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China migrants changing us for the better

An Editorial published April 16th, 2011 on

Until 24 years ago, New Zealand did not admit many immigrants who were not British or Polynesian.

In the late 1980s, as the country was opened to goods and investment from anywhere, immigration policy likewise changed from ethnic protection to economic liberalism.

Migrants from anywhere with sufficient capital or skills became welcome.

Since then many have come from China, initially from Hong Kong when Britain was preparing to relinquish its colony in 1997 and Taiwan, and more recently from mainland China after a relaxation of its travel restrictions in 1999.

Partial economic liberalisation within the communist state had created free-enterprise zones that became the world's factories. With rising incomes and strong domestic savings, Chinese have been able to travel, study, migrate and build new communities around the Pacific.

New Zealand, particularly Auckland, has attracted a fair share of them. There are 10 times more Chinese living in Auckland than there were 25 years ago.

They have become New Zealand's third-largest ethnicity, proportionately more than in Australia and second only to Canada.

Over the past week the Herald has been taking a close look at a community we need to know better. Our reports confirm impressions that the new Chinese residents are highly mobile.

A survey last June found that one in five of them had been absent for at least six months. They retain a firm foothold in China and regard themselves primarily as Chinese.

A study by Auckland University Professor of Asian Studies Manying Ip found two-thirds identify only with China.

Most of the rest identify with both countries and very few think of themselves primarily as New Zealanders.

This is less alarming than it sounds; any born and bred New Zealander living permanently in another country is likely to retain the same allegiance. It may take a generation or two for even a dual identity to form.

An older well-established Chinese community in New Zealand is wary of the more recent migration. Tensions are bound to occur when migrants from a different culture arrive in large numbers but New Zealanders generally appear to have responded well.

When East Asian names predominate at Auckland school prizegivings, their diligence and family discipline are recognised if not emulated. All Asians suffer slurs about driving behaviour and crime, which our series suggests are unfair. Asian accident and crime rates are no higher than their proportion of the population.

Chinese immigration was a powerful contributor to the housing boom in the five years to 2007 and China's growing appetite for Australian and New Zealand export commodities has largely sustained our economies through the global financial crisis.

But China, as Australia has discovered, is not content to be a buyer of raw commodities, it wants a stake in their production too. This week brought another bid from China for the 16 Crafar farms, and a buy-in to PGG Wrightson has given Beijing's Agria control of New Zealand's largest supplier of farm services.

Direct investment may pose greater challenges than imports and immigration but a large expatriate community is changing us.

Its living, travelling and leisure habits are boosting Auckland's housing density, public transport and inner-city life. Chinese are a visible and significant part of this country now, enriching it in every way.

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