Pacific Media Centre | 7 April 2008
CHINA: Local activist groups soft pedal on NZ free trade deal
Chinese activist groups cool on opposition to New Zealand’s fair trade deal with China. Katie Small checks out the marginal minorities’ views after the crackdown in Tibet.
Local activist groups Friends of Tibet and Falun Gong say they are not opposed to New Zealand signing the free trade agreement with China today in spite of international condemnation of Beijing over the recent bloody suppression of protests in Tibet.
The Green Party says it is concerned over New Zealand entering into a deal with China because of the Asian superpower’s poor human rights record.
The party would like to see signing of the agreement postponed until after the Olympic Games, in the hope that the country will westernise its human rights practices under scrutiny from world media.
“It may be that the pressure of the world will force change over the next few months,” says Green MP Keith Locke.
The Greens say New Zealand is in a strong position to speak its mind on the issue of human rights in China.
“It’s an opportunity for the NZ government to tell China that ‘we don’t like what you’re doing in Tibet and we’d like you to stop’,” says Locke.
Auckland group Autonomous Action organised a day-long picket outside Prime Minister Helen Clark’s electorate office on March 25 in opposition to the free trade agreement. The activists say they are also opposed to the agreement because of human rights worries.
‘Killings in custody’
“We have an issue with opening up the economy to a country like China that restricts human rights,” says spokesman Ryan Bodman.
“We hear reports of forced sterilisations, torture and killing in custody, and freedom of speech and freedom of association being restricted.”
But Thuten Kesang, national chairman of Friends of Tibet, says increased contact with China through trade may help the country better understand global perspectives on issues such as human rights.
“We should not ostracise China on the world market. We should bring them into the fold so that they will learn how the world operates, and they might change their view because we are dealing with them regularly,” says Kesang.
Kesang’s parents died in Chinese prisons after the invasion of Tibet in 1950 and he came to New Zealand as a refugee in the 1960s. But he says the issue of Tibetan independence is separate to the issue of free trade between New Zealand and China.
“If New Zealanders don’t want free trade then it’s up to the trade union movement to demonstrate against that because we are losing all our work. Workers should be demonstrating.”
Falun Gong says as a non-political group they are not against New Zealand signing a free trade agreement with China, despite their criticism of human rights abuses in the country.
“What we are against is persecution,” says Falun Gong spokesman Riki Robinson.
While the group is not opposed to the agreement, Robinson says he is disappointed that New Zealand is not taking the chance to speak out on the issue of human rights abuses in China.
“It saddens me when there are people who have a huge opportunity to stand up to the Chinese Communist Party and instead they sign a free trade agreement.”
Confusion over detail
Confusion surrounds the effects of the free trade agreement with China. Some believe free trade will improve human rights standards in China, while others think it will make little difference.
Politicial scientist associate professor Stephen Hoadley, of the University of Auckland, says he believes the agreement will benefit Chinese workers by introducing New Zealand labour practices.
“As foreigners go into China and set up companies they bring human rights standards, higher wages and product standards,” says Dr Hoadley.
“Foreign businesses want transparent laws and taxation, and that encourages the Chinese government to come up to standard.”
But Autonomous Action believes the free trade agreement is “not useful for the normal New Zealander”, according to Bodman.
He says while not signing the agreement would mean economic loss for New Zealand, increased wealth from the agreement would not be shared equally across society.
“Manufacturing workers would lose their jobs because companies would take labour to China and use cheap labour there,” says Bodman.
He says it is a “possibility” that through increased trade the Chinese government would improve its human rights record, but he is not convinced.
“It’s a hopeful idea but I don’t see it happening. Change through trade could take a long time. The country already has plenty of contact from the outside world.”
If countries ask to see improvements in human rights before signing free trade agreements, “then China might take notice,” says Bodman.
The Green Party says the agreement will not benefit Chinese workers, who will see it as the New Zealand government condoning the Chinese Communist Party’s lack of workers’ rights. Nor will it help New Zealand workers who will have difficulty competing with low Chinese wages.
“The Greens believe in fair and environmentally stable competition,” says Locke.
“We think it’s much better to be in competition with a country that doesn’t operate with unfair subsidies and corrupt practices.”
When asked about the idea that increasing trade might make China more aware of Western human rights standards, Locke says that the Green Party is “totally in favour” of trade with China.
Trade gives economic “levers”, he says, such as boycotts of certain goods, which can be effective because of the importance of trade to the Chinese economy.
But the party is concerned about the free trade agreement because it will give “preferential” trade status to China.
Dr Brent Burmester, a lecturer in the Department of International Business at the University of Auckland, says any effect of the agreement on Chinese labour standards will be “negligible” due to the size disparity.
Chinese people who work for multi-national companies do often - but not always - benefit from slightly higher wages and better working conditions than other workers says Dr Burmester.
Multinational companies employ such a “tiny proportion” of total workers that there is little broader effect, he says.
“You need political will behind a general increase,” says Dr Burmester.
Dr Hoadley says when New Zealand signed a free trade agreement with Thailand, the document included an obligation on both countries to observe International Labour Organisation standards.
He says he will look “with great interest” at how similar sections are included in the agreement with China, but he believes they will be voluntary, non-binding obligations.
Dr Hoadley says he understands the agreement will have rules on foreign investment, and that under the agreement a New Zealand company investing in China will have to meet New Zealand labour standards.
“That kind of investment process will bring international standards into China,” says Dr Hoadley.
But regardless of the details of the agreement, Thuten Kesang says he would like Prime Minister Clark to use her upcoming trip to China, where she will sign the free trade agreement, to appeal to the Chinese government to release unharmed people arrested in recent protests in Tibet.
“I would earnestly ask, when she goes to China, to ask the Chinese government to guarantee that they will release all the people they have arrested during this current demonstration - no harm, no torture.”
In the long term, he would like to see New Zealand adopt a resolution to recognise Tibet as an independent, occupied country.
“Everybody knows that Tibet was an independent nation and Tibet has illegally occupied by China for the last 50 years.”
He says political dialogue is the only way forward.
“The Tibet issue will only be solved through politics. Nothing else. It is time the whole international community - especially the politicians - look at their conscience very carefully.”
Katie Small is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at AUT University studying on the Asia-Pacific Journalism paper.