Before we start cowering under our beds for fear of a vast international conspiracy being directed from Beijing by the Chinese Communist Party, a little realism would help.
Some people would have us believe that speculation, innuendo and the mere existence of Chinese organisations in New Zealand add up to evidence of Chinese government interference in New Zealand's way of life. A brief visit, for example, by a prominent New Zealander to one of China's top art academies, which is affiliated with the People's Liberation Army, in this view somehow becomes a suggestion of unseemly collusion with China's armed forces.
This approach really amounts to making two plus two equal five, six or seven. Evidence of actual intervention or success in such activities is noticeably lacking.
China does indeed have a vast and complex apparatus aimed at projecting Chinese soft power around the world. Part of that effort is influencing and monitoring what overseas Chinese are doing in places like New Zealand. But the existence of this state or party apparatus and plans does not in itself prove anything. It merely shows that China is anxious to be respected and have influence, as are most countries, including New Zealand.
The US, France, Germany, Japan, Korea and other countries all make similar efforts to shape our views of them.
Moreover, a realistic assessment of Chinese efforts suggests that despite decades of hard work, the global projection of Chinese soft power has been a remarkable failure. China has had success in influencing emerging nations with weak institutions, such as in the Pacific Islands. But in long-established democracies such as our own, success eludes Beijing.
However, conspiracy theorists remain ever keen to find reds under beds, as the old Cold War saying went. That sub-mattress space is getting a bit crowded with some of us cowering there as well. They draw attention to the Confucius Institutes in New Zealand, for example. Given my professorship, I am on the board of the Auckland Confucius Institute, a trilateral partnership between the Chinese body charged with promoting the study of Chinese language and culture (Chinese International Education Foundation), Fudan University in Shanghai and the University of Auckland.
I am proud of the huge increase in the number of young Kiwis studying Mandarin in schools across the country that the Confucius Institutes have enabled since 2007. The Alliance Francaise, the Goethe-Institut, and the Japan and Korea Foundations for decades have all sought to help young New Zealanders study their respective languages.
Through the auspices of the Confucius Institutes, New Zealand teachers work alongside young, enthusiastic language-teaching students from China (when pandemic border controls allow – sadly not in 2020). They engage with a generation of Kiwi youngsters for whom China will be an even more important factor in their future careers and prosperity than it is for us now.
The schools are in charge of what is taught in these Chinese classrooms.
At the university level, the teaching of Chinese studies is entirely a matter in the hands of the academic staff, who, in Auckland's case, have been teaching these subjects for almost 60 years. This work in schools and universities is helping to future-proof New Zealand.
The conspiracy theorists also like to draw attention to the behaviour of wealthy Chinese immigrants and organisations making donations to political parties.
Our donations regime sorely needs reform in many dimensions. But we don't need conspiracies to explain these Chinese donations. As I pointed out to a parliamentary select committee last year, many of these wealthy migrants bring with them to New Zealand a mindset shaped by how they had achieved success in China. There, personal connections loom large in a society where institutions do not work well or are subject to abuse.
In China, personal links with party leaders and other influential people are a way to cultivate success. In New Zealand, our institutions (courts, financial authorities etc) work well and are independent. Recent migrants tend to assume otherwise, hence the push to be photographed standing with a prime minister or even a lowly backbencher.
We need to educate or induct new migrants more effectively into Kiwi ways of doing things and how our systems work. Civics education, covering the position of tangata whenua, the Treaty of Waitangi and how government listens to the people, is long overdue to help build a confident country that takes its own, independent stands on global issues. We need to work across borders, not put up walls.
Conspiracy theories are a concern because at best they are misleading. At worst they spread disinformation and muddy the waters for a realistic and constructive relationship.
Scaremongering is not the way to get real about China.
• Paul Clark is Professor of Chinese at University of Auckland and director of the North Asia CAPE (Centre of Asia Pacific Excellence).