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Some of the Chinese news coverage of PM Hipkins’ visit.
Some of the Chinese news coverage of PM Hipkins’ visit.

PoliticsJune 30, 2023

‘Optimistic and slightly student-like’: What Chinese media has made of Chris Hipkins

Some of the Chinese news coverage of PM Hipkins’ visit.
Some of the Chinese news coverage of PM Hipkins’ visit.

He’s made the front page – alongside the three other prime ministers currently in town – and yes, sausage rolls have been mentioned. Alex Smith peruses press from the People’s Republic to see how Hipkins’ visit has been covered.

While Chris Hipkins’ China visit has been front-page fodder for New Zealand media since his trip was first announced, in China he’s had to share the spotlight. And while the New Zealand narrative has focused on strengthening economic ties while navigating political differences, Chinese state media has depicted the visit as part of a broader diplomatic win.  

As mentioned in Madeleine Chapman’s piece for The Spinoff, Hipkins was one of four world leaders meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping on Tuesday afternoon. While Hipkins made the front page of the People’s Daily, an official Chinese Communist Party newspaper, he was joined, in almost identical mid-hand-shake with Xi poses, by Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley, Mongolian prime minister Luvsannamsrai Oyun-Erdene and Vietnamese prime minister Pham Minh Chinh. The four leaders are all in China to attend the World Economic Forum, also known as “Summer Davos”, currently being held in Tianjin, a city just south of Beijing.   

Wednesday’s People’s Daily shows Xi Jinping meeting prime ministers from Barbados, New Zealand, Mongolia and Vietnam.

Like New Zealand media, which has widely reported that Xi described New Zealand as a “friend” and “partner,” the accompanying Chinese write-up details Xi’s warm remarks. The front page also reveals, however, that Xi is apparently quite generous with these terms, also using “partner” or “friend” to describe each of the other three visiting countries.

The piece also notes that Xi fondly recalled his 2014 visit to New Zealand and outlined the positive benefits the relationship has brought in the 10 years since, namely “regional peace and stability”, and that the New Zealand-China relationship leads the way among China’s relationships with developed nations.

While New Zealand reports mentioned that Hipkins “referenced” concerns over human rights and China’s activity in the Pacific (it’s also been noted Hipkins didn’t go into detail on concerns over China’s treatment of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region), these remarks are unsurprisingly omitted from China’s state-owned coverage. The Chinese summary does, however, tack on a mention that Hipkins expressed the importance of “mutual respect” and that “differences don’t define bilateral relationships”, and describes New Zealand as willing to keep communicating with China on the issue of development in the Pacific. 

The homepage of the state-owned Global Times, known for its overt propagandistic tendencies, on Wednesday carried a headline declaring “China’s diplomacy to further consolidate and expand ‘circle of friends’ in summer, with Xi meeting visiting leaders from New Zealand, Barbados, Mongolia, Vietnam”. The article goes on to say that New Zealand, which it points out is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance along with Australia, the UK and the US, “presents an example of how western countries can withstand the pressures of unilateralism, Cold War mentality and hegemony”.

Citing Chen Hong, director of the New Zealand Studies Centre at East China Normal University, the article notes that “Hipkins’ visit shows the resilience of China-New Zealand ties. New Zealand is a small country, but it didn’t choose to abandon its autonomy to blindly and unconditionally follow the instructions of a superpower, but has preserved its pragmatic policymaking.”

Such coverage takes a page from an old playbook, says Jason Young, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington

“It very much follows the diplomatic official line, which points to New Zealand as a model of relations between countries of different social economic systems and stages of development, which is a line that Xi Jinping [first] used in 2012.”

Young points out that such positive news stories also present cause for concern.

Not only do they actively gloss over New Zealand’s concerns with the relationship, such coverage is also used to criticise other countries by presenting New Zealand as a model of what they can achieve if they are willing to play nicely.

These stories “put New Zealand in a very awkward position because what it’s doing is saying to other countries, ‘Look, this is how you should engage with China,’ and that’s not a position that New Zealand wants to be in”, says Young.

Young also points out that these stories often misrepresent New Zealand’s more complicated position on China. “It’s playing politics with the relationship as opposed to just describing the news.”

A video of Hipkins sampling kiwifruit exports in Tianjin has proved popular.

Another case in point is an article published on the popular website which uses the recent visits by US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Hipkins to point out that Canada is the only member of the Five Eyes yet to have made, or be planning, a high-level diplomatic visit to China (Australia’s trade minister was in China last month, while the UK foreign minister’s visit is yet to be confirmed). The article cites trade considerations as one of the factors that have led four out of the five Five Eye members to pursue better relations with China. Similar sentiment is echoed in an English-language editorial on the state-owned China Daily. 

This sort of framing functions as a “sort of a critique of coordination or cooperation amongst other partners to deal with a whole bunch of international issues from human rights to growing concern about China’s strategic ambitions in the world”, says Young.

On a more innocuous note, while the New Zealand media has been noting the high-stakes nature of Hipkins’ tour, Chinese coverage seems to be quite taken with Hipkins’ jovial manner. A video of Hipkins sampling kiwifruit exports in Tianjin and declaring “they taste just as good as at home” has proved popular with Chinese audiences.

Hipkins has generally been reported as “charismatic, humorous and pragmatic”, says Chen Hong, the director of the New Zealand Studies Centre at East China Normal University.

A profile originally published by the state-owned Global People also describes Chris Hipkins as a “down to earth” prime minister known by his nickname, Chippy. “Chippy,” the profile explains, denotes Hipkins’ “optimistic and slightly student-like demeanour. For example, New Zealanders all know that Chris Hipkins’ most beloved foods are sausage rolls and Coke Zero.”

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