PRC funding in NZ: The current geopolitical climate

The debate over the extent of influence from the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in New Zealand, as well as anxieties to do with the nature of the PRC government’s domestic policies, have led to concerns over the role of PRC financing in New Zealand.

What are the current challenges facing New Zealand organisations which receive funding from the PRC to further their work in the cultural and education sectors? 

Where is there consensus?  What are the points of difference?

The Asia Media Centre approached a range of people across local government, universities, community initiatives and organisations that work with, have knowledge of or receive funding from the PRC-related sources to find out their views.

Describe how the current geopolitical climate is affecting organisations that receive funding from PRC-related sources in New Zealand.

Stephen Noakes, Senior Lecturer, Politics and International Relations, University of Auckland

"Geopolitics is driving a sense that New Zealand, and New Zealand-based organisations, must choose international alliances — one can either be an ally of China or of the US, but not both. I think this is dead wrong, and that one need not align with one or the other, but the belief that this is so is common, and gives added pressure for disclosure. Organisations receiving funding from either source should therefore be prepared to have to justify themselves and their funding sources, though for cultural and historic reasons, those receiving PRC funding may find this harder to do. On the other hand, this state of affairs is not all bad, since it suggests that the current climate may provide a push for greater transparency when reporting funding sources."

Linda Lim, Asian Events Trust, Chinese New Year Festival, Wellington

“In terms of funding, we get very little dollars from the PRC. The support we receive is in international performers from China. For the 19 years our festival has been running, the relationship has been all over China. The last two years we’ve had a direct relationship with the China Culture Centre, which established itself two years ago and comes from the Ministry of Culture and a small fund from the Chinese Embassy – they covered the cost of bringing performers over and we hosted them.”

“We are politically neutral, we are religiously neutral. We are clear with our funders about this. We promote Chinese culture to mainstream audience. If both partners have this at the forefront then it works. It’s making sure we have the sustained income stream – partnering with Wellington City Council.”

Rebecca Needham, Director of the Confucius Institute, Victoria University of Wellington

"The global environment is changing, and the greater polarisation of views about China has among other things resulted in growing criticism in some countries that Confucius Institutes are compromising academic freedom. These criticisms do not stand up to scrutiny in the case of the Institute at the Victoria University of Wellington. We are under university management and direction, and bound by the values of the university; moreover our Institute does not teach at the university, nor does it otherwise bring ideological content to university classes."  

Tze Ming Mok, sociologist, political scientist and writer

“I have to respond generally because I’m not one of those hard-working community people operating at a grass roots level getting stuff done for their community. It’s hard for those people to openly talk about [China-related] issues without worrying about funding dilemmas further down the line.

"For a start, there are limited funds for ethnic community work in New Zealand. It’s easy for large funders to quickly establish dominance as a key player in these community organisations. We know it is the policy of the Chinese government to do exactly that with diaspora Chinese populations in New Zealand. They want to set themselves up as the ‘all-star’ of diaspora Chinese; cultural guidance, influence and connections.

"It’s quite a paternalistic view. We are considered part of their remit. On the one hand there is nothing wrong with this, building links and solidarity, networks, it’s not disingenuous, and it’s about supporting our cultural heritage, but it makes it hard for communities to face the realities of what the Chinese government is trying to accomplish domestically and internationally."

Esther Fung, Secretary, Wellington Chinese Garden Society 

“The design of this garden [The Garden of Beneficence] is not a typical classical Chinese garden, it uses the elements of design but it combines that with New Zealand elements and New Zealand flora. The two are integrated to tell a story about the Chinese community which has been in New Zealand since the 1840s and its origins and integrations. The New Zealand elements are very strong which signifies that we are New Zealanders. The siting is specific and harks back to the arrival of early Chinese settlers to Wellington and the main source of entry for the original settlers who first touched New Zealand soil. The Chinese community have undertaken to build the garden and will gift it back to the city as a free public garden for everybody.

“The sister city relationship is not a PRC-related funding arrangement. The sister city relationship was conceived as a people-to-people arrangement with Xiamen, our sister city in China. This particular Chinese garden has been a long time in gestation. It was conceived, planned and hoped for, for over 22 years. There have been a number of other gardens in New Zealand taking much less time to establish with the help of largely sister-city relationships.”

David Lee, Wellington City Councillor Southern Ward

“We have relationships with other sister cities. We need these partnerships, not just for funding but also in recognition of our friendship, the connections between the sister cities. It is a vital source of funding. But we also have to be mindful of the political consequences of such funding. There is a natural nervousness dealing with entities of New Zealand but we have to be quite respectful that it is a sister city relationship and it has to be managed.”

Justin Lester, Mayor of Wellington

“It's sister city relations. It’s not my place to judge different political systems. I’m focused on the mutual understanding and engagement which is around people getting to know each other from different parts of the world.

“This doesn’t affect us. I understand that there are questions at a national level and I’m not involved in those extensively. We’re aware of them but it doesn’t impact on our relationships with our sister cities; Seoul, Xiamen and Beijing which are strong cultural relationships. My first official visit to Beijing was in 2017 and visiting Rewi Alley’s house, so we’ve had pioneering New Zealanders committed to help form a strong base for that relationship over many decades (since 1949) and I want to continue that on.”

Duncan Campbell, New Zealand Contemporary Chinese Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington

"The current geopolitical moment, in particular the juxtaposition of USA dysfunction and incoherence and the rise of (an increasingly authoritarian) PRC, presents us with many and difficult challenges, but also offers us opportunities to continue to develop new ways of thinking about ourselves, of allowing geography (where we are) rather than history (where we came from) to become the determining factor in who and how we are.

"If, fitfully, some of our major cultural institutions have sought over recent years to address the gap between the cultural and the economic domains of life, the response on the part of our educational institutions has been abysmal. Rather than rise to the challenges and invest in the required infrastructure, we have outsourced responsibility for, in this instance, the teaching of China and Chinese to agencies of the party state of the PRC."

– Asia Media Centre