New Zealand's China--past, present and future: John McKinnon discusses the changing basis of the relationship and calls for transparency and consistency in our dealings with the emerging economic giant.

AuthorMcKinnon, John
PositionViewpoint essay

The China we have been dealing with today is increasingly prosperous, a growing market for New Zealand's goods and services and a participant in nearly all regional and global organisations of interest to New Zealand. In all dimensions, therefore, it is a country with which we need to engage and exchange views. The quality of our relationship will be determined by our ability to maintain a sense of mutual respect and mutual benefit despite big societal differences. We also need to understand China more, just as we expect China to understand us, and be transparent and consistent in our dealings with it.


To start with my title: 'New Zealand's China'. Is it a punctuation mistake? A rogue apostrophe which has crept in where it is not wanted? No. I am deliberately referring to China from a New Zealand perspective, rather than China as such. I may know more about the latter than many, but I am certainly not an expert. But if I cannot discuss New Zealand and China, then I probably should not be discussing it at all.

So when and where to begin. For me it is easiest to do so in September 1975, over 40 years ago, when I was sent off to Hong Kong to spend two years of full time study of the Chinese language. That was followed by two years in the New Zealand embassy in Beijing and on returning to New Zealand a similar number of years doing China work, including escorting a number of Chinese delegations around our country. Then a large gap intervened.

I returned to China in February 2001 for a first term as New Zealand's ambassador in Beijing, and a second such period, from 2015, concluded in 2018. In all I have spent nearly ten years of my life living in China, all of it in Beijing, and even longer professionally engaged with China in one way or another. Of course, I am not so egocentric as to imagine that New Zealand's connection with China began in September 1975. My colleagues Chris Elder and the late Mike Green have written up New Zealand's China contacts from the veryfirst in the Lite 1790s, through to 1972, when New Zealand extended diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China. Other colleagues such as Matt Dalzell have written in detail on periods within that time frame. Some of that history is not very edifying. I was amazed to discover, when recently re-reading Andre Siegfried's 1904 classic, Democracy in New Zealand, that he has a chapter unabashedly entided "The Government and the Yellow Peril'.

The year 1949, when the Chinese Civil War concluded and the People's Republic was proclaimed, was a turning point in this 'pre-history. It became even more so when nine months later the Korean War broke out, with New Zealand participating in the UN forces on one side, and Chinese People's Volunteers, as they were officially designated, coming to the aid of their beleaguered neighbour on the other side a few months later.

In the twenty years which followed, New Zealand, while not afflicted by McCarthyism, kept its official distance from the new China and maintained diplomatic recognition of the previous government, whose jurisdiction was limited to Taiwan and some adjacent islands. Yet even during this time there were some contacts between New Zealanders and mainland China; I use the term 'New Zealanders' as these were not officially sanctioned contacts.

Important contact

I only came across one of these contacts earlier this year. Between April and June 1956 Roger Duff, the director of the Canterbury Museum, was part of a group of prominent New Zealanders visiting China at the invitation of the Chinese government. The hand of Rewi Alley, New Zealand's long-term resident 'friend of China, was behind this. Rewi subsequently donated much of his extensive collection of Chinese art and artifacts to the museum. Roger Duffs diary from this visit has just been published by the Canterbury University Press and makes fascinating reading. The diary is interleaved with comments from other members of his group, and what makes it so intriguing is that the group were far from being of one mind about the China they saw. With Ormond Wilson leading, and artist Evelyn Page, historian Angus Ross, journalist/ academic James Bertram and rural personality Charles Hilgendorf as members amongst others, this is hardly surprising.

Another contact I have known about for some time was the visit by a three-person film group, of whom two were the redoubtable couple Rudall and Ramai Hayward. This took place at the instigation of the New Zealand China Friendship Society, set up in 1952 when there were no other groups committed to dealing with the new China. The group went to Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing and Wuhan. In the capital Ramai Hayward memorably placed a Maori cloak on the shoulders of Chairman Mao. One of my proudest achievements in China was to track down this cloak, which had been mis-catalogued as being from Sri Lanka. The three films that the Haywards made through this venture were never screened commercially; maybe 'Red China' was just too 'hot for the commercial movie theatre operators to handle at that...

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