New Zealand’s differences with China are becoming “harder to reconcile,” the prime minister Jacinda Ardern has said, as she called on China “to act in the world in ways that are consistent with its responsibilities as a growing power”.
Ardern’s comments were made as New Zealand’s government comes under increasing pressure, both internally and from international allies, to take a firmer stance on concerns over human rights abuses of Uyghur people in China’s Xinjiang province. Last week, the Act party presented a motion for New Zealand’s parliament to debate whether the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang constitutes genocide – a motion that Labour will discuss this week.
“Managing the relationship is not always going to be easy and there can be no guarantees,” Ardern said in her speech to the China Business Summit on Monday. “We need to acknowledge that there are some things on which China and New Zealand do not, cannot, and will not agree.”
Ardern specifically cited the situation in Xinjiang, noting that “We have commented publicly about our grave concerns regarding the human rights situation of Uyghurs”. She also mentioned the “continued negative developments with regard to the rights, freedoms and autonomy of the people of Hong Kong”.
Her comments come as the government attempts to balance its human rights commitments with the demands of its largest trading partner.
Since November 2020, the value of exports to China alone has been greater than New Zealand’s next four largest trading partners – Australia, the US, UK, and Japan – combined. When Australia took a tougher stance on China, the country retaliated with tariffs, import restrictions and by warning its citizens not to travel to Australia. Analysis last year found China’s declared and undeclared sanctions against Australia cost the country around AU$47.7bn last year.
Ardern was clear that she did not see the differences as irreconcilable, and said that “links remain strong”.
“There are some things on which China and New Zealand do not, cannot, and will not agree,” she said. “This need not derail our relationship, it is simply a reality.”
Ardern said there were still opportunities for New Zealand and China to work together on international trade, climate change, and response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Areas of difference need not define a relationship. But equally, they are part and parcel of New Zealand staying true to who we are as a nation.”
Evidence has emerged from China of mass internment of Uyghurs, as well as forced sterilization, forced labour, and allegations of mass rape and torture in Xinjiang. Interviews with guards and detainees at the camps in February found “they experienced or saw evidence of an organised system of mass rape, sexual abuse and torture”. Legal analysis from US researchers in March found the Chinese government had breached every article of the UN genocide convention in its treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Gulbahar Haitiwaji has written for the Guardian recounting her experience of being forcibly detained at a “re-education camp”, where she was beaten, injected with contraceptive drugs, and imprisoned for two years.
Foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta said that the Act Party’s motion to debate on genocide in Xinjiang would be discussed when Labour’s caucus met this week. Because the Labour party holds an overwhelming majority in parliament, the motion would require support from at least some Labour MPs to succeed.
Similar motions to that proposed in New Zealand have led to debates in the parliaments of some of the country’s allies, including Britain, Australia and Canada. In April, British MPs voted to declare that China is committing genocide, and Britain and the EU have taken joint action with the US and Canada to impose sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims.