Living between two worlds

New Zealanders need to move beyond seeing China just in terms of trade says Jason Young, whose research aims to deepen our knowledge of the emerging superpower.

China is our biggest export market and its vast population and fast-growing middle class are hugely attractive to Kiwi exporters. Yet how well do New Zealanders understand the opportunities and challenges of China, which extend well beyond trade?

Not nearly well enough, according to Dr Jason Young, Senior Lecturer in Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington and Acting Director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre.

“China will be important to our future, so we need to know more about it. We need to get in boots and all and see what’s going on,” he says.

There are, says Dr Young, two main views of China in New Zealand: first, that it is a land of economic opportunity; and second, that it is a communist dictatorship posing a strategic threat.

“Both are simplistic interpretations of a country that is re-emerging as a great power,” he says.

“We’re used to living in a world where the dominant powers are the United States and before that the United Kingdom. While they are culturally and institutionally very similar to New Zealand, that is not the case with China.

“It’s unknown what kind of great power China will be: not just economically but also geo-politically and in terms of science and communication. We need to be more aware of what’s happening in China and how things are changing there.”

While China aims to close the gap with the US to become the world’s largest economy, Dr Young says its economic model and the ongoing strength of the US will prevent it from taking the US’s role as the sole superpower in the post-Cold War world. The transition to a multipolar world, with power split between a range of existing and emerging nations, is likely to signal an increasingly complex period of history for New Zealand.

Dr Young has been fascinated by China and its role in the world since moving to Taiwan in 2000 to become an English teacher for the year. He spent a further three years in Taiwan learning Chinese before returning to New Zealand to study at Victoria University of Wellington, first for a Master of International Relations and then for a PhD in Political Science and International Relations.

Growing up in a working-class family in Blenheim, Dr Young never considered the possibility of making a living as an academic. It wasn’t until he was studying for his PhD that he realised how few Westerners there were who studied China enough to “live between both worlds”.

His ambition became to try to understand China and interpret it for New Zealanders so they could deepen their level of engagement.

Key questions for Dr Young are how we see China and how China sees us. He believes New Zealand and China have built strong relations as trading partners but that in the long-term this is a thin area of understanding that could leave us vulnerable. There is, he says, much more for New Zealand and China to learn about each other beyond the focus of trade.

In 2012, Dr Young was awarded a $345,000 Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant from Government funding managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand. Fast-Start grants are given to researchers demonstrating excellence early in their careers.

The funding enabled Dr Young to research the investment and operations of foreign agribusiness in rural China. He made detailed case studies of Fonterra’s farms in Hebei province and of collective farming models in the rapidly changing provinces.

The project sprung from Dr Young’s interest in China’s household registration system (hukou), which ties people’s access to social services to their residential status. The system makes it difficult for many internal migrants to access healthcare or education for their children in the cities they’ve moved to.

Dr Young’s research often uses Chinese sources to understand how commentators in China see the world. He has published several articles in Chinese.

Future research projects are likely to reflect his growing interest in Chinese foreign policy, such as the Silk Road initiative. Based on creating a modern version of the ancient Silk Road, which connected civilisations in the East and West, the initiative aims to increase connectivity on the Eurasian continent through massive investment in infrastructure projects to build new roads, rail lines, sea lanes, energy pipelines and economic belts.

The Southern Leg of the Silk Road initiative is expected to increase the level of Chinese activity in the Pacific. As we already have strong interests in the region, says Dr Young, there’s a case for forging Silk Road project partnerships with China that reflect the interests and values of New Zealand and other small states in the region.

“The beauty of Victoria University of Wellington is it doesn’t tell us what to research. We are encouraged to do independent research and blue sky research and to build international connections,” he says.

He loves teaching at the University of Wellington, finding the back-and-forth conversation with his students helps to inform his research. He also enjoys taking a group of New Zealand students to China every two years.

“The first thing that always surprises them about China is its size, which is inconceivable. The second thing is how different it is from here, culturally, politically and institutionally,” he says.

In addition to his main university role, Dr Young is Acting Director at the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre, which is based at the University. The Centre organises conferences, symposiums and lectures and runs courses on China for policy analysts, helping to build capacity in both the private and public sectors as well as encouraging greater research on China in New Zealand.

“As university researchers, we have an obligation to the public sector, the commercial sector and society to inform and debate and share our information and support the conversation,” says Dr Young.

“One of my goals is to make China more familiar to New Zealanders. The more we understand China, the more prepared we will be to deal with the opportunities and the challenges of the future.”