Former Fonterra chairman Sir Henry van der Heyden has apologised to "China and its people and Government " for warning New Zealand businesses not to trust the Chinese.
Van der Heyden broke at lunchtime from his final board meeting as a Fonterra director to issue his public apology over comments made at a Tauranga business women's conference.
"It was an ill-judged comment taken out of context," he told the Business Herald. "I apologise to China, its people and its Government."
"China is where New Zealand's future is."
Van der Heyden was earlier reported as saying doing business in China was full of surprises. "You've got to go and do business with your eyes wide open."
Asked by an export manufacturer how small New Zealand businesses could ensure they were not ripped off when trading in China, Sir Henry said bad experiences should be used as opportunities to learn.
"That's my point about China. You will be full of surprises. Don't ever trust them...never.."
He later said the real intent of his comment was, "Be wary, be very careful."
Van der Heyden will head up the board of national gateway Auckland International Airport after the company's annual meeting in October. China is New Zealand's fastest growing tourism market and the airport is working hard with other tourism operators to attract more visitors from the country.
Visitor arrivals from China through Auckland Airport were 37.2 per cent higher last month than April 2012. The 208,257 visitor arrivals for the 12 month period ending April 30 this year was a record for annual Chinese visitor arrivals at the airport.
The airport company spent months courting China Southern Airlines to add Auckland to its international network.
Current airport chair Joan Withers said she had spoken to van der Heyden and was satisfied the remarks had been taken out of context and that he was aware of the importance of the relationship with China.
She said she was confident that relationships with Chinese airlines and tourist groups were strong enough for them to realise the remarks were part of a broader discussion about doing business in China.
Van der Heyden told conference delegates in Tauranga that Fonterra had learned the hard way after the Sanlu melamine scandal in 2008 and board members had discussed at length whether to continue producing milk in China.
"For us we made the decision, 'Look, we're here for the long run.' China is a very, very difficult market, and China's one of those places, I don't think you can sit on this side of the world and say this is how you're going to do business in China because you've actually got to be there, you've actually got to learn from your experiences as you evolve your business."
His comments come as Zespri is appealing against charges of criminal smuggling made against its Chinese subsidiary, saying it had been assured by Chinese officials the dual-invoicing method it was using was acceptable.
After the meeting, van der Heyden said he did not know enough of the details to comment on the Zespri court case but it reinforced his point.