Iwas about to pile into China for its insatiable demand for ivory, rhino horn, tiger bones, shark fins, bear paws, which is utterly unacceptable because it endangers numerous animal species. Till an article in Fortune magazine rather jolted me.

It was on ChemChina's acquisition of Sygenta - I quote: "...the Swiss-based world leader in advanced insecticides, herbicides and other crop-protection products and the number 3 producer of seeds."

The jolt came from the words preceding: "The worst famine in human history occurred in China from 1959 to 1961. An estimated 34 million people starved to death - the elderly and disabled left to perish because they couldn't work; murder and cannibalism within families. Hundreds of millions of Chinese people today, including most of China's top leaders, survived that famine."

In 1959 New Zealand that's like 125,000 people dying of starvation. Imagine what that would do to our national psyche. Chinese have a thing, born well before this event, called "food security". For millennia their emperors, compelled into action by famines on a fairly regular basis, stockpiled grain and other food. Food insecurity has been passed down the generations.


In the 15th century China shut itself off from the rest of the world, developing its own unique character, uninfluenced by others. Within this complex mix of factors that make up the Chinese character, ivory and rhino horn mean status. Which is a primal urge before reason gets a look in, if ever it does. Tiger bones are believed to have medicinal qualities. That means bad luck for the endangered animal species.

There's losing face: one must not lose face, under any circumstance. Presenting your house guest, or invited business guests at a restaurant with shark fin soup is both a compliment to him and a symbol of your status. Face: reflecting both one's standing in the community and his character. Pity the poor sharks.

People evolve as they do: propelled by geography, climate, politics, invasion, war - usually meaning mass slaughter - enslavement, generations of repression, genocide. Droughts, floods, major earthquakes and storms, crop disease, insects, all take their toll and affect national psyches differently.

The ChemChina purchase is part of a master plan - not to create an international monopoly, as conspiracy theorists would believe, but to ensure the country never goes through a famine again. Compared to the US with zero food stockpiles, China has over a year's supply.

So I'm backing off, somewhat, from my intended attack on the Chinese whose cultural outlook has endangered elephants, rhinos and tigers. China is changing - slowly. At a rate that suits them, not us. The West can help speed up that process by more diplomatic persuasion along with understanding of traditions and Chinese history.

The Chinese eat dog meat. It all depends on your cultural sensitivities, the national outlook most of us inherit.

New Zealanders in particular have an aversion to the Japanese appetite for whale meat. And one Japanese seaside community's annual slaughter of entrapped dolphins distresses us. Dolphins and whales kind of feel like our close sea cousins. On these highly intelligent sea mammals, the West definitely has the high moral ground.

Yet we eat the sea's most incredible creature, cuttlefish, and the amazing octopus. The Chinese eat dog meat. It all depends on your cultural sensitivities, the national outlook most of us inherit. Like the successful Auckland Chinese property investor who observed that he sees Kiwis having a good time in bars and restaurants, spending about a hundred bucks each outing. While he stays home and saves the hundred. Eventually and inevitably, he gets ahead.

While we have only good memories - if sometimes a bit blurred - he has financial security and a permanently sober state. A lot of us would rather be dead than live this abstaining, get-ahead life. But to our Chinese property investor we are stupid, shortsighted and self-destructive. It's called cultural differences.


My middle-class Pakeha friends eat in a restrained manner, engaging in diverse conversation. My Maori relations have a feed and their talk is mostly humour and loud laughter. Vive la difference. I've been horrified to see crayfish eaten live in China.

China is changing and discarding many of its traditional beliefs. A populace of 1.4 billion is not like persuading our 4.5 million - hard enough in itself. If we in the West are smart about it, we'd best persuade them with respect. Then everyone wins, not least endangered species.