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  • About New Zealand

    History of New Zealand

    New Zealand is one of the youngest countries on Earth, having first been discovered and settled by Polynesian explorers around 700 years ago. The early Polynesian settlers became the ancestors of the modern day Māori people, known in New Zealand as tangata whenua, or the ‘people of the land’. In the Māori language, New Zealand is known as Aotearoa, or the ‘land of the long white cloud’.

    A Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, made the first European discovery of New Zealand in 1642. The landmass was subsequently named 'Nieuw Zeeland' by the Dutch. In 1769, British Captain James Cook re-discovered New Zealand, and during the next century, European settlement increased gradually. The first visitors were sealers and whalers, and in the late 18th Century, European settlers formed the town of Kororāreka, known in English as the Bay of Islands.

             
    Captain James Cook, c.1775, Greenwich Museum.         Coming of the Maori, Louis Steel and Charles Gouldie (1899), Auckland Art Gallery.

    As more Europeans settled in New Zealand, interactions rose between Māori tribes and the new settlers, called Pākehā by the Māori. Trade in items such as muskets transformed Māori inter-tribal warfare, while inflows of Christian missionaries exerted increasing influence on the tangata whenua. In an effort to protect Britain’s interests in New Zealand and limit conflict with Māori, a treaty was signed between the British Crown and a number of Māori chiefs on 6 February 1840. This document, known as the Treaty of Waitangi, is now recognised as the founding document of New Zealand.

    European settlements increased steadily through the middle of the 19th Century, and the new settlers’ increasing demand for land led to the New Zealand Land Wars of the 1860s and 1870s. During this period, Europeans were not the only people to migrate to New Zealand. In the 1860s, the first Chinese migrants arrived in Otago of the South Island as gold-miners. Later in the century in 1893, New Zealand became the first country to grant women the right to vote following a series of women’s suffrage campaigns led by Kate Sheppard.

    In 1901, New Zealand chose not to join the Commonwealth of Australia, and in 1907, transformed from a British colony to a self-governed Dominion. Despite moves toward independence, New Zealand remained loyal to Britain. During the First World War, New Zealand suffered heavy losses at Gallipoli in Turkey alongside Australian forces. The shared sacrifice of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) now forms an important part of New Zealand’s national identity.

    Economically, New Zealand also remained closely linked to Britain until the 1970s. The invention of refrigerated shipping in the late 19th Century transformed the New Zealand economy by enabling the country to export frozen meat and chilled dairy products, primarily back to the motherland. The entry of Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973 was a major blow to New Zealand’s economy, and coupled with a number of other factors, led to rising unemployment, public debt and inflation.From the middle of the 1980s, New Zealand began to radically restructure its economy. The currency was floated, tariffs were lowered, and a large number of state-owned businesses and services were privatised. New Zealand is now one of the most economically liberal countries in the world.

    New Zealand has also come to be known for its stance against nuclear weapons. In 1985, under the leadership of Prime Minister David Lange, New Zealand prohibited the entry of nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships into its ports. In 1987, New Zealand became the first ‘Western’ state to declare its territory a nuclear-free zone.

    Politics and Government

    New Zealand’s political system is modelled after Britain’s Westminster System, and can be described as a parliamentary representative democratic monarchy. The Head of State and Sovereign of New Zealand is Queen Elizabeth II, who is represented in the country by the Governor-General, currently Dame Patricia Reddy. The Governor-General’s functions include liaising with the Prime Minister and Cabinet (see below), central to the functioning of New Zealand democracy in equal measure to fellow Commonwealth countries including Australia and Canada.

             
    Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of New Zealand. Prime Minister Bill English (left) with Governor General Patricia Reddy (right).

    The New Zealand Government is led by a Prime Minister, currently The Rt Hon Bill English, and a Cabinet, made up of Members of Parliament. Cabinet is responsible for the creation of policy, while Parliament is the central body responsible for passing legislation into law in New Zealand.

    While Parliament is responsible for passing legislation into law, the Supreme Court of New Zealand acts as the country’s highest judicial authority. New Zealand’s laws derive from three main sources: English common law; certain statues of the United Kingdom Parliament; and statutes of the New Zealand Parliament. While New Zealand does not have a formal written constitution, a number of documents – including the Treaty of Waitangi – together form the country’s constitutional framework.

    For much of New Zealand’s history, two parties dominated the political process. The oldest and largest parties are the Labour Party (centre-left) and the National Party (centre-right). However, with the introduction of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system in 1996, neither of the two main parties have been able to govern without the support of minor parties. New Zealand’s current government is led by the National Party, who gained the highest number of party votes in the most recent 2012 General Elections. The National Party is led by Bill Enlgish, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. The Leader of the Opposition is the leader of the Labour Party, Andrew Little.

    Geography of New Zealand

    New Zealand is an island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean to the southeast of Australia. New Zealand’s two main islands are called the North and South Islands in English, and Te-Ika-a-Māui and Te Wai Pounamu in Māori. The country also has a number of other much smaller islands, including Stewart Island and the Chatham Islands. In total, New Zealand is approximately 270,000 square kilometres, making it slightly smaller than Japan and slightly larger than the United Kingdom. New Zealand also has approximately 15,000 kilometres of coastline and extensive marine resources.

             
    Iconic view of South Island native forest in a conservation zone, Routeburn.   Converted land for forestry and dairy farming, North Island.

    New Zealand is made up of seventeen regions (including the Chatham Islands). The capital of New Zealand is Wellington and the largest city is Auckland; both cities are in the North Island. In the South Island, the largest cities are Christchurch and Dunedin. For detailed maps of New Zealand you can visit the Land Information New Zealand wesbite. New Zealand’s geography is characterised by wide variation. Running down the centre of the South Island are the snow-capped Southern Alps, of which Mount Cook is the highest peak, at around 3800 meters. The Canterbury Plains are found on the east coast of the South Island, while the west coast is home to the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. The North Island is less mountainous but more volcanic; Mount Ruapehu, the North Island’s tallest mountain, is an active volcano. In the centre of the North Island lies Lake Taupo, also formed by a volcanic eruption. New Zealand’s landscape has been popularised by films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

    New Zealand’s climate is generally temperate, with mean temperatures ranging between 8˚ C in the South Island to 16˚ C in the North Island. The warmest months are January and February, while July is the coldest. Christchurch is the driest city in New Zealand, receiving approximately 640 mm of rain a year. Auckland is the wettest, receiving around twice that amount.

    Society

    New Zealanders pride themselves with a number of values and qualities, including egalitarianism, equal opportunity, ingenuity and social equity. These values are generally reflected in New Zealand society, which is prosperous, peaceful and equitable by international standards. The government continues to fund a range of basic services, such as free health care in public hospitals. However, socio-economic inequality has increased in the last two decades.

    As of 2008, New Zealand’s population is estimated at approximately 4.3 million, three-quarters of which are concentrated in the North Island. Around 78 percent of the population identify themselves as European (Pākehā in Māori), around fifteen percent as Māori, around ten percent as Asian and around seven percent as Pacific Islander. These percentages add up to more than 100 because individuals can identify with more than one ethnic group. Like many other developed countries, New Zealand’s population is aging.

    In New Zealand, Māori are tangata whenua, or the ‘people of the land’. Māori culture forms an integral part of New Zealand’s identity. For example, a number of words in the Māori language are now in common usage in New Zealand, and Māori mythology, art, and other traditions and values have greatly influenced New Zealand society. Despite their importance, Māori are relatively socio-economically disadvantaged in comparison to other groups in New Zealand society.

    There are three official languages in New Zealand: English; Māori; and international sign language. The two official spoken languages reflect New Zealand’s bicultural heritage following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 (see History section). English is spoken by around 98 percent of New Zealanders, while Māori is spoken by around four percent.

    Today, New Zealand society can be described as increasingly multicultural. Immigration in-flows from Pacific Island nations and Asia have increased the cultural diversity of the country as a whole, and the largest city Auckland has been especially internationalised. Large-scale cultural events such as the Pasifika Festival, Chinese Lantern Festival and Diwali Festival help to bridge diverse communities within New Zealand and build greater intercultural understanding.

    Culture

    To understand the modern culture of New Zealand, it is important to understand New Zealand’s cultural heritage and its history. Some of the main forces that have shaped New Zealand culture include the arrival of Māori pre 1300, British colonialists from the late 18th Century, the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, and more recently, immigration to New Zealand from Pacific Island nations and Asia.

    As the first people to arrive in New Zealand some time before 1300, the Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. Māori culture, values and traditions have largely been passed on through a tradition of oral story telling. Māori are tangata whenua, meaning the ‘people of the land’. After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, in an agreement that was supposed to enable the British colonialists to live alongside the established but fragmented Māori tribes. European settlements increased steadily through the middle of the 19th Century, and the new settlers’ increasing demand for land led to the New Zealand Land Wars of the 1860s and 1870s. This period saw a decline in the number of Māori and Māori culture.

    This setback would not last. The Māori population grew again by the end of the 19th Century. There was also a significant revival of Māori culture from the 1960s onward. Māori today pride themselves of their cultural heritage, which continues to play a leading role in the cultural landscape of New Zealand and New Zealand’s society in general.

    New Zealand’s modern culture is best described as multicultural. It has grown and evolved beyond the biculturalism of the 19th Century (Māori and Pākehā, the Māori word for New Zealand Europeans) to include people of nationalities from around the world. Peoples from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds have settled in New Zealand and integrated into Kiwi society.

    Over 170 languages are spoken in New Zealand; however there are three official languages: New Zealand English, Māori and international sign language. Of these, English is the most widely spoken, while Māori language is broadly promoted.Recent influxes of immigration to New Zealand from the Pacific Islands and Asia have contributed to growing cultural diversity, particularly within urban centers. With the largest population of Polynesian peoples in the world, Auckland is today often referred to as the Polynesian capital.

    Economy

    By global standards, New Zealand has a developed economy granting a high standard of living for its inhabitants. Although the country’s GDP per capita ranks behind a number of other countries in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United Nations Human Development Index places New Zealand among the most prosperous countries in the world. Overall, New Zealanders are also well-educated and highly-skilled.

    New Zealand’s economy is dependent on exports, of which primary and processed (secondary) products feature highly. Exports from the agricultural, forestry, fishery and mining industries together account for around two-thirds of merchandise exports. Dairy accounts for around a sixth of New Zealand’s total exports in products and services. Fonterra, the world’s largest exporter of dairy products, is also New Zealand’s largest company by market capitalisation.

    Although New Zealand is efficient in the production of high-quality primary and secondary products for export markets, the largest sector in the economy is now the services (tertiary) sector. Included in this sector are high-value added industries such as tourism, international education, communications and transport. New Zealand’s manufacturing sector has diminished in relative importance to the country’s economy over the past several decades.

    New Zealand’s economy was closely linked to Britain’s until the 1970s. The invention of refrigerated shipping in the late 19th Century transformed the New Zealand economy by enabling the country to export frozen meat and chilled dairy products, primarily back to the motherland. The entry of Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973 was a major blow to New Zealand’s economy, and coupled with a number of other factors, led to rising unemployment, public debt and inflation.

    From the middle of the 1980s, New Zealand began to radically restructure its economy. The currency was floated, tariffs were lowered, and a large number of state-owned businesses and services were privatised. New Zealand is now one of the most economically liberal countries in the world. hile Australia remains New Zealand’s top trading partner, New Zealand is increasingly looking toward Asia and the economic opportunities offered by Asian markets. China, as New Zealand’s third largest trading partner, continues to grow in importance, and on 7 April 2008, New Zealand became the first OECD country to sign a comprehensive free trade agreement with China.

    Sino-New Zealand Relations

    On 22 December 2007, China and New Zealand celebrated 35 years of diplomatic relations. This relationship is one of New Zealand’s most important. China is currently New Zealand’s third largest trading partner and also a valuable source of tourists, international students and skilled migrants. However, China and New Zealand’s history goes back much further in time, and the relationship between the two countries extends beyond the economic sphere.

    Chinese migrants were among the first non-European settlers to New Zealand. Following the discovery of gold in Otago of the South Island, significant numbers of ethnic Chinese from the Guangdong Province arrived in New Zealand starting from the 1860s. Engagement between China and New Zealand increased through China’s Republican Era (1912-1949), in the form of trade, missionary and migration linkages.

    People to people contacts have enriched the relationship between the two countries. Notably, New Zealander Rewi Alley lived and worked in China for 60 years until his death in 1987, and came to symbolise Sino-New Zealand friendship. The 100th anniversary of Alley’s birth was commemorated in both China and New Zealand in 1997.

    China and New Zealand’s relationship is now characterised by deepening economic, educational, political and cultural linkages. On 7 April 2008, after more than three years of negotiations, New Zealand became the first Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country to sign a comprehensive free trade agreement with China.

    In the education sector, China has become New Zealand’s most significant source of international students, and this trend is set to continue. Politically, the two countries have a warm and vibrant bilateral relationship maintained by frequent high-level official contacts. Finally, significant numbers of Chinese migrants now call New Zealand their home. These Chinese New Zealanders help to further improve intercultural understanding between the two countries.

    Learning more about New Zealand

    If you are interested in learning more about New Zealand, The New Zealand Centre recommends use of Te Ara the official New Zealand encyclopedia. If you are located in Beijing, you are welcome to access The New Zealand Centre library which contains multifarious books and resources about New Zealand history and culture - to make an appointment please contact our liaison officers.