We need to talk about China

By Geoff Cumming, Audrey Young

As Prime Minister John Key leads a super-sized political and trade delegation to China, Weekend Herald writers assess our fast-developing relationship with the world's new economic superpower. Two Chinese-born MPs share past and present impressions of their homeland with political editor Audrey Young, and Geoff Cumming examines the pitfalls for businesses wanting a slice of the action

National MP Jian Yang and his family in 1965. Photo / Supplied
National MP Jian Yang and his family in 1965. Photo / Supplied

The trouble with China experts living in China is they may not feel completely free to say what they want.

The trouble with China experts who haven't lived in China is they may not have the complete picture of the great civilisation in modern times.

Jian Yang doesn't have either problem. He is an undisputed China expert, who was raised there, has a PhD in international relations from an Australian University and is now living in Hillsborough, Auckland with his wife and two daughters, one born in China and one in New Zealand.

He is also a first-term National list MP - he replaced the high-profile Pansy Wong as National's Chinese MP after her career ended abruptly in 2010 amid suggestions of mixing business with parliamentary-funded travel - and a member of Prime Minister John Key's big delegation to China next week. On the eve of the trip he spoke to the Weekend Herald about his experience as a child in the cultural revolution and what makes him proud of China on the rise today.

Jian went back to China a few days ago to visit his parents, his father aged 83 and mother aged 80, in Yingtan, a city of 43 million in the province of Jiangxi between Shanghai and Guangzhou, and to help his father through a varicose veins operation.

Both his parents were primary school teachers and, during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, were ordered to the countryside with their three sons when Jian was aged about 6, to be "re-educated" by peasants. They lived in a barn for a few years but, relatively speaking, it wasn't a bad time for him, he says.

"In the countryside people were nice. Peasants were very nice," he says. "In the countryside people respect intellectuals. Those peasants actually respected my parents."

At least his parents were not persecuted and made to stand in the street with tall paper hats on, as he witnessed during the campaign against "anti-revolutionaries".

At least his mother's head wasn't shaved. His father raised pigs and his mother worked in the rice fields but after a few years they took up teaching jobs in the country.

"The most spectacular present that I received for my 10th birthday was two eggs for breakfast," he said in his maiden speech last year.

In 1974, his father returned to the city with Jian and his older brother after six years. His mother followed two years later.

It all could have been worse for the family, considering his mother's father had been a member of the Nationalist Party of China, which was defeated by the Communists in 1949, and had been a landlord as well. He was taken prisoner in 1951 and sentenced to life but was released in 1957 for being a model prisoner.

Jian says the Chinese Government has long recognised the cultural revolution as a national catastrophe and learned its lesson.

He says China has experienced many humiliations and disasters in the past two centuries and that is one of the reasons why Chinese both inside and outside the country are proud of its achievements in the past three decades, including himself.

"In the past China was weak and Chinese overseas often felt they were discriminated against because you came from a poor, very weak country. Basically the stronger China is, the more proud they will feel."

Though overseas Chinese associate themselves with China's growth and it is very important to their sense of pride, "in China the sense is actually not so strong".

Jian credits the Communist Party at being very good at self-improvement, one of the reasons it has stayed in power for so long. Deng Xiaoping's economic revolution of 1978, opening up the economy when it was on the verge of collapse, was even harder than the 1949 revolution because the party had risked losing power. These days, he says, the Government is more responsive to the public and pressure because there are many sources of information and people can travel around the country, which wasn't possible before 1978. Although citizens still can't publish criticism about the Government, they can complain about it.

"We can see the limits but we can see the improvement. Many people can't see the improvement."

Seeing humour is a test of 'Kiwiness'

Is the Powershop advertisement showing Mao Zedong dancing Gangnam-style ("same power, different attitude") a good test for Chinese migrants to New Zealand? Labour list MP Raymond Huo thinks so.

As one himself, since 1994, he says he loves the poster - though he doesn't expect to see any next week when he travels with the Prime Minister to China.

He says reaction to it will show Chinese here whether they have become Kiwi Chinese.

"I love it," he said. "If someone has been offended by that or feels obliged to be offended by that, I think probably he hasn't lived in that Kiwi Chinese way; and those who find humour in it and could smile to their colleagues, I think we should accept them as Kiwi Chinese."

Huo believes that immigrants to New Zealand have an obligation to try to integrate.

To Asians who have been here for more than 10 years, are still eating Chinese food, reading Chinese newspapers, speaking Chinese and mixing in their own community, "I would pretty much want to say to them that there's no reason for them to come here in the first place."

He believes the attitude to Mao Zedong, chairman of the Communist Party from the 1949 revolution to his death in 1976, is a generational one and says Mao and the party were still cherished in China by many people aged over 45.

"If you want to understand Mao Zedong you need to understand 3000 years of Chinese history," he says. "It is not as clear-cut as depicted in the Western media."

The 49-year-old movingly recalled his own boyhood memories of the cultural revolution, instigated by Mao, in his maiden speech to Parliament in 2008.

His parents were both doctors and were demoted during the cultural revolution and ended up in the countryside.

"My father, like other 'intellectuals' was ordered to stand still at the main entrance to the hospital, holding a wide whiteboard with his name painted in black, followed by the title 'counter-revolutionary medical expert' for an hour at a time, three times a day."

He says that as a 5-year-old, he asked his father if he could join him and hold his own little board with his name on it. His father agreed.

Huo's father has died but his mother is still living in Qianshan, a relatively small city of 570,000 in Anhui province.

He tries to get back every couple of years.

Huo is delighted that he has been included in the Prime Minister's delegation to China next week.

When he is in Beijing, the former lawyer will deliver a lecture at the China University of Political Science and Law where he has just been made an honorary Professor of Law. He graduated from the university in 1990, then with cross-crediting took two years to complete a New Zealand law degree at Auckland University.

Huo, who lives in Glendowie with his wife and two New Zealand-born daughters, chose to come to New Zealand because Rewi Alley, the New Zealander who helped set up co-operatives in China in his 60 years there, was such a strong and inspiring influence on him.

- NZ Herald

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