NZ mayors talk up China ties at forum

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff says getting to grips with China's size is one of the obstacles local councils must overcome. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

New Zealand mayors have talked up the benefits of increased collaboration with their Chinese counterparts, while steering clear of concerns about a soft power push from China.

Ten mayors and vice-mayors from China attended the second New Zealand-China Mayoral Forum in Wellington on Monday.

The forum, created after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2013 visit to New Zealand, focused on tourism, education, and primary industries, with a particular emphasis on balancing economic development and the environment.

LGNZ president and Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said one of the forum’s aims was to bring a “reasonably large number” of Chinese mayors together to meet mayors from across New Zealand.

“It is particularly difficult for small councils with limited resourcing, if they don’t have a sister city relationship or a friendship city relationship, which is one of the reasons to bring them all together, and if you like amortise the cost across the sector.

“There’s always a bit of political pushback when a city or a district council wants to engage with China: they’ve got to spend money on airfares, accommodation, all that kind of thing, and if there’s not instant results people say, 'well what are you getting out of it?'”

The event also included a business forum to show off New Zealand as an option for trade and investment at a sub-national level “where the rubber really hits the road when it comes to investment”.

“There’s also perhaps a lack of understanding in the community that there are long-term things. It’s like a business: you don’t invest and expect an immediate, enormous payback a day after - you've got to build trust, you’ve got to build friendship, you’ve got to be in some ways giving before you get” said Cull.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, who recently attended an economic summit in Guangzhou as part of a Tripartite Economic Alliance between the two cities and Los Angeles, said the size of China was one of the main obstacles for local councils to overcome.

“A lot of people go up to China and they think, well you know, China is one market - no, China is 1.3 billion people and you've just got to find niche markets within that in order to make a success of your business.

“You need to spend time in China, you can’t do it from New Zealand, which means you also need to understand the culture, and you need to have someone who can help you with the language.”

At the forum, Goff spoke specifically about his desire to promote Auckland’s tourism GEMS - golf, equine, marine and screen attractions - but he later said he was also keen to see Chinese investment in the city’s hotel infrastructure and a continued flow of international students.

“There’s 28,000 students from China: they spend a lot of money, they go home as ambassadors from New Zealand to China and their family come down to visit- that is worth nearly a billion dollars a year to Auckland alone.”

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel said the city had already benefited from Chinese investment in residential developments and a new health research facility as part of the post-quake rebuild, with Beijing-based Huadu Group providing the bulk of funding.

"They approached it the right way in that they looked for local partners and established the NewUrban group which was local partners with Huadu, but Huadu itself is making significant investments in Christchurch.”

Both Huadu’s investments in Christchurch and the New Zealand-China Mayoral Forum were mentioned in Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady’s paper warning about the potential dangers of a Chinese push for political influence around the world.

Brady said local governments were important to the Chinese government because they could make planning decisions for the projects Xi wanted to advance through the Belt and Road Initiative.

She pointed to the fact that the forum is organised in part by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship - a subset of the United Front, effectively controlled by the CCP and focused on managing relationships with individuals or groups with influence, inside and outside of China.

Cull said he was “realistic” about China’s desire to build power around the world, and believed that did not have to be a roadblock for local councils.

“Large, powerful nations always exert influence: certainly we’ve seen that in the past with Britain, with other large European countries, and certainly with the United States of America - I don’t see why China would be any different...

“You always want to know what the fine print is and what the long game is, but it depends what you’re prepared to sell and what you’re prepared to pay for it.”

Goff also pointed to New Zealand’s history with other superpowers as a sign that relationships with China, “a good friend to New Zealand”, could be managed appropriately.

"We are fiercely independent in New Zealand: we were heavily influenced by Britain, we were then heavily influenced by the United States, today we want to have good relationships with people but we want to be our own people, we want to stand up for our own values but we seek to build those relationships.”