18 Aug 2019

Disappearing students: How NZ is wasting opportunities with our Chinese graduates

From Insight, 8:10 am on 18 August 2019

More than 100,000 Chinese citizens have studied in New Zealand in the past 20 years. But what influence are they having on the New Zealand-China relationship, and is New Zealand doing enough to realise the potential of this diaspora? For Insight, John Gerritsen travelled to China to find out more.

Tall buildings and night time lights of Shanghai from across the water.

Pudong, Shanghai Photo: RNZ Insight / John Gerritsen

It's a hot, humid day in Shanghai and the view from the Primary Collaboration New Zealand office in the upmarket area of Xintandi is of clusters of office blocks and skyscrapers in all directions.

Down below, people are hiring bicycles and buying clothes using QR codes on their smart-phones, while street cleaners sweep the gutters and footpaths with twig brooms. Somewhere underfoot, the city's metro system carries some of its daily load of 10 million passengers.

Up here, people are figuring out how a consortium of New Zealand businesses can grow their share of the Chinese market.

Head and shoulders shot of young woman.

Jinnee Zou says her NZ education gives her an edge in helping Kiwi companies. Photo: RNZ Insight/ John Gerritsen

At her desk Jinnee Zou is working for King Salmon. Nearby, there's a strong Kiwi twang to Claire Tan's Chinese accent as she talks about her work for Silver Fern Farms. And Dongni Xue is helping Synlait Milk move into a market where another New Zealand dairy firm, Fonterra, already has a strong presence.

All three women are Chinese citizens with degrees from New Zealand institutions, a combination they say gives them an edge in helping Kiwi companies operate in a market that last year bought $17 billion in goods and services from New Zealand.

"How people think, how people talk - there is a gap. I believe my experience and my background helps me to connect the gap," Dongni Xue says.

Claire Tan agrees. "Western and Eastern countries, they're very, very different, and people's mindsets are quite different. So for my job, a big part is to find a balance of understanding both cultures," she says.

All three maintain a strong affection for New Zealand, and all three would send their own children to New Zealand for education.

Bicycles in Beijing

Bicycles in Beijing Photo: RNZ Insight/ John Gerritsen

Jinnee Zou says her parents decided to send her to Auckland for high school and university because of New Zealand's reputation for safety and its clean environment, but for her the best aspect of the country is its people.

"The people in New Zealand are very nice and they can accept you in their society, which is very important. We can fit into the culture and the life," she says.

Dongni Xue spent 13 years in New Zealand, including high school at Rutherford College in Auckland.

"I kind of like feel it's my second home town. I got an accent, I studied Māori language in high school. The connection is really there," she says.

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The chief executive of PCNZ, David Boyle, says New Zealand companies often struggle with understanding Chinese consumers when they first arrive.

"Understanding the taste profiles of which apples people will buy, which beef people will buy, which wines they prefer and so on, those things are quite deeply embedded into Chinese cultural mores," he says.

"There's a really rich, fertile ground for better cross-cultural understanding by having Chinese nationals who've got experience of New Zealand culture able to interpret not only the Chinese way of thinking but also the New Zealand way of thinking.

CEO of  Primary Collaboration New Zealand David Boyle says Kiwi companies need help to understand Chinese consumers.

CEO of Primary Collaboration New Zealand David Boyle says Kiwi companies need help to understand Chinese consumers. Photo: RNZ Insight/ John Gerritsen

"There's definitely an advantage in our organisation in having people who are educated in New Zealand working in this nexus between China."

Mr Boyle says there are plenty of New Zealand-educated Chinese people working in China, but the trick is finding them after they have been working for several years with Chinese businesses. He indicates that's not always straightforward and suggests universities could encourage their Chinese alumni to stay in touch by emphasising the potential career benefits that could flow from an ongoing relationship with New Zealand.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise trade commissioner to Shanghai, Damon Paling, says Chinese employees are becoming increasingly essential for New Zealand businesses in China, but they are now competing with big local companies for Western-educated Chinese staff.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise trade commissioner to Shanghai Damon Paling.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise trade commissioner to Shanghai Damon Paling. Photo: RNZ Insight/ John Gerritsen

"There's a lot more thought required by New Zealand business as to how they recruit and how they retain Chinese talent, because working for home-grown enterprises in modern China can present - does present - great opportunities for young Chinese people," he says.

However, Paling says it can be a good career move for a young Chinese person to leave a big multi-national corporation to work for a much smaller New Zealand business.

"They were a very small cog in a big machine. They then look to transition on board with a New Zealand business where they could come in and be the general manager, for example, of the New Zealand business and have a very, very different experience and are able to see the fruits of their labours far more quickly."

Getting students to say 'yes' to NZ

A key part of the equation is continuing the flow of students from China to New Zealand and ensuring they have a positive experience.

At the New Zealand embassy in the Chinese capital, Beijing, dozens of former students from the University of Otago are gathering to remember their student days.

Their families paid thousands of dollars a year to send them to New Zealand for an education. Some attended high school in Dunedin before going to university. They all hold fond memories of New Zealand.

Cathryn Wang completed a Bachelor of Commerce at Otago in 2007. She now works as a visa officer at the Australian embassy and says her New Zealand education was worth the expense.

"For me I think it's very worth it. Because it helped me a lot for independence and also the education will help me a lot of ways," she says.

"New Zealand study is more to help people think independently; also the environment and the people is really nice."

Yantian Wang studied human nutrition at Otago in 2005 and now runs her own nutrition consultancy. She says the experience helped to build her self-confidence and she would definitely send her own children there for education.

Head and shoulders of young man

Kevin Zheng, Executive Vice-President, JJL - one of the biggest education agents in China. Photo: RNZ Insight/ John Gerritsen

Kevin Zheng is a director and the executive vice-president of JJL, one of the biggest education agents in China.

He says New Zealand is not top of the list for many Chinese families, but others like its small size and reputation for safety.

He's confident that visa numbers, which have been flagging in the past year or two, will recover.

"People will select New Zealand as their final destination. I think it will be much, much more popular than before," he says.

The organiser of the University of Auckland's Beijing alumni network, Huang Ning, says educating Chinese citizens in New Zealand institutions is a win-win situation.

"New Zealand gets education revenue and promotes the education theory of New Zealand, for China the tuition fee is lower than some other Western countries, so more families can support their children to [go to] New Zealand," Dr Huang says.

"The education exchange perhaps will make a closer relationship or connection between two countries, because the student is a kind of ambassador of our country."

Too much left to chance

Head of corporate affairs in China for Zespri, Ivan Kinsella, says different universities and polytechnics keep their alumni contacts separate, yet there is a case for a more joined-up national effort.

"I think there's probably more that could be done at the level of alumni from New Zealand."

He says the government and businesses should help by backing significant events that would encourage alumni to stay in touch.

He worries the current model is too fragmented.

"If, for example, I were to say I'm looking for some young graduates with work experience in New Zealand to join the team here, I wouldn't really know where to go to do that. I'd use the networks that I do have and I'm sure I'd find someone, but it's not as straightforward as going to an organisation and saying, 'I'm looking for someone in this area'."

Long line waiting above ground to even get into the station

Queuing for the Beijing subway at rush hour. Photo: RNZ Insight/ John Gerritsen

Executive director of the New Zealand China Council Stephen Jacobi says former students also have a role to play in broadening the relationship between the two countries beyond the current focus on trade.

But he cautions there is a real risk many former students will lose contact with New Zealand, and this country needs to do more to make the most of their goodwill.

"When I meet people in China who have lived in New Zealand or studied in New Zealand, there is quite a degree of affection, there is quite a degree of interest and I think that could be capitalised on, but it's probably going to take a lot of thinking, a lot of effort, and some more research to be able to fund it in greater detail," he says.

Jacobi says it's not clear who should be doing that work, but it is a role that someone needs to take on.

In the meantime, New Zealand is relying on the assumption that its Chinese graduates will retain a good attitude towards this country and some will go on to foster stronger business, cultural and political relationships with their nation.

But so too are many other countries that have much larger cohorts of Chinese students.

Now some are warning that in such a competitive world, a small country can't afford to leave such things to chance.

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* John Gerritsen travelled to China with a media travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.