Expert views: New Zealanders' perceptions of Asia amid COVID-19

The Asia New Zealand Foundation has been tracking New Zealanders’ Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples since 1997, and released the latest report in the series on Monday 22 June.

The report draws on a survey of 2002 New Zealanders carried out by Colmar Brunton in November 2019, and a second survey of 1005 New Zealanders in March 2020 exploring perceptions of Asia following the outbreak of COVID-19. It also includes the results of separate survey of 1000 New Zealanders undertaken by Research NZ in June 2019, which looks at the impact of the Christchurch terror attack on New Zealanders’ perceptions of Asia.

The report found recognition of Asia’s importance to New Zealand grew after the pandemic. In November 2019, two-thirds (67 percent) of New Zealanders said that it was important for New Zealand to develop political, economic and social ties with Asia.  By March 2020, when the Foundation carried out the second poll, that figure had grown to 79 percent. 

The November survey also found that for the first time, more than half (51 percent) of New Zealanders felt they had at least a fair amount of knowledge about Asia.  Nearly half of those surveyed had travelled or lived in Asia, and one in six could hold a conversation in an Asian language. 

The Asia Media Centre asked expert commentators to share their perspectives on the report. 

Stanley Tan, ONZM, Singapore Honorary Adviser for the Asia New Zealand Foundation, chief executive officer of Singapore public-listed GYP Properties Limited , philanthropist

The findings are as expected and show the growing comfort and familiarity that New Zealand has of Asia and a healthy strengthening of this. However, it has yet to reach an inflection point where New Zealand sees Asia as its closest friend after Australia and South Pacific. This is needed in order for New Zealand to integrate herself as an integral member of the region. 

Singapore sees New Zealand as a friend, and is probably the closest friend of New Zealand among all the Asian countries. There is strong comfort towards New Zealand and we view New Zealand as a partner. The rest of Asia will have this to a lesser degree. Singapore probably gets more news coverage of New Zealand and has deeper ties. 

For example, Singaporeans would view New Zealand as a closer neighbour than South Korea, even though South Korea is part of Asia and New Zealand is not. There are several other similar examples.

There are definitely opportunities for New Zealand to be more engaged with Asia post-COVID 19. New Zealand can be a key contributor in food security for many Asian countries. New Zealand can play a strategic role in this, especially if it tap into its relationship with Singapore and Australia for scale, capital and supply chain systems and creates a deeper integration into Asia's requirements in this critical area.  

[Looking ahead], the resumption of travel between New Zealand and Asia is critical to grow the connections. Trade is another way to further connect. But deeper relationships will come from co-investments, cultural exchanges, G2G collaboration, R&D in common areas. These need to be added to tourism exchanges and trade, which are already strong. 

New Zealand has a huge opportunity to contribute to the education of Asians. It is an area where New Zealand has a strong offering. It can both attract a much bigger pool of Asian students to New Zealand and exporting its capability and talents into Asia, either directly or in partnership.

Ziena Jalil: diversity advocate, former diplomat posted to Asia, co-founder of yoga and meditation app myyodaa 

"Fifty-one percent of New Zealanders now say they know at least a fair amount about Asia. That’s almost the same as the number who said they have travelled or lived in the region. It’s nice to see there has been growth in knowledge, but if that growth is because of travel we have a challenge. Asian countries are very dynamic and fast-moving. If people can’t travel, what are we going to do to keep building that knowledge? 

"The more that can be done remotely in connecting people, the better. For instance, through our yoga and meditation app you can connect with teachers throughout the region.  Remote connections won’t replace being able to be there on the ground, the smells and the sounds and the tastes. But at least we can plug the gap a bit until we are able to travel. Virtual reality and augmented reality could give us immersive experiences. 

"The other thing about this research that interests me is the low level of knowledge of South Asia compared to North and Southeast Asia, given the Indian diaspora in New Zealand is very similar in size to the Chinese diaspora. We talk a lot about people-to-people links – if you add up the South Asian communities they would be a similar size to the North Asian communities. I'm interested in the role diaspora communities play or can play in building awareness and knowledge. Or is awareness a result of the trade relationship, media coverage, and China’s ever-growing role internationally?"

Knowledge of Asia

Perceptions of Asia found that New Zealanders' self-assessed knowledge of Asia varied considerably across the region.

Professor Emeritus Manying Ip
ONZM, Asia New Zealand Foundation Honorary Adviser

"I've been reading these perceptions reports since 1990s, when they first came out, in a less detailed form.  There's nothing too surprising in this one.

"Overall it's positive ... There are some consistent themes. Asia is important, it's second only to Australia - it's looked like that for a number of years. The main thing that is seen as beneficial has been tourism from Asia; that's a continuing trend. And young people are becoming more positive about Asia. 

"The increase in knowledge of Asia is good, and it's good to see a general knowledge test to back this up.

"The more that New Zealanders have been to Asia, the more knowledge has grown. We've seen that in the research even in the early days: New Zealanders tend to feel warm towards the countries they have travelled to.

"Travelling to Asia will be more difficult. In terms of how you can grow knowledge through personal experiences, we can see in this survey there is quite a healthy interest in Asian cultural events and food.

"The COVID-19 poll was a bit too early in March, because the situation is still unfolding. 

"Altogether, Asian countries have managed COVID quite well ... In six months' time it will be interesting to see in impacts of different approaches to COVID-19 in the region. There's a difference in the social and cultural conditions in different Asian countries, so that affects the COVID-19 responses.  In Hong Kong and Taiwan, Vietnam too, they have been so vigilant, because of SARS."

Kenneth Leong, chairman of the ASEAN Business Council, business director 

"It’s comforting to see that in March 2020, when there was widespread fear of COVID-19, 79 percent of respondents think that it’s important for New Zealand to develop stronger ties with Asia.

"The survey shows that New Zealanders are more accepting of Asia and Asian peoples than what one would think from reading widespread media reports of racism and discrimination towards Asians.

"It’s somewhat disappointing to see only about half believed that confidence in engaging with people from Asian cultures was an important skill for our future workforce. I expected more people to agree.

"It’s more important now than ever to deepen our understanding of Asia, as our fortunes are dependent on Asia’s economic recovery."

 Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley, sociologist at Massey University

"I have been concerned that there might have been a backlash in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that New Zealanders might have seen China in a negative light. There is certainly enough negative global news and political commentary that blames China and the Chinese in some way. And we have had some instances in New Zealand of Sinophobia. It is therefore heartening to see that 79 percent of those surveyed are really positive about developing ties with Asia in the wake of COVID-19, which is up considerably from the last survey.  

"One of the things I look for in the Asia New Zealand Foundation surveys is how New Zealanders view Asian peoples here, and how they see their contribution. In this survey, I noticed the high level of positive affirmation from respondents that Asian peoples contribute in all sorts of ways to New Zealand – economically, in terms of increased diversity.

"When you look at the various questions, it is noticeable that the negative responses are often 10 percent or less. Positive views are now significant, with those who express negative views in a very small minority."

Suzannah Jessep, director engagement and research, Asia New Zealand Foundation 

"One of the striking things about this year’s survey is that there appears to be a shift away from traditional domestic concerns such as the impact of Asian investment and immigration to New Zealand, to a focus on larger, shared concerns such as environmental degradation and – unsurprisingly – health issues.

"It’s also interesting to see that as New Zealanders have become more knowledgeable about Asia, and more confident engaging in Asia, threat perceptions have also softened. Over the years, we have seen Asian countries rise in the ranks as friends of New Zealand, particularly Japan – being rated as a friend by 71 percent of New Zealanders (as compared to the US, which sits at 57 percent) and very few countries being named as threats by more than half of New Zealand (with the exception this year of North Korea, which was identified as posing a threat by 59 percent).

"It’s notable that the top five ‘threatening’ countries are all nuclear-armed, but there is also evidence to suggest that New Zealanders feel wary of large powers – with the United States also being listed as both friend and threat (by 12 percent).”         

Luke Qin
, banker, chair of the Wellington Chinese Association, member of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network 

"What stood out most for me was the post-COVID poll showed more New Zealanders (79 percent in March 2020 compared to 67 percent in November 2019) felt it was important for New Zealand to develop political, economic and social ties with Asia, most New Zealanders believe people of Asian ethnicity are making a positive contribution to New Zealand's economy, cultural diversity and workplace productivity, and more young people are positive about New Zealand's future with Asia.

"The pandemic has expedited the process of people and places keeping connected in the virtual world. The upcoming "Internet of Things" will reshape the world as we know it, so much so that soon we will be able to descend on the world-famous Zigong Lantern Festival right before the lights are on... In the meantime, we can make the best use of current technology and the efficiencies it has brought us to make the world go round and learn more about the things that are important to us. Of course, nothing will ever replace the warmth of a handshake in the real world which is what makes us human.

"The media plays a significant role in shaping our perception of Asia. We must call out the unjust and fight against the extreme but bad news can travel halfway around the world while the good news is putting on its shoes. Political maneuvering and geopolitical competition can greatly influence and distort peoples' perceptions. One can be swept up by the zeitgeist of the day and find it convenient to turn a blind eye to balanced views. After all, there is a lot more to humanity than politics. 

Word cloud

When asked to give the first word that came to mind in relation to Asia, about one-quarter of New Zealanders said China.

Luke Qin: "No doubt, China is an integral part of Asia with one in five of the world's population being ethnic Chinese. China also tends to dominate the news cycle for various reasons on a daily basis. From President Trump to my preschooler, everyone seems to have an opinion about China and what it really represents. Perhaps when some of us think of Asia, we really think of the North and Southeast Asian 'Chopsticks Cultural Sphere', with many countries sharing similar traditions, beliefs, and differences of course.

"However, there is a whole lot more to Asia than just China or North Asia. Thankfully, Asia is a more diverse and vibrant place because of all Asian countries and the people who live in them."

Perceptions of Asia in the news:

RNZ: Survey reveals Kiwis want to strengthen ties with Asia
NZ Herald: COVID-19: Asia important to New Zealand's recovery, survey finds  
Stuff: Coronavirus: Increased understanding of Asia a silver lining of pandemic  
Newshub: Kiwis keen to strengthen ties with Asia in wake of COVID-19 - survey  
Xinhua: New Zealanders see ties with Asia of more importance: survey

 - Asia Media Centre