Winston Peters has injected a note of "Kiwi style" realism into a debate raging in academic and media circles over the impact of China's soft power initiatives in New Zealand.

At a symposium to commemorate New Zealand's 45 years of diplomatic relations with China, Peters got stuck into Western commentators, chiding them for their lack of understanding of China's domestic realities when it came to its human rights record.

The symposium was redolent with imagery.

One analogy — from a former diplomat — talked about New Zealand being a bit like a mouse on the elephant's back when it came to comparisons with China.


But when it came to Peters' address — this mouse did not roar.

He quoted a song that Janis Joplin made famous about how "freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose" to illustrate why commentators should be more tolerant of the controls the Chinese Government exerts on its people as it completes a massive urbanisation project.

"When you have hundreds of millions of people to be re-employed and relocated with the change of your economic structure you have some massive, huge problems," Peters said.

"Sometimes commentators in the West should have a little more regard to that, and the economic outcome for those people, rather than constantly harping on about the romance of freedom."

There was plenty more besides.

Unlike in Australia, where this week Malcolm Turnbull's Government introduced a new offence of intentional foreign interference (this basically criminalises the activities of any person who engages in conduct on behalf of a foreign principal that will influence a political or government process and is either covert or involves deception), successive New Zealand Governments have not cared to probe too deeply when it comes to possible attempts to influence the domestic political process.

And despite the rhetoric of the election campaign, the Labour-led Government has made no further moves over National MP Jian Yang, who has strenuously denied any insinuations he was a Chinese spy.

Australia tends to look slightly askance at New Zealand's relationship with China.


John Howard's Government believed it had been sandbagged by Helen Clark when the former Labour Prime Minister agreed to recognise China's status as a market economy as down payment on a free-trade agreement.

Western commentators have recently slagged New Zealand as akin to a vassal state of China in that there has been little open discussion on the thornier aspects of the relationship.

The converse view is that New Zealand is simply pragmatic when it comes to prosecuting its interests with China — particularly on the commercial and trading front.

And given the determination of party officials from both National and Labour to chase political donations from Chinese business folk ("for the good of democracy") it would take considerable semantic gymnastic ability to reverse the practice of the past decade.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern simply says she believes New Zealand's disclosure regime for political donations is doing its job but will stay "vigilant" for any overseas influence.

Peters does not appear to be outwardly troubled either by a report from Christchurch academic Professor Anne-Marie Brady probing the extent of Chinese soft power influence here — particularly when it comes to the Mainland Chinese diaspora and the New Zealand-based Chinese news media.

Peters' address was in fact straight from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade playbook. It sent China a message that it was "business as usual" despite the change of Government. In its briefing to him, the ministry stressed the deep importance of the personal relationships that a foreign minister brings to executing his role.

Already, Peters has met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the outskirts of the recent Apec meeting in Vietnam. He is expected to visit China next year ahead of Ardern's first official visit to Beijing as Prime Minister at the invitation of the Chinese President.

The ministry clearly expects Peters to work his considerable charm when it comes to his next formal meeting with Yi.

The most interesting aspect of Peters' address was what it did not say.

Peters did not echo his previous protectionist campaigns where he has openly criticised the extent of Chinese investment and immigration.

Instead, the New Zealand First leader stressed the many "firsts" New Zealand has notched with China.

And while he stressed that negotiations with China on an upgraded free-trade agreement would be difficult, he did not point out that one of the reasons is New Zealand's lack of negotiating coin.

Peters did not say this — but in my view we may just have run out of firsts.