500 Years Late: the Effects Of a Decision by a Chinese Emperor in 1432

Listener April 20, 1996

Keywords: Political Economy & History

The most important single date in New Zealand’s history is 1432, when Emperor Xuan De of China forbade the building of ships greater than 30 metres in length. A few years earlier a fleet commanded by Zheng He, with much bigger ships, had explored as far as Madagascar. The prohibition to build such ships prevented the Chinese exploration of Australasia, and their settlement of South East Asia to New Zealand. When Captain Cook arrived here 337 years later the population he met had brown rather than yellow faces. Today, 227 years after Cook, New Zealand is primarily a settlement of peoples of Polynesian and European descent.

A handful of Chinese, Indians, and other Asians arrived in the nineteenth century, sometimes to outbursts of hysteria. There was legislation which discriminated against them on the books as late as 1952. By 1991 almost 100,000 New Zealand residents (including those temporarily here studying or on work permits) described their ethnicity as solely or partly Asian. Thus slightly less than 3 percent of the population is of Asian origin. (By themselves the Chinese make up 1.1 percent and the Indians .8 percent of the population.) Since then Asians have been arriving at a rate of around 10,000 to 12,000 a year, so the 1996 Census is likely to report that just over 4 percent of the New Zealand population have some Asian ethnicity. (Statistics New Zealand have published useful Asian New Zealanders in their “New Zealand Now” series. There is, interestingly, no good history of Asians (or even Chinese) in New Zealand, although there are some excellent particular studies.)

Given these trends are likely to continue, some census next century may well report 10 percent or even 15 percent of the population of Asian descent (including those with a mixed Asian and European or Polynesian heritage). Xuan De only delayed their arrival by 500 years.

We have been struggling with the notion of a bicultural nation of Pakeha and Maori, knowing that we will soon have to attend to the Pacific Island heritage too (they were about 4 percent of the population in 1991). We have yet another task of incorporating the Asians into the nation, with the additional complication that they are a very diverse collection of peoples who hardly ever group themselves as “Asians”, for the categorization is a European perception.

Can we avoid the challenge by keeping them out? The first point is that we have a large number here already, some of whom are third and fourth generations New Zealanders. We could try to keep others Asians out, but as long as we have migration to New Zealand the procedures to discriminate against Asians would be as bizarre and racist as they were in the past. And the Asians still arrived then. The logic of history and geography is that the Asians will continue to arrive.

Yet all is not well with the Asian migration. One reason is that it seems to be concentrated to Auckland whose infrastructure is under great pressure. While there has been worries about a property boom, this visitor is struck that Aucklanders seem to be absolutely committed to creating traffic gridlock as soon as possible. That is not a problem caused by Asian migrants: any extra population adds to the traffic delays. Currently an immigrant has to accumulate a certain of number of points in order to be allowed in. Perhaps points should be deducted if they are planning to settle in Auckland (or any over-crowded centre).

However it is not merely a matter of physical infrastructure. The bigger problem is that many New Zealanders find it difficult to cope with the high proportions of Asians visible in central Auckland and some of the suburbs. For some it is ignorance but, frankly, for many it is sheer racism.

Our official attitude to Asia exacerbates such attitudes. Too often we define New Zealand’s relationship with Asians as a commercial one. Certainly about 30 percent of our exports today go to East Asia, and the proportion is likely to climb – to double – to the 60 percent of Australia exports which currently go there. (Ironically, and despite the rhetoric, economic studies have found it very difficult to demonstrate there are substantial net benefits, or substantial net costs in the long run, from immigration.) But to define the New Zealand-Asian connection this way is to confuse the richness of human relationships with a commerce-only transaction like prostitution.

We need to tackle the ignorance and racism head on. Not by saying we must be nice to Asians because they are our trading partners, but because there is much to gain from a good relationship. Just as the Maori has enriched the lives of Pakeha, and vice versa (and the Pacific Islanders are contributing too), the Asians will also add to the depth and vibrancy of the unique culture developing in this corner of the world. New Zealanders need to improve their understanding of Asians, with a conscious program of Asian Studies in schools, and the media supporting those who have left school. The courses would do well to begin with the implications of Xuan De’s decision in 1432.