“Diplomatically sensitive” - that was the reason cited by senior New Zealand government officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Bill English, for their shocking and ultimately cowardly last-minute cancellation of a meeting with long-time Hong Kong democracy leaders Martin Lee and Anson Chan. Not one official from the governing National Party received the pair in Wellington, though representatives of the Labour and Green Parties did.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (second from right) speaks with New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key (second from left) during their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, April 19, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

New Zealand would do well to remember that principles it considers fundamental – the rule of law, a free press, rights to political participation, and the right to peacefully criticize authorities – are under ferocious assault in China. In Hong Kong, Chan, Lee, and tens of thousands of students and others have protested peacefully for their right to make decisions about policies in Hong Kong themselves. Local and national leaders’ responses have ranged from rejecting those requests to prosecuting some of the student leaders for their efforts.

New Zealand has a mixed record on the China company it keeps: the New Zealand government has been happy to roll out the red carpet whenever China’s abusive, authoritarian rulers come to town. In the past, then-Prime Minister Helen Clark received Lee and Chan in Wellington and spoke up robustly in support of universal suffrage in Hong Kong. But it was also Clark who infamously only agreed to see the Dalai Lama in the Brisbane airport lounge, rather than accord him the kind of meeting a prominent leader – and Nobel Peace Prize winner – merits.

The same is true of New Zealand’s commitment to broader support of human rights in China. Wellington maintains a low-profile bilateral human rights dialogue, but it rarely publicly condemns the imprisonment of human rights defenders, the adoption of abusive laws, or seeks to be seen supporting peaceful critics of the government. Even deciding whether to congratulate imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo’s 2010 Nobel Peace Prize seemed fraught for New Zealand. 

New Zealand won’t get what it wants out of its bilateral relationship without significant political reform in China, and while that will largely be a function of efforts by people inside China, outside support matters. As important, it’s a dangerously short-sighted game for New Zealand to willingly undermine its reputation as a defender of human rights and democracy in the faint hope doing so will win it some points in Beijing. Who’s deciding New Zealand’s China policy - its elected representatives, or authoritarians in Beijing?