• Dr Simon Chapple is director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University.

In a recent Herald article, former Foreign Minister Sir Don McKinnon claimed, "New Zealand has learned to build a relationship [with the People's Republic of China] on the basis of mutual respect, despite obvious differences in core values". McKinnon's central claim is controversial.

Is it indeed possible to respect a person or a regime when one doesn't share its core values? For example, a core value of mine is a commitment to free speech. Consequently I may lack respect for someone who is fundamentally against freedom of speech. Should things be any different at a nation-state level?

McKinnon seems reluctant to spell out his "obvious differences in core values". What are they? New Zealanders need to be clear about these to understand who and what we are engaging with.


The People's Republic of China (PRC) is an authoritarian regime, an inheritor of the mantle of Mao's totalitarian regime of the mid-20th century. Recently under Xi Jinping it has been moving in more authoritarian directions. The current regime has little respect for free speech, a free press, freedom of association, religious and academic freedom, a free judiciary and various other universal human rights, all of which New Zealanders place a high value on.

It is also deeply corrupt. In 1989 the regime crushed protesting Chinese students with tanks. As a fellow student at the time, I remember marching in support of these brave Chinese people.

It may be, as Foreign Minister Winston Peters recently suggested, that despite these differences in values, we should respect the PRC because it has succeeded economically for the Chinese people. Economist Michael Reddell has shown China's economic performance has been unspectacular compared with similar Asian countries which have embraced political systems far more in sync with our own. So, focusing simply on the economic side, there's still little to respect.

McKinnon claims "continuing expansion" of our relationship with China is "overwhelmingly" in our interests. Others might draw more cautious conclusions. The more we are entwined with a corrupt authoritarian state which will not hesitate to employ our growing economic dependence against us, the more vulnerable we become to (1) importing their corruption, and (2) to New Zealand-China trade being employed as an economic weapon.

China won't hesitate here. For example, Chinese economic power has already been wielded on another small state, Norway, when it gave a Nobel prize to Chinese human rights campaigner Liu Xiaobo.

Growing dependence on China is thus not "overwhelmingly" in New Zealand's interests. But growing dependence is what China is seeking to engineer. At least that's according to the recent work of academic Anne-Marie Brady. Perhaps, rather than placing all our eggs in the China basket, we need to put more energy into developing alternative trading partners.

McKinnon sees the PRC as simply using "soft power", the polar opposite of hard military power, to project influence. Soft power is the ability to shape other countries' views through appeal and attraction. However, for reasons discussed above, the PRC is not generally appealing and attractive to New Zealanders.

Additionally, recent PRC-linked activities in New Zealand are not particularly "soft". For example, people close to the Chinese Communist party have avoided the Electoral Finance Act to make significant party-political donations in a non-transparent fashion. People with close and uncritical links to the Chinese Communist party sit in positions of responsibility on both sides of our House of Representatives. The PRC seems determined to control the Chinese language media in New Zealand.


McKinnon believes the exercise of Chinese "soft power" in New Zealand is untroublesome as even we do the same thing. I think this is false equivalence. Do people with close connections to the New Zealand state funnel considerable funds into the Chinese political system for non-transparent motives? Does New Zealand have New Zealand-born and raised people with strong links to our major parties in strategic positions of political power in the PRC? Does New Zealand attempt to control the English language press in the PRC?

Maybe if the answer to these three questions were yes, New Zealand's behaviour might be considered comparable, and PRC behaviour within the realm of acceptability.

I recently attended an international symposium, partly organised by the Confucius Institute (which is half funded by the PRC) of Victoria University on "New Zealand's Relationship with China. Past, Present and Future". The conference programme cover included a prominent picture of Mao Zedong. No attendees seemed to think twice about this disturbing image.

As we trip over ourselves chasing trade dollars, we seem in some danger of losing our moral compass.