify China’s languages, arts, cultural traditions, history, economy, and political systems. 

And we have a growing ethnic Chinese community in New Zealand, from those whose ancestry dates back to the goldmines of Otago, through to recent arrivals. There are rich perspectives to be had, and all these people have a role to play in unpicking China for the rest of New Zealand.

In my experience, though, quite a few of our experts will talk down their knowledge. China is changing all the time, and there’s a saying around the lines of: If you’ve been in China a week, you could write a book; a month, you might feel you can write an article; a year, you can’t write anything at all.

So this self-effacement is fair enough – and in my view, it is the sign of someone who knows what they are talking about. China is vast, multi-faceted and complex. 

But the reluctance to speak out is also problematic. China is a far bigger deal for New Zealand than it used to be. It is in the headlines a lot more. It has gone from being on the fringes of scholarly pursuit to something quite central to our lives. That makes it all the more necessary for as many voices as possible to be talking about China – to round out the picture.

A self-diagnosed lack of knowledge isn’t the only inhibitor for talking about China.

By commenting on matters China, we expose ourselves to the possibility of public criticism. A quick look on Twitter, for example, shows that exchanges about China are not always constructive or collegial.  

The nature of a connected world is such that this isn’t just a New Zealand discourse either. The conversation around New Zealand’s relationship with China is influenced by external voices too. The exchanges taking place in Australia on Chinese political influence, for example, has shaped the tenor of some of the conversations here.

There is also the consequential risk that, by speaking on China, you are exposing yourself and the institution you represent to a level of risk. What might it mean for your future engagement with Chinese partners?

Then there's the risk that if you try to explain or speculate about China’s perspective on issues, you’re seen as “captured” by the superpower’s propaganda machine. 

But there is a real need for as many voices on China as possible. Nature abhors a vacuum and we need to avoid a polarised discussion.

We might not always agree with each other, but New Zealand will be the better for a rich, textured and constructive discussion. If we don’t have one, we risk sleep-walking to a relationship with China that we don’t fully understand, or ruining one of our most important international relationships.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author.

– Asia Media Centre