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The China Tightrope
by Sam Sachdeva

'Principles versus pragmatism': agreeing to disagree with China

By May 31, 2023April 9th, 2024No Comments

In August 2022, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave a speech at the China Business Summit in Auckland: this marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and China. Celebrating the ‘long history of engagement and cooperation’ between the countries, Ardern invoked a rich lineage of migratory connections and a remarkable trade relationship. But then – the inevitable but. ‘There are areas where China and New Zealand do not agree,’ Ardern said. ‘Where our interests or world view differ. On those areas we are willing to engage – but we will also always advocate for New Zealand’s interests and values, and speak out when we need to.’

What exactly are these differing interests, and how do they relate to conflicts of world view? In recent years, discussion of New Zealand’s relationship with China has been increasingly couched in these terms: we welcome – and rely on – China’s business, but we remain at odds with much of the ideology and some of the practices that accompany it. Acknowledging this uncomfortable clash of economics and morals we are left to figure out how to approach our largest trading partner and biggest bogeyman in ways that represent both our prosperity and our values. Throw in some realpolitik and the ever-present suggestion of future coercion (or outright conflict), and we have The China Tightrope.

The China Tightrope is an attempt to synthesise some of the trickiest questions implicit in New Zealand’s relationship with an ascendent superpower. Newsroom’s national affairs editor, Sachdeva is a name familiar to those following China’s rise on the world stage – a topic he has been covering for some six years. His book could not have arrived at a better time. With borders open once again and trade returning to normalcy, and with China seemingly grabbing headlines in the Western press for all the wrong reasons, Sachdeva draws the spotlight to our own national experiences with China.

He interrogates how, as a small power, we might continue to navigate the nexus of interests and values, maintaining a steadfast relationship whilst asserting ourselves within it. ‘This book is an attempt to explain the forces causing New Zealand to wobble from one side to the other,’ Sachdeva writes in his introduction, ‘and how we can best keep our balance in the years to come’.

But just why is the relationship so complex, and why should ‘world view’ feature so centrally in the discussion? With an eye for a well-shaped narrative, Sachdeva teases out the big issues over sixteen chapters. Chapter One’s title – ‘Spies, Sensitive Issues and a Secret Pact’ – offers a hint to the book’s tone. Sachdeva launches his story with the unresolved cases of Jian Yang and Raymond Huo, National and Labour MPs respectively, both accused in 2017 of being Chinese agents. The significance of the story’s inclusion is its lack of closure: as with ‘any discussion about China’s relationship with New Zealand, uncertainty and whispers abound’. Framed from the offset in terms of interference, surveillance, possible coercion, and other illiberal tendencies, the notion of ‘threat’ persists throughout the book, and, for better or worse, in fact or as counterfactual, this is the inescapable backdrop of The China Tightrope.

The major discussion points here include: the history of cultural ties via migrancy; the bilateral background; the trade relationship (and our country’s reliance on it); the ‘rise and rise’ of China’s authoritarian ruler Xi Jinping, censorship, illiberalism, threats to press and academic freedoms, political interference, and China’s record of human rights abuses. Readers are presented with a stark reminder of just how ideologically, even morally, removed we are in Aotearoa from the realities of existence under the Chinese Communist Party. And yet, in the same breath, we are impelled to consider how those very same notions are indeed impacting us, collectively and individually, here in the South Pacific.

One of the book’s admirable motifs is its ability to go beyond accounts of inner-circle politics, diplomacy and business deals – although these do feature – by the inclusion of more individual stories of navigating the NZ-China relationship. Sachdeva’s broad range of interviewees – academics, activists, ex-diplomats, entrepreneurs, and members of the Chinese diaspora in Aotearoa – appear like talking heads throughout the book. This chorus of voices are a reminder both of the multifaceted societal connections we have with China, and of the reality of China as a significant factor in Aotearoa’s past, present, and future.

Loosely grouped, the academics represent a realist bloc — and, in the case of Professor Anne-Marie Brady, to whom Sachdeva dedicates a whole chapter, one of heightened vigilance (or fear-mongering, depending on which side of the fence you stand). The business personalities take a more pragmatic, ‘lived experience’ tone, whilst politicians are both predictably optimistic (John Key the prime mover here) or cautionary (Winston Peters).  Key once claimed to be friends with Xi Jinping and, in fact, on Xi’s Christmas card list, although, Sachdeva notes:

At face value, it is hard to see how or why a deliberately austere and avowed socialist in charge of the world’s largest country would form a friendship with a former investment banker at the bottom of the world who once confessed on live radio to urinating in the shower.

The testimony of activists within Aotearoa’s Chinese community captures the most poignant personal experiences of China’s social, political, and economic influence here in New Zealand. Here are stories of the far-reaching power of the Chinese State throughout the diaspora, of the extent of sovereign interference and of human rights abuses, of fear about speaking to family members on WeChat or demonstrating at parliament in support of Uyghurs.

In 2022 Jennifer Ma moved back to New Zealand, wary of ‘the changing mood within China’. You ‘don’t talk about Xinjiang, you don’t talk about Taiwan,’ she told Sachdeva. The founder of early childhood education centres throughout China, Ma noted the ‘massive tightening up in policy in terms of the government taking back education’.

Even weeks after arriving back in New Zealand she was still finding it hard to shake the habits of her time in China. ‘There were issues I talked about and I would start whispering. My friends were like, “Why are you whispering?” and I was like, “Why am I whispering?” You don’t even realise how the oppression has seeped into your behaviour until you are out of it.

These testimonies illustrate Sachdeva’s central question: are we putting the trade relationship ahead of our values? This is not just a local issue: many countries in the UN Human Rights Council have been reluctant to criticise or interrogate China. ‘What is the point of having an understanding of what human rights are, and how that is the underpinning of our civilisation,’ writer Tze Ming Mok asks, ‘if we can’t respond to crimes against humanity or genocide?’

In his final chapters Sachdeva looks to the future, employing a series of what-ifs (cyber warfare, an invasion or blockade of Taiwan) that suggest the weight of decisions New Zealand must grapple with. Just how can we continue to navigate our relationship with a world superpower? In the event of armed conflict, Sachdeva notes New Zealand would be unable to avoid the broader effects of a war in the Asia Pacific region, not least because disruption of the global freight networks on which we’re so reliant could result in ‘catastrophic economic damage’.

Sachdeva presents some ideas for moving ahead. First, accept that the China we engage with today is a different power altogether from the one we encountered in the early 2000s, signing free trade deals with boundless optimism. Next, be prepared to speak out on issues that go against our values or breach other international norms. Jacinda Ardern promised as much in her 50th anniversary speech. He argues that we must also reduce our economic dependence on China, placing a greater emphasis on long-term resilience, possibly at the expense of short-term profit – with the government helping to soften the blow by reducing the costs of entry into new markets.

We must scrutinise our academic and media relationships at home, Sachdeva suggests, to ensure freedom of expression and freedom from coercion. This may include overhauling of some political norms, re-assessing the ways in which NZ’s political parties are funded, in order to safeguard against external interference and undue influence. Crucially, we need some semblance of a China policy. If the messaging is unclear on China across any of the above, New Zealand risks walking the tightrope with a blindfold over one eye.

The China Tightrope is a welcome and engaging entry point for those looking to better understand the dynamics shaping New Zealand’s relationship with China. Readers with a background in China studies or in New Zealand’s foreign policy are unlikely to encounter any revelatory findings, but the value of Sachdeva’s narrative lies in its accessibility to a general audience and its ability to balance realpolitik with an interrogation of the values that we purport to live by and stand for here in Aotearoa – the issue of ‘principles versus pragmatism’. As Sachdeva rightly proposes, ‘focusing on who we are, more than who we are not, may be the best way to handle the problems that China’s rise presents to New Zealand’.

The China Tightrope: Navigating NZ’s relationship with a world superpower

by Sam Sachdeva

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781991006172

Published: May 2023

Format: Paperback, 304 pages

Jack Smylie

Jack Smylie is a post-graduate student of Conflict and Terrorism Studies at the University of Auckland. His research interests include ethnic conflict, the security-development nexus, and New Zealand’s strategic engagement in the Pacific.