On 11 April New Zealand’s ‘spy chiefs’, as the media labelled them, gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee of Parliament. Rebecca Kitteridge, director-general of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), and Andrew Hampton, director-general of the Government Security Communications Bureau (GCSB), gave dark warnings to MPs about foreign interference in NZ politics. China was not mentioned in the public session though that was clearly the thrust and no doubt they were more explicit when the session was closed to the public and media. It was a scene which is frequently, and increasingly, being played out in a similar fashion elsewhere, especially in Anglophone countries with large Chinese diasporic communities such as the United States, Britain and Australia. There are many ways of looking at what is happening but for New Zealand, and in slightly different ways for Australia, it is useful to see it as a clash between diasporas.
New Zealand, like everywhere else in the world, has experienced various waves of migration though it started later than anywhere else, being the last substantial area to be settled by humans. Firstly it was the Maori – while they brought Polynesian culture with them and retained memories, their migration was basically on the Eurasian model. Then came European settlers, mainly British. Whilst there were moves towards greater autonomy and then nominal independence, social, economic and particularly political ties remained strong. This was partly natural deference to the British Crown and political system but it was greatly reinforced, as it was in Australia, by the fear of being a white outpost, far from home, surrounded by ‘natives’ in the new country and Asians in the region, especially China but also for a period Japan. The British settlers formed the ruling class and still dominate it. Not being large enough to challenge the homeland, as the Americans did, and feeling very vulnerable, this elite has always been characterised by a strong loyalty and subservience to the empire. When Britain went to war, so too did New Zealand, without demur. The United States replaced Britain in the mid-20th century. This was in the specific circumstances of the war against Japan but it would have happened anyway.
There are other diasporic communities in New Zealand such as Pacific Islanders who started arriving in large number from the 1950s when there was a need for labour. Despite the size of their community they have little economic or political power. The Dutch community is small but well represented in the business and political elite. The Islamic community is trans-national and as a body has no allegiance to any specific country. The Indian community is growing rapidly.
However it is the Chinese diaspora that is currently attracting the most attention. There is innuendo but public details are sketchy. Allegations tend to be tendentious and self-serving; maverick National MP Jami-Lee Ross, perhaps seeking publicity as well as carrying out a vendetta against National Party leader Simon Bridges, has made waves about a donation to the party by a Chinese businessman.
Two interrelated aspects need to be considered, the internal and the external.
The history and the resultant composition of the Chinese diaspora is complex, as is New Zealand’s ambivalent relationship with China. It has proceeded in fairly distinct waves. The first group in the 19th century were from southeast China and came primarily for the gold, many via Australia. As in Australia they were very badly treated although there was no formal ‘White NZ Policy’. Then in 2002 Prime Minister Helen Clark made a formal apology. From the 1980s onwards there was renewed immigration from Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Then came the Mainlanders, and in substantial numbers. Unlike the others the Mainlanders, whatever their attitude to the government in Beijing, came as citizens of a great and growing power and this has probably imbued them with a sense of pride and entitlement – no longer the supplicant who could be cowed. It has also imbued them, in the eyes of many, with an aura of threat. For the British-dominated elite, this represents the first time their primacy has been challenged. Small numbers, whether they be Maori (a special case), Dutch, Indian or even Chinese, can be co-opted and assimilated. The Mainland diaspora is another matter and it may well come to pass that the existing elite will have to yield some power to them, and perhaps in 100 years’ time primacy itself.
The external dimension reinforces and justifies this present attempt at exclusion. A dispassionate outsider following the debate on Chinese interference and influence would be astounded. The country that does influence, indeed dominate, New Zealand and its foreign policy is, of course, the United States. Britain for reasons of nostalgia, Australia for proximity both have influence but nothing matches that of the US. And it is difficult to discern much Chinese attempt at influence other than reaction to unfriendly policies. When the New Zealand authorities, presumably under guidance from Washington, excluded Huawei from NZ’s 5G infrastructure the Chinese government made its displeasure known. The ‘spy chiefs’ and their colleagues in the elite have so internalised subservience to the US over decades and generations that they probably are not really aware of what they are doing.
The major foreign issue facing New Zealand, along with Australia and many other countries, is how to cope with the deepening confrontation between declining America and rising China. The United States is increasingly resorting to extreme measures to protect its hegemony, such as attempting to prohibit other countries from using Chinese technology and the virtual kidnapping of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou (with its implications for the Chinese diaspora in Canada). That the US might turn to war is frequently discussed, though not much in New Zealand.
The clash between the dominant and entrenched British diaspora in New Zealand and the upstart Chinese one is part of this very dangerous struggle. At this stage the indications are that the New Zealand elite will handle things badly.
Tim Beal is a retired academic. Born in England he has been a migrant to Australia, Scotland and now New Zealand.