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A quarter of New Zealand’s population could be Asian in 20 years’ time as the country becomes increasingly diverse, Stats NZ’s latest projections show.
While the predictions are tipped to make some New Zealanders “deeply anxious”, experts say that in reality it’s a chance to assess what it means to be Kiwi – and how we need to adapt to the changing face of Aotearoa.
All ethnic group populations are expected to grow in number, but the broad Asian ethnic group is expected to see the fastest growth to 26 per cent of the population by 2043, up from 16 per cent in 2018.
The European ethnic group will see the slowest growth, dropping its population share from 70 to 64 per cent in 2043, according to Stats NZ’s national ethnic population projections.
“It’s one of those transformative moments in New Zealand’s population,” says Massey University professor Paul Spoonley.
“This is a complete reversal from our colonial history. We worked very hard to keep Asians, particularly Chinese, out and then didn’t give them rights once they were over here.
“We’re now, in the 21st century, seeing a country that’s increasingly Asian. It challenges people to think about what their country is like and who’s here.”
Asian peoples are projected to cross the 1 million mark between 2024 and 2027, just ahead of Māori hitting the figure between 2028 and 2032.
The growth in Asian residents is driven by migration.
“Some people would be deeply anxious about that, and others would be deeply concerned. What does it mean for New Zealand?” said Spoonley.
“I read something recently about why migrants don’t play rugby. Does it mean that there will be fewer people playing rugby? But we gain in other aspects, we gain diversity, new languages, new skills.”
The projections show individual Asian ethnic groups such as Chinese and Indian will remain significantly smaller than Māori.
Professor Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, said there was huge internal diversity within the broad category of “Asians”.
“What’s called an Asian ethnicity is made up of … hundreds of specific ethnicities, they vary in size and culture, economic background and migration history. They also vary in terms of the number of people who are born here,” he said.
The Pacific group is expected to cross the half a million mark by 2032, followed by the Indian subgroup in the mid-2030s.
Updated every two to three years, these projections are not predictions and should be used as an indication of the overall trend rather than exact forecasts, says Stats NZ.
Overall, the projections tipped slowing growth and ageing for all ethnic groups, with the number and share of people over 65 increasing across the board.
But higher birth rates mean younger Māori and Pacific populations, compared with Pākehā.
Collins said the challenge was how to achieve an inclusive and forward-looking population “where there’s opportunity for everyone to achieve and become who they want to be, as part of New Zealand”.
Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon said he was keen for new immigrants and visa holders to learn more about the country’s history before applying for residency.
The number of Asians coming here added value to the country, and he asked people to put aside anxieties around race.
“There’s a lot to celebrate. I think New Zealanders love the diversity.”
Foon said the Asian group was”not homogeneous” but often stereotyped.
“It is a bigger group than just Chinese people or Japanese people or Indian people. It’s a very diverse group of people that come here for a better life and to also see the opportunities to contribute to New Zealand society.”
Spoonley said the way immigration had diversified the population in a short time had been a test of the country’s tolerance, and there was a need to invest in social cohesion.
“Our major institutions need to make sure these communities, particularly new migrants, are participating in and are getting the services they need, whether it’s education, voting, health, or justice systems.”
There was also need for further debate: “Are we welcoming? Do we understand them? If they do things differently, do we accept that?” Spoonley said.
“When we look at the Asia-New Zealand Foundation yearly surveys, there are things like, New Zealanders tend to be quite accepting of immigrants but they don’t like them speaking a different language in the public space. That tells me we’ve got some issues to deal with in terms of social cohesion.”
'I wanted a white lunch'
Born in Seoul and raised in Auckland, Zac Kim’s life is a lesson in New Zealand’s demographic transformation.
The social worker and youth pastor’s first memory of his racial difference started in kindergarten, when a classmate said he was Chinese. It didn’t end there.
“All through primary school it was an ongoing thing, having to constantly explain that I wasn’t from China, that I was actually from another country called Korea, which is funny because I don’t think many kids would go through that now, especially on the North Shore where I grew up because it’s full of Koreans.”
“I used to go to school with amazing lunches, like tempura, kim bap, Korean rice cakes,” he recalls.
But it was short-lived, as he quickly realised he needed to fit in.
“I remember going home and telling my mum I wanted a white lunch, and she was like what? I had to explain, you know, packets of chips, sandwiches… it was a big deal at the time, and she definitely made it work,” he said, chuckling.
Ranjna Patel did not feel like a minority growing up in Auckland.
“I grew up in Herne Bay in a fruit shop and I had in my class Maori, Pacific, Chinese, Indian, European, and none of us felt like a minority growing up in the 60s. But I was the greengrocer’s daughter, everyone treated us just like normal people.”
The co-founder and director of primary healthcare group Tamaki Health describes herself as a Kiwi straddling two worlds.
“I’m a Kiwi, but I’m always going to look like what I look like, so I’m always Indian, and I have the cultural, religious teachings and values of what an Indian would have.
“But when I go to India and I open my mouth, I’m also a foreigner. So where do I really belong when my family’s been here (in New Zealand) for over 100 years?”
Increasing diversity can only be great for the country, she says.
“It’s the diversity of thought, the ability to work with anyone around the world because of that cultural competency, personal connections. New migrants have so many contacts everywhere. We should be celebrating how we can use these to progress internationally.”
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