Book Review: New Zealand's China Experience

By Rick Bryant

1 comment
'New Zealand's China Experience'. Photo / Supplied
'New Zealand's China Experience'. Photo / Supplied

New Zealand's China Experience ed. by Chris Elder (Victoria University Press $50)

My fairly positive "experience" with this book was abruptly, even rudely, spoiled by the very last item, a contribution by John Key, former merchant banker and Prime Minister of this country.

Well, it purports to be by him, but I think we have a variant of the "who really did this bloody awful painting" scenario. It is the text of a speech delivered to the symposium marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and China. The notion that Key writes many of his own speeches has to be quaint.

Not that it matters much - it is anodyne and predictable.

Sample gem: "In February I launched the New Zealand Inc. China Strategy. The strategy is about getting greater efficiency and effectiveness across all government agencies that work in and with China.

And it's about developing more targeted and cohesive services to help successful businesses to develop and grow in China."

Maybe you had to be there.

And no doubt it will reassure New Zealand's pig farmers, threatened with the bio-security menace posed by Chinese raw pork imports; and comfort the Zespri growers and shareholders who see their industry ruined by China-sourced PSA disease, if you need to identify a government agency that has already made a major biosecurity blunder. That was policy, too.

Not to mention that this government at least is considering sweetheart deals for rich tourists wanting to fast-track customs and immigration processes. They can fudge it how they will, but that, in plain English, is what is proposed.

It's a shame, actually, because I had been thinking the book was going quite well, considering a collection of very disparate elements could have got, well, too disparate. But the Key contribution had to spoil it.

Professor James Bertram is represented by two excerpts, and arguably there could have been a lot more. For a start, he can write. And he really knew the main men, and had the kind of overview Elder's book could do with more of.

More importantly, he had the empathy to make him a real China hand, someone who was on a cordial basis with Mao, who was a clear-eyed observer of big people and big events, who empathised politically and historically, but most importantly, on the basic human level.

The Japanese started World War II in China in 1933, although it was largely ignored in other parts of the world. But the sufferings of the Chinese people were not ignorable if you were there on the ground.

Compassion is the most evident quality displayed by Elder's less celebrated contributors, showing us New Zealanders at our diverse rugged individualist best.

Rewi Alley is the best known of these and achieved more than the others, but the missionaries, teachers and nurses who shared his aspirations for the Chinese in their homeland, although sometimes misguided, provide a positive contrast to the beastly bigotry that Chinese miners experienced in New Zealand.

When Helen Clark apologised for the poll tax and other anti-Chinese laws, it was long overdue. I can remember being shocked by the casual racism of some of the kids at my school, directed at fifth-generation New Zealanders of Chinese descent, echoing the tone of the most pungent elements of the rabble-rousing of the anti-Chinese lobby in
our colonial immigration policy-making. We might have expected it in the 1860s but the highly discriminatory laws prevailed until 1948. Elder deals with this nasty part of our history well.

Rita Angus, Fiona Kidman, James K. Baxter, Robin Hyde, Ruth Dallas and C.K. Stead are just a quick sample of the many good writers with interesting contributions to make. But it's a shame about Key's bit.


Rick Bryant is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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