This is the "Asian Century".
"We all know because we have been told it frequently enough . . . as if Asia has just been discovered in the last five or 10 years," former Australian prime minister John Howard told the New Zealand Initiative's annual retreat dinner on Thursday night.
During the time Howard was prime minister, from 1996 to 2007, Australia's exports to China more than quadrupled.
"Our first and most important economic interaction is with the nations of Asia," he said.
"The extraordinary economic miracle of China is not only good for China, it is very good for the world. It has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in that country, and it has made a great contribution to the economic growth of a number of neighbouring countries," Howard said.
New Zealand is one of those neighbours that has tapped the markets of the growing Asian region. China is now our second-largest export market after Australia.
Fonterra, New Zealand's largest company, has 600 employees in China. In 2012 China took around 16 per cent of Fonterra's dairy products.
After Australia, New Zealanders perceive Asia as the most important region to the future of the country, according to a study by the Asia New Zealand Foundation released this week.
Respondents strongly believed in the economic importance of exports to Asia, Asian tourism and the positive impact for New Zealand of growth in the region, according to the survey of New Zealanders' perceptions of Asia and Asian peoples.
"It is going to be a critical market for the world, it is a critical market for New Zealand today, and it is hard to see that changing in the next 20 years," said Kelvin Wickham, the managing director of Fonterra China.
But as Asia continues to grow as a lucrative market for New Zealand, young Kiwis are leaving school and university unprepared for the cultural, linguistic and social differences of doing business in Asia, according to a director of biofuel company Lanzatech, which is expanding in China.
"New Zealanders are generally quite closed-minded still, and in a way quite arrogant in the ‘I know more than you'," said Jan Ng, Lanzatech's director of global operations.
New Zealand's increasingly Asian population and the growing political importance of the region is slowly encouraging young Kiwis to head there.
Melissa Wong, 27, and Justin Yang, 28, are young Chinese-New Zealanders who found economic opportunities and cultural identity in Asia.
Wong is the second generation of her family born in New Zealand. Yang was born in Sydney before he moved to New Zealand at three months old.
Yang, an engineer at Lanzatech, finds it tough being asked where he is from in both New Zealand and China.
"In New Zealand, if I say I am Chinese I am asked why is my English so good. But if I say I am a New Zealander, I am asked where am I really from. In China, when I speak Mandarin it is obvious that I am not a local, so I say I am a New Zealander," he said.
He was taught Mandarin at home, and can speak the language fluently - a skill that has opened doors to work in China.
One of his biggest regrets is not taking his parents' advice to learn to read and write the language as well.
"At that time, China wasn't up and coming yet.
"How was being able to speak Chinese ever going to help me in the future? It was the wrong move."
Working for Lanzatech in Shanghai and around the region has allowed Yang to discover his Chinese roots and reconnect with family members in China and Singapore who he hadn't seen for 15 years.
"I definitely found my identity when I went back to China.
"I grew up in West Auckland and all my friends were Kiwis. At that time I was a true banana - yellow on the outside, white on the inside," he said. "But at the end of the day, I am still Chinese and I can't deny that fact."
Wong, who has a Masters of Science and works at the Asia New Zealand Foundation, conversely discovered her Kiwi-ness during a 15-month language exchange in Taiwan.
"When I went to Asia for the first time and everyone looked like me, I thought, ‘Yay, I'm home'," Wong said.
"But you don't realise how Kiwi you are until you go overseas. Although I looked outwardly like them, my thinking process was quite different, very Western. I felt very Kiwi in a foreign culture."
She was an intern at Taiwan's biggest research facility, the Industrial Research Technology Institute, but when she explored the options for working in Taiwan, despite a significantly better salary, the lifestyle of New Zealand appealed more.
"It is a very amazing company and very advanced. I did inquire about working there after my studies but the living standards are quite different," she said.
Taiwan squeezes 23 million people into an area less than a third the size of the North Island. This density had created the stereotypical Asian work ethic, Wong said.
"In Taiwan you are competing against 20 million other people. That is what makes society more competitive. To stand out, you have to work harder."
In Asia, you also have to shout louder.
"In China there are so many people that if you don't push in or talk loudly, you are never going to get heard or get anywhere," Yang said.
Global New Zealand businesses are looking for employees who understand and appreciate the unique operating environment of Asia.
"In New Zealand there are 4.5 million people living in some beautiful islands at the end of the Pacific. You come to China and it is the Middle Kingdom. It is the re-emergence of a global superpower. The first thing you realise is that you are the one that is different," said Wickham, who has lived in Asia for 20 years.
Fonterra is looking for Mandarin-speaking young people who are "worldwise" to help as the company continues to grow throughout Asia.
"The people that are out there at a younger age and have some experience, they have a maturity about them and a better understanding about how to accommodate difference," Wickham said.
"This place is not for the inexperienced."
Asia's growth, however, comes with a warning not to ignore growing pains in the region.
"It is very important, though, that neither Australia or New Zealand or the rest of the world becomes mesmerised by China. China is the second-largest economy in the world but she occupies that position by [way] of her enormous population," Wickham said.
As this giant population grows old and a new generation grows politically active, the two biggest problems facing China are demography and democracy.
A generation of Chinese experiencing the middle class for the first time are happy to be told what to do by the government as they enjoy riches they never thought they would.
"Their children will have a very different attitude. Their children will take enrichment for granted, and they will want a say in how the affairs of their country are run," Howard said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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