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International relations

New Zealand 'shadow boxes' over Xinjiang amid pressure to speak up

Analysts say parliament declaration without 'genocide' likely kept China happy

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019: Ardern is walking a fine line between criticizing Beijing on human rights and preserving economic ties.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- A New Zealand parliament motion this week condemning rights abuses against Xinjiang's Uyghur population drew Chinese criticism, but analysts say the most important word was the one missing from the declaration -- "genocide."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's government has appeared to tiptoe around sensitive China issues, wary of provoking the backlash experienced by Australia since it called for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 last year. But Wellington also feels growing international pressure to stand up to Beijing.

Five Eyes intelligence allies the U.S., Canada and the U.K., as well as the Netherlands, have labeled China's actions in Xinjiang genocide, citing mounting evidence of arbitrary imprisonment, forced sterilization and torture -- all allegations Beijing firmly denies.

So on Wednesday, New Zealand's parliament was unanimous in passing the motion on "severe human rights abuses" in Xinjiang. In response, the Chinese Embassy in Wellington quickly blasted the parliament for making "groundless" accusations and interfering in China's internal affairs.

On Thursday, however, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin spoke positively of the countries' ties. "China and New Zealand are each other's important cooperative partner," he said, making no mention of the motion.

The difference in Wang's tone on Australia was striking. Asked about China's announcement the same day that it was indefinitely suspending an economic dialogue mechanism with Canberra, he said it was up to Australia to "stop the insane suppression targeting China-Australia cooperation."

International law expert Alexander Gillespie predicted New Zealand's motion was unlikely to truly rile China. "Although China has protested, I imagine they are actually quite happy, as the New Zealand debate avoided the controversial 'G' word and went no further," he said.

Conversely, Gillespie said allies that have labeled China's actions genocide were likely to see the development as "further evidence that New Zealand lacks the will to confront difficult issues with China."

"A debate was held that started, and ended, reflecting what New Zealand's position already was," he said. "There was nothing new" and the motion included "no next steps."

Geoffrey Miller, a political commentator and international analyst at Victoria University's Democracy Project, described this week's developments between New Zealand and China as "shadow boxing."

At the start of the week, Ardern said that differences in values between New Zealand and China were becoming "harder to reconcile." Miller suggested this was a calculated statement to show the prime minister is "tough on China," after domestic and international scrutiny of Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta's comments that the government was "uncomfortable" joining Five Eyes statements on human rights.

Miller agreed that, notwithstanding the Chinese Embassy's rebuke, Beijing is likely "quite happy" with New Zealand's position.

"You almost have to take the opposite of what we've seen this week from both New Zealand and China," he said, arguing the true significance of the parliament motion "has passed a lot of people by."

"They see this parliamentary motion on human rights abuses in China and Xinjiang and they think, 'Wow, this is really big, New Zealand standing up.' And they miss the point that it wasn't actually [a statement on 'genocide'] and New Zealand has already talked about human rights abuses."

A farmer picks cotton on the outskirts of Hami, in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: Alleged rights abuses have heaped pressure on governments and international corporations to respond.   © Reuters

The origins of the motion also highlight divisions within New Zealand politics over how to approach China.

The declaration was put forward by the right-leaning ACT Party, a group with a colorful and sometimes controversial history. In 2020, the party's use of the slogan "Make Aotearoa Great Again" offended some by referencing Donald Trump's catchphrase, while some of the party's own voters were angered by the use of the country's indigenous Maori name.

ACT's deputy leader, Brooke van Velden, said she had to "dilute" and "soften" the wording of the motion, substituting "genocide" with "severe human rights abuses" in order to gain approval from Ardern's governing Labour Party.

Some found ACT's role puzzling.

While supporting the motion, Maori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said ACT was "well known for pushing colonial agendas that oppress indigenous peoples here in Aotearoa" and her party "struggled to understand how they've all of a sudden adopted or developed a desire to support the indigenous peoples in China."

Gillespie said ACT has found a topic that is "popular in similar countries" but also challenging for Ardern's government to navigate.

Miller also sees something of a contradiction. While ACT advocates individual freedom, the party philosophy is rooted in "neoliberal economics, deregulation and trade ... focusing on right wing economics."

If a "genocide" motion had gone through, he said, their business supporters would have likely suffered, akin to Australian counterparts that have felt the impact of China's sweeping import restrictions on everything from wine and lobsters to barley and coal.

Nevertheless, left-wing Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman thanked Van Velden for bringing the motion, expressing regret it was watered down and calling it "stunningly callous" that genocide and trade implications were being discussed in the same breath.

While Ghahraman and Van Velden cited reported evidence in their comments, Gillespie said that for now, parliament was "correct" not to label what is happening in Xinjiang as genocide. Ideally, he said, "such a determination should be made by independent U.N. experts."

Last month, the Chinese Embassy in Wellington held a propaganda briefing about Xinjiang, during which Ambassador Wu Xi made seemingly contradictory statements that the country had "nothing to hide" but would "firmly oppose" any investigation.

Back in 2019, China said it would welcome United Nations officials to Xinjiang, but said they should "avoid interfering in domestic matters." More than two years later, negotiations are ongoing.

If China "continues to stonewall" against U.N. access, Gillespie argued, "at some point, New Zealand should stop repeating a mantra which is not working and be prepared to go further in expressing its concerns."

Genocide is "the most serious accusation that can be leveled at a country," Gillespie said. "If one is found to be occurring, nations should respond accordingly -- in ethical, political and legal terms. ... If it is occurring, it must be stopped."

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