PRC funding in NZ: The key challenges

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.

What are key and current challenges facing New Zealand’s organisations and events, in terms of financing from China government sources?

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

"To my mind, the key challenge confronting such organisations is in overcoming negative perceptions and stereotypes of what China is. While certainly there are long-standing mentalities and trends in the behaviour of the Chinese government we would wish to see changed (as is true with the behaviours of all governments worldwide), the fusion of Party and state in China, and common references to "the Communist Party of China," stir fears within the New Zealand public and paints an excessively monolithic picture of that Party, country, and government. In reality, there are about 85 million CCP members. We should be vigilant, of course, but also recognise that Party membership is not in itself or in most cases evidence of something nefarious. For most people, Party membership is about networking — connections in politics are a key part of getting ahead in China, just like everywhere else."

Tze Ming Mok, sociologist, political scientist and writer

 “With all due respect, firstly they [the organisations] do amazing work for the community. They don’t want to say anything to piss of their funder, but if they want to demonstrate that these events are really independent from the Chinese government interests, what value do they place on independence? What are they willing to do to show that independence? Will they make sure there is a space for repressed minorities to be part of these events? Will they make space for people who support Taiwanese or Hong Kong independence to be part of these events? I suspect not. I’d like to be wrong about that. I think they’re in a really difficult position. Essentially they’re traditionalists, not human rights activists. They’re trying to protect their community. They don’t have the inclination to stand up to China, it makes them vulnerable to accusations that they are just owned by the Chinese government, that’s what I worry about.

“In terms of the Confucius Institute, its focus is on Han Chinese culture. It’s an ethnocentric perspective that isn’t about showing that China is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual state with a complex history. There’s nothing wrong with promoting Mandarin language, Chinese history and culture. There’s obviously very highly regarded workers in the cultural fields associated with the Confucius Institutes, such as Mandarin Language Assistants, all great services, perfectly neutral with great cultural outreach and resources but essentially it’s like any other soft power cultural outpost, there to promote the Chinese state as a mono-ethnic Han entity that has a particular history and dominant group. It’s not interested in diversity.”

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

"The Institute absolutely recognises the need for transparency in the way we run our language and culture programmes. In addition to university line management, the Institute has an advisory board (that includes senior university staff) which examines and approves the annual work programme, and ensures that the Institute is operating within university guidelines and with university awareness of what it is doing. Most of the Chinese language teaching supported by the Institute is undertaken by Mandarin Language Assistants (MLAs) in around 140 schools in the lower part of the North Island. We work closely and openly with schools to determine and support, as much as possible, their Chinese language requirements. The professional training and development we provide to build the MLAs’ teaching skills is delivered by New Zealand registered teachers and language specialists. The MLAs work under the direction of New Zealand teachers in the classroom, and the principals and trustees at the school level."

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

"The key challenge is that what may (or may not) have been acceptable in terms of the moral hazards of accepting funding from PRC sources yesterday, so to speak, are no longer acceptable today, and what might (or again, might not) be acceptable today will certainly not be acceptable tomorrow.

What are the constraints that Confucius Institutes, by virtue of their constitution, labour under? As well as the long-standing taboo areas of Taiwan, Tibet, and the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 (and more recently, the situation in Hong Kong and the incarceration in camps of large numbers of Uyghur people in Xinjiang), since 2013 there has also been the imposition of the “Seven Forbidden Topics” of universal values, freedom of speech, civil society, civil rights, the historical errors of the Chinese Communist Party, crony capitalism, and judicial independence.

No institution working to such constraints has any place in a New Zealand university; as a New Zealand parent, neither do I believe it acceptable that Mandarin Language Assistants working to such constraints are allowed to teach in our primary and secondary schools. Further, by opting out of actually taking full responsibility for the teaching of China, Chinese culture and Chinese language, in the manner in which we have done, we further ghettoise China.

A final important critique that can be levelled against PRC-funded institutions (such as the Confucius Institutes and the China Cultural Centre) is that their ready access to funding (some of it matched by local funding) allows them to appropriate (and thus distort) whatever existing and authentically locally-based initiatives (scholarships for study in China, Chinese festival celebrations, speech and cultural days and so on) that might have been going on."

David Lee, Wellington City Councillor Southern Ward

“Relationships are about trust and confidence. We’ve had a really good relationship over 35 years. There’s more we can do between the two cities in terms of trade and business. It’s a vital relationship that we should build upon. Our relationship with Xiamen city is different from any relationship we have with the government. They are distinct entities. We have a good relationship at a diplomatic level with the capital Beijing (they host us) but our true ‘friendship’ relationship, at more personal level is with Xiamen (sister city).”

Esther Fung, Secretary, Wellington Chinese Garden Society 

“Sister city relationships were conceived as people-to-people relationships. They are administered within each city. For instance, Wellington has Xiamen and Beijing and Tianjin and province as its sister city and friendly areas in China.

“[The garden] is a community driven project by the communities in New Zealand towns and in China. It is a gift to the city, a mark of friendship. The help that they offer is help to the citizens of these cities and towns.”

Justin Lester, Mayor of Wellington

“Again, there’s no impact for us. For local projects fundraising’s always an issue, an example like the ‘Garden of Beneficence.’ It’s a gift from the [New Zealand] Chinese community to Wellington. We provided resource consent and also successfully defended costs as we had a challenge around that process, which is normal for a lot of projects. Now we look forward to the Chinese community raising the funds and getting on with the project. It’s always hard because that’s a big number. These are Chinese New Zealanders, very much like I or anybody else of the many dozens of ethnicities across the city represented. I’ll continue my support of the Chinese community too.”

 - Asia Media Centre