Asia in 2019 - Stephen Epstein: NZ will need to speak up for its values

In an Asia Media Centre series, we asked Stephen Epstein to reflect on developments in 2019 and look ahead to 2020.

What developments, events or trends in Asia have interested you the most in 2019? And why?

The continual ratcheting up of surveillance, repression and authoritarian control in the People's Republic of China has to be the most important story from Asia over the last year. The world's attention has largely focused on events in Hong Kong, but I've been especially concerned about the government's unconscionable actions in Xinjiang, detaining over one million people in camps on the basis of ethnicity and religion. The recent document leak offers a critical window into what has occurred and deserves wide coverage.

Also important is the heightened frictions between Japan and South Korea: the relationship is notoriously fraught, but the remarkable downturn this year potentially takes Northeast Asia into new territory.

How do these impact New Zealand – if in fact they do? 

What has been occurring in the PRC, especially since 2017, should give us serious pause in considering how we move forward in our bilateral relationship. While China remains a key economic partner for New Zealand, the Xi administration’s willingness to resort to coercion both domestically and internationally means that we will likely be called upon — and sooner rather than later — to speak up for our values rather than turn a blind eye to unacceptable action. New Zealand needs to be cautious and further diversify trade to ensure that it retains full control over its choices.

I suspect that neither South Korea nor Japan would force us to choose one over the other, but we should do what we can to urge rapprochement.

What will you be watching out for in 2020?

Will nations broadly in the Asian region (and more broadly) continue to move in the direction of authoritarian rule and intolerance? One significant event in 2020 that will take place far from Asia, but have critical impact on the region, is what occurs in the US elections in November. If the unthinkable, but unfortunately very possible, occurs and Trump is re-elected, we can expect further destabilisation for Asia, for New Zealand and the world.

Any books/movies/podcasts/etc on Asia that you would recommend to others?

Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is a fine movie that deserves the high praise it has been receiving, but it still pales in my view with Bong’s earlier Memories of Murder, an extraordinarily gripping and incisive take on South Korean society during the military dictatorship of the 1980s. I'd rank it among the two or three best films of all time. The film became relevant again this year when the killer in the Hwaseong serial murders that the story is based on was finally identified. 

For those who are learning an Asian language, especially one that is not broadly taught, I recommend having a look at and a set of related channels on YouTube that offer children’s fairy tales in an incredible variety of languages subtitled in English. Kannada? Khmer? Mongolian? Malayalam? They’re all there. Just do a search for “[x] fairy tales”, inserting the language you want to find content in, and you’re away.

A shout-out as well to for its outstanding resources and YouTube channel —a top-notch site for those studying Mandarin independently.


- Asia Media Centre