By Jane Silloway Smith - 28/03/2014

By Jane Silloway Smith -

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China: what are we not talking about?

John Key did very well in China last week. Stories of his exploits and triumphs in the arenas of geopolitics and economics filled the pages of New Zealand’s dailies: dinner with President Xi Jinping, an increase of the trade target to $30 billion by 2020, and direct convertibility of New Zealand’s and China’s currencies, which will make trading easier. China seemed delighted with Key and the New Zealand he presented, and Key left the country proclaiming that the relationship between the two countries “has never been stronger.”

That’s all great for New Zealand exporters who drool over the possibilities of expanding into the vast markets of China. It’s also potentially great for New Zealand’s standing in the world, given that most watchers have picked Asia to be the new centre of international significance, with China reigning supreme. Being close friends with the coolest, biggest, most powerful kid on the block never hurts.

Except when it does.

Lost in all the praise and interest in Key’s recent trip has been any mention of the necessarily fraught relationship a representative democracy like New Zealand must by its very nature have with an oppressive one-party state like China. 

As a free people living in a free nation, we should have an interest in at least speaking up for the fundamental right of people in every nation to live free and to have their value and dignity respected by their governments. We should expect our government not to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses and territorial aggression all for the sake of a better trade deal or some geopolitical clout.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, New Zealanders urged the government to uphold sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa, and hundreds protested the Springbok tour of 1981 as a way of standing up for the rights of black South Africans. 

Would we do the same for China? In a way, it was safe to protest apartheid because South Africa wasn’t exactly a powerhouse of economic or political importance. If abuses of the Chinese government were to come out that were so atrocious that our democratic and human sensibilities were shocked and appalled, would we call for sanctions and protest our government’s and traders’ involvement and ties to China? Could we?

If in the midst of signalling our desire for closer links to China’s government and economy New Zealand is unwilling to address issues like the jailing of political protesters, the persecution of minority ethnic and religious groups, and the restriction of freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press, when will we? Once our economy is so reliant on China’s markets that to upset the Chinese government means that thousands of Kiwis lose their jobs? 

New Zealand is one of the most democratic and free countries in the world. We should be using that standing to encourage other countries to offer the same to their citizens, not neglecting our national values and ideals when it’s necessary for economic gain.

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By Jane Silloway Smith -

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