Speaking last Thursday in Paihia to an audience of diplomats, Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta ticked off New Zealand’s foreign relationships.
In order, she covered: Australia, the Pacific, ASEAN, the US, China, Canada, Europe and the United Kingdom.
Australia was our “only ally”; the United States “an integral defence and security partner” and China, “our largest trading partner and an important relationship.”
Then came her qualifications.
“We seek a mature relationship where both parties have realistic expectations of each other, as we look for opportunities to work together where we are able to.”
It was a shorter, more precise definition of the relationship than her predecessor, Winston Peters, offered in his first speech as Minister in December 2017.
He said New Zealand and China do not always see eye to eye on every issue.
“We are different countries, and New Zealanders are proudly independent,” he said.
“However, China and New Zealand have a close, constructive and increasingly mature relationship.
“Where we do have different perspectives, we raise these with each other in ways that are cordial, constructive and clear.”
And on one continuing issue, the fate of the Muslim Uighur people in Xinjian province, China and New Zealand do have very different perspectives.
Responding to questions about a BBC report last week alleging women in China’s “re-education” camps for Uighurs had been systematically raped, sexually abused, and tortured, Ardern said New Zealand had consistently raised concerns “around what we’ve seen with the Uighurs,”
“We’ve raised it at the highest level,” she said.
“I raised it face to face with the leadership when we were in Beijing.
“This report just adds to that concern.
“And we will continue to raise those issues.”
Asked if she needed to be stronger Ardern said: “I don’t know what could be stronger than raising it face to face with the leadership in Beijing.”
China consistently rejects criticism of its actions in Xinjiang province, arguing that it is an interference in its internal affairs.
In an exclusive interview with POLITIK (conducted by email) China’s Ambassador in Wellington, Wu Xi was asked how Ardern’s stance would impact the China-New Zealand relationship.
“Over the past decades, bilateral relations between China and New Zealand have been constructive and respectful, and both countries have come to realise sensitive issues can be managed in a proper way that keeps the relationship sound, stable and in good shape,” she said.
“This approach is in the interest of both countries and both peoples.
“The key to our successful bilateral relationship over the past decades has been our commitment to practical cooperation, respect for each other’s core interests and accommodation of each other’s major concerns.
“Instead of trying to impose change on each other, we agree to respect each other.
“This mutual respect is particularly important for countries like China and New Zealand, which differ significantly in sizes, cultures and social systems.”
But she also issued a veiled warning repeating that China always followed the principle of non-interference in others’ internal affairs.
“ China stands ready to safeguard its core and major interests,” she said.
“Issues related to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet all touch on China’s sovereignty and security.
“There is no room for foreign interference on these issues.”
The full interview’s email exchanges follow.
The Chinese Ambassador responds
POLITIK Prior to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s visit to Beijing in 2019, the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in briefing documents which have subsequently been made public, described Xinjiang as a “high-tech surveillance state” that “targeted Uighurs and other Muslim minorities” and put them in secretive camps. Why does China do this?
AMBASSADOR: China’s objectives in Xinjiang are to improve living standards and to prevent extremism. Xinjiang has never been more prosperous than it is today, with unprecedented achievements in socio-economic development and improvements to people’s wellbeing. From 2014 to 2019, the gross domestic product (GDP) in Xinjiang grew from 919.59 billion yuan to 1.36 trillion yuan, at an average annual rate of 7.2%. From 2010 to 2018, the Uyghur population in Xinjiang grew from 10.17 million to 12.72 million with an increase of 2.55 million or 25 percent. Residents in Xinjiang live in an increasingly stable environment. The pandemic response in Xinjiang has produced impressive results. Income levels are rising as a result of ethnic solidarity and harmony, the fight against terrorism and radicalisation, and upholding the rule of law.
Vocational education and training centers, established in accordance with the law in Xinjiang, are no different in nature to those currently operating in many Western countries, such as the Community Correction programmes, the Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP), and deradicalisation centers. All of these are effective measures for preventive counter-terrorism and deradicalisation efforts, and are in line with the principles and spirit of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and other counter-terrorism resolutions.
Education and training work in Xinjiang is guided by the spirit of the rule of law, as well as international principles on counter-terrorism and deradicalisation. It has a solid legal basis and follows well-defined legal procedures, and is implemented in a way that avoids singling out any specific region, ethnic group or religion.
All countries carry out surveillance in public areas in accordance with their laws, to maintain social order and safety. Some western countries routinely conduct large-scale electronic surveillance, as well as personal data collection. China’s limited electronic surveillance measures are not targeted at specific regions or specific groups of people, and will not infringe upon citizens’ private space.
POLITIK: PM Ardern has said she raised the issue of Xinjiang with President XI at their meeting in Beijing but shortly after her visit, New Zealand was one of a number of countries who signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Commissioner calling on China to “uphold its national laws and international obligations and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief, in Xinjiang and across China. We call also on China to refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang.” Do you accept that the NZ Government remains unconvinced by China’s explanations as to what is happening in Xinjiang?
AMBASSADOR: The basic human rights of residents of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang are effectively guaranteed, and people live safe and happy lives. Over the past 60 years or so, since the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was established, its economic aggregate has increased almost 200 times, and people’s living standards have constantly improved. Xinjiang residents’ religious activities and freedoms of religious belief are protected by law.
At the Third Committee session on the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of the 74th General Assembly of the United Nations in 2019, more than 60 countries spoke in support of China’s position on Xinjiang, commending China’s human rights progress and policies in Xinjiang and expressing opposition to interference in China’s domestic affairs under the pretext of human rights. At the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council in 2020, 46 countries in their joint statement commended the human rights progress in Xinjiang.
POLITIK: Does China see Xinjiang as another Chechnya?
AMBASSADOR: China is a unified and multiethnic country. Xinjiang has been home to a number of China’s ethnic groups since ancient times. Under our unified state leadership, implementing regional autonomy in areas where ethnic minorities live in concentrated communities has been a standard political model in China. It is an important step on the path towards resolving ethnic problems in a Chinese manner and an institutional guarantee that this path will be followed. Implementing ethnic regional autonomy in Xinjiang is a measure that aligns with the prevailing situation in China and with the realities of life and the needs of Xinjiang. It has protected both national unification and the equality, unity and development of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
Since the 1990s, especially after the September 11 attacks in New York, elements of terrorist, separatist and extremist forces have launched several thousand terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, resulting in widespread casualties as well as the loss of property. In July 2009, one incident resulted in the deaths of 197 people and more than 1,700 injuries. Thanks to counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation efforts taken by the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous government, there has not been a single violent terrorist attack over the past three years. These efforts are supported by the 25 million people of various ethnic groups in Xinjiang and have been commended by Muslim countries and the wider international community. This is also China’s contribution to the global counter-terrorism cause.
POLITIK: Why is China apparently scared of a multi cultural, multi ethnic Xinjiang? In place of Islamic Uighur culture is China trying to establish a “state race” dominated by Han Chinese? Is that what the crackdown is really about; subduing Uighur culture because it is Islamic?
AMBASSADOR: Xinjiang ethnic cultures make up an inseparable part of Chinese culture. Since ancient times, China has been multicultural as a result of the diversity of its territory. Different ethnic cultures have come together and integrated with each other, leaving a legacy shared by the Chinese nation and creating the rich and diverse Chinese culture which exists today.
All ethnic groups in China, regardless of their size or levels of development, are equal. They enjoy equal rights and are required to fulfill the same obligations in accordance with the law. The establishment of the system of ethnic regional autonomy has served to protect the legitimate rights and interests of ethnic minorities and safeguard the equal rights and interests of individual citizens.
People of all ethnic origins in Xinjiang are ensured equal legal status. They enjoy the right to vote and stand for election as prescribed by the Constitution and the law. They enjoy the right of equal participation in the administration of state affairs, the right of religious belief, the right to education, the right to use their own spoken and written languages, the right to inherit and carry on the traditional culture of their own ethnic groups.
POLITIK: Will China provide the “unfettered” access the UN Human Rights Commissioner has requested for her officials to visit Xinjiang and will China agree to a visit there this year on her terms?
AMBASSADOR: Xinjiang’s door is open to the world. We have long welcomed the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit China and Xinjiang, and we encourage her visit at an appropriate time. In fact, since the end of 2018, more than 1,000 international organisations officials, foreign government officials, diplomats posted to China, journalists and academics have visited Xinjiang in over 70 groups. They all have concluded that what they have seen in Xinjiang is quite the opposite to what is frequently represented by Western media.
We welcome objective, balanced dialogue and communication, but we oppose foreign interference under the pretext of “international evaluation”. We urge all relevant parties to respect facts, avoid bias and view Xinjiang’s progress in human rights and counter-terrorism in an objective and fair manner.
POLITIK: Prime Minister Ardern, in her speech to the China Business Summit last year (which you were present for) said New Zealand was an open democracy, “with a focus on the rule of law. We take a principles-based approach to our foreign policy, and we make our decisions independently, informed by our values and our own assessment of New Zealand interests. “The New Zealand government takes a stance where, as representatives of the New Zealand people, we think that the public has a direct and resounding interest in the outcome. “ She said the plight of the Uighur people was one issue on which she had taken such a stance. How will her position on Uighurs impact the China – New Zealand relationship?
AMBASSADOR: China and New Zealand have very different histories, cultures, social systems and stages of development. New Zealand has a formal focus on biculturalism, whereas there are 56 ethnic groups in China with Uyghurs considered equal members of the larger family of the Chinese nation.
Unlike New Zealand, China has also endured a history of invasions at the hands of Western powers. Even today, there are countries which continue to instigate acts of terrorism, separatism and radicalisation. Simply put, there is no single global standard for national governance, and the key issue is whether it suits the national conditions.
Over the past decades, bilateral relations between China and New Zealand have been constructive and respectful, and both countries have come to realise sensitive issues can be managed in a proper way that keeps the relationship sound, stable and in good shape. This approach is in the interest of both countries and both peoples.
The key to our successful bilateral relationship over the past decades has been our commitment to practical cooperation, respect for each other’s core interests and accommodation of each other’s major concerns. Instead of trying to impose change on each other, we agree to respect each other. This mutual respect is particularly important for countries like China and New Zealand, which differ significantly in sizes, cultures and social systems.
China has always followed the principle of non-interference in others’ internal affairs. At the same time, China stands ready to safeguard its core and major interests. Issues related to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet all touch on China’s sovereignty and security. There is no room for foreign interference on these issues.
The many “firsts” that we have achieved in the China New Zealand relationship are the result of both sides managing our differences while pursuing our common interests. It is heartening that in their recent phone conversation, both H.E Wang Yi, State Councilor and Foreign Minister of China, and Hon. Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand Foreign Minister, expressed their commitment to upholding the spirit of “striving to be the first” and to push for greater development of China-New Zealand relations. I am looking forward to working with my New Zealand colleagues and friends to push forward the bilateral relationship in accordance with the consensus reached by the leadership of the two countries.