NZ’s ambivalent view of our Chinese community

The changing cultural place of the Chinese in New Zealand is one of the most salient features marking New Zealand’s transformation in the 21st century, writes the University of Auckland's Manying Ip

The evolving story of the Chinese community in New Zealand over the last 30 years can be used as a social barometer to gauge how far we’ve moved on since 1987.

That was the year when the country opened its doors to migrants from ‘non-traditional source countries’. The arrival of the new Chinese immigrants from diverse regions, including Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People’s Republic can arguably be said to be the single most controversial issue of the new immigration policy. Governments all round the world typically treat immigration as a political-economic issue based on cost-benefit analysis, and the human dimension is often forgotten. The typical questions considered include: who are the “quality migrants” considered good for the country? How many should be brought in to sustain the economy, or to replenish the ageing workforce? What might the impact on infrastructure and welfare be?

In the process of such pragmatic policy consideration, the immigrants themselves are often commodified, reduced to mere figures on the cold calculations of a balance sheet. It is often forgotten that immigration is a social issue with heavy emotional and personal costs for the immigrants and their families. For the immigrant community, there are long-term issues of identity and ethnicity.

For example, for how long would the term ‘immigrants’ be conflated with ‘Chinese’ in New Zealand parlance? In this country’s bi-cultural context, where can the Chinese fit in the cultural mosaic?

The fact that Chinese are often regarded as “new immigrants” is testimony to how long they have been neglected and relegated to the fringes of New Zealand mainstream society. Sizeable numbers of Chinese arrived in the 1860s, the country’s most visible minority, noticeable because of their perceived cultural differences.

Today, the rather bitter joke circulating among the Chinese is that any ills of New Zealand society can be blamed on them.

They were itinerant workers forced to leave their families behind; a highly conspicuous cohort who were treated essentially as outsiders without citizenship rights. Stereotypes and myths of the Chinese abound. In the 1900s they were “inscrutable” and “unassimilable”. After a few generations of local-born Chinese excelling academically and professionally, they became the “model minority” who supposedly only kept to themselves and didn’t integrate.

Today, the rather bitter joke circulating among the Chinese is that any ills of New Zealand society can be blamed on them. From the rising house prices in Auckland to the short supply of milk powder in supermarkets, the accusing finger is often directed at the Chinese. Then there is the Auckland traffic jam (and everyone knows that ‘Asians are bad drivers!’). When they’re employed they’re accused of taking jobs away from “real New Zealanders” and when they study, they are a burden on education. They are also a liability on New Zealand health and welfare. If they leave New Zealand, that just shows their disloyalty and lack of commitment.

Much ambivalence continues to be widespread amongst New Zealanders. While economic ties with China are considered important, the Chinese, especially recent arrivals, are treated with suspicion. I believe the changing place of the Chinese in this country’s cultural mosaic is one of the most salient features marking New Zealand’s transformation in the 21st century. One can see how far New Zealand has progressed or otherwise by examining the mobilities of the Chinese. Whether they’ve been able to settle down as full citizens, or whether they are not able to integrate socially and economically and have to become return migrants, or circulatory transnationals.

As a visible minority, the Chinese have faced formidable hurdles to "fit in", to find suitable employment and to engage meaningfully with mainstream New Zealanders who view them as potential threats and liabilities. However, after 30 years, some substantial transformation is visible and there are various Chinese success stories, many of these partly facilitated by the spectacular rise of China as an economic power. While the Chinese in New Zealand are widely seen as a useful link to the country’s second-largest trading partner, and an increasingly formidable political power in the Pacific, genuine social integration is yet to be achieved.

In September, this country will have a general election, and the Labour Party has just announced its proposed policy of cutting immigration numbers "by 20,000 to 30,000", by targeting unskilled workers and international students. There is a distinct echo of the mid-1990s New Zealand First slogan of “cutting immigration to the bone”. The words “Chinese” or “Asian” are not explicitly used, but the community feels burgeoning hostility.

Ultimately, the story of Chinese New Zealanders is that of a diasporic population, with various links to a distant sending country. Whether the community can establish a strong sense of belonging as full citizens is not only a Chinese story, but a New Zealand story, illustrating the strength of its inclusive national identity.

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