Three ways NZ can improve its China literacy

With the study of China never more important, New Zealand is “treading water” when it comes to improving general literacy about the country, says the Acting Director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre based at Victoria University of Wellington.

Dr Jason Young was speaking at a public symposium to mark the 45th anniversary of New Zealand establishing diplomatic relations with China on December 22, 1972.

The symposium, New Zealand’s Relationship with China: Past, Present and Future, was hosted by the Confucius Institute at Victoria University and the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs.

Young spoke in the ‘Next Generation’ section of the symposium.

New Zealand needs to “build upon and not rest upon” the solid foundation created by “all those that have worked tirelessly through their research, their teaching, their engagement, to improve China literacy”, he said.

“We can talk about China until the cows come home, but there is little point speaking about such a diverse, fascinating country and about our relationship with it unless we can base our discussions on locally grown expertise and empirically driven research.”

Young said New Zealand is not alone in the challenge.

“Many countries around the world are grappling with this in a variety of different ways. Australia, our closest neighbour, is currently involved in a debate that too often polarises the issues and neatly segments politics, economics and security as though they were somehow easily separated.

“We can talk about China until the cows come home, but there is little point speaking about such a diverse, fascinating country and about our relationship with it unless we can base our discussions on locally grown expertise and empirically driven research.”

He outlined three areas universities should focus on to improve China literacy.

“The first is we need to increase the number of adequately trained New Zealand-China scholars in the country and to step up the amount of New Zealand-relevant research on China we commit to. We need to be fluent in the language of China both literally and conceptually if we are to make the most of our opportunities and respond appropriately to the inevitable challenges of the rise of this major power. We should seek high standards. We would expect a scholar of New Zealand studies to be able to speak our languages, to know our histories and to engage with our people if they were to study us. We must expect the same of our China scholars.

“Second, we need to mainstream China studies and Asian studies more generally. It’s negligent for academics in this day and age, charged as critic and conscience of society, as well as educating the country’s finest minds of the next generation, not to bring the world’s largest civilisation into each and every discipline of the university. We need to be cognisant of the world we live in if we are to prepare ourselves for prospering in that world. We need to consider a broader set of cases if we are to refine our claims to truth and to enrich our lives.

“Thirdly, we need to acknowledge that in academia we are dealing with a quite different cultural and political setting in China. The New Zealand academic tradition is one of independent and critical thinking and of a plurality of views. The mainstream of Chinese academia, from my limited experience, seems to build consensus in line with the overarching political and economic imperatives of the time. We will need to find a way of negotiating these traditions.”

Earlier in the ‘Next Generation’ section, Naisi Chen, a member of the New Zealand China Council Advisory Board, spoke about the need for greater cultural competency in order to become China-ready, a point also made by solicitor Nathalie Harrington, a member of Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Leadership Network.

Such competency includes familiarity with seemingly small things that are nonetheless important in contemporary Chinese culture, said Harrington — “having good WeChat etiquette, knowing how to talk to your Weibo followers, knowing who the current Chinese influencers are and keeping up with the crazy changing pace of the massive, massive millennial market”.

Dannielle Thian, a senior analyst at PwC, recommended businesses future-proof themselves by having junior staff accompany senior staff on trips to China in order to better understand the culture there.

Charlie Gao, a partner at Mahon China Investment Management Ltd, thought that while New Zealand has a strong relationship with China thanks to top-down support, a lot of work needs to be done to give the relationship greater relevance at a grass-roots level.

“How can we in this room, as New Zealand-China specialists, enthusiasts, make the relationship more inclusive on the New Zealand side? I think it’s a real challenge.”

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