Book club review: Encountering China

By Alexander McKinnon

A.M. McKinnon lived in
Beijing 1978–1980 and
2002–2007 and is the
author of the memoir
Come Back to Mona Vale
(Otago University Press).

This is original content
for Capital online.

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In celebration of Chinese New Year we’re delving into books that explore the country and it’s culture. First up, writer Alexander McKinnon takes a look at the newly released Encountering China.

Fifty years ago, New Zealand followed several other Western countries in formally recognising the People’s Republic of China. Diplomatic relations were established and embassies opened. Encountering China, edited by Duncan Campbell and Brian Moloughney (Massey University Press) commemorates this milestone by bringing together fifty contributors’ stories of subsequent interactions between New Zealand and China.

It is a job well done. Individually these memoirs are absorbing and enjoyable. Collectively the book gives a picture of the breadth and depth of the relationship that is often overlooked. In a time when China assessment seems increasingly polarised it is good to read balanced and respectful commentary. This book will now be an important part of the primary record for New Zealand. 

Selecting even fifty contributions must have been tough given the scale of China, and the speed of its change and that of the China New Zealand relationship. There are contributions from the early years of the embassy in then Peking; from some of the original exchange students who won scholarships to China; from New Zealanders of Chinese heritage; and from witnesses to 1989, trade promoters, union organisers, poets, writers, academics, and researchers. They are all incisive and well informed and in many cases tell highly interesting or amusing first-hand stories. The book has the dimensions of something rather learned. I read it by the beach and everyone was impressed. But it reads easily, engagingly.

To give some specific examples: Chris Elder is dry and amusing on Muldoon’s April 1976 visit to China; Tony Browne’s tale of tracking down Dr Li is gripping, while Mavis Mullins’s anecdote about Pita Sharples is very funny, and her clear-eyed assessment of business suitability for China is refreshing. Adam Osborne-Smith gives a realistic assessment of self-propelled foreigner- life that is recognisable to younger people experiencing China more recently.  Luke Qin and Bo Li both give balanced accounts of their journeys from Chinese citizens to New Zealanders. The late John Needham’s essay ‘Hong Kong Revisited’ is a lapidary work of art in its own right.

Lewis Mayo has a remarkable essay linking the human and physical geologies of China and New Zealand (specifically Auckland) via Hone Tuwhare. Tuwhare appears again (and a poem of his opens the collection) in Jacob Edmond’s elegiac reflection on what China can show you about New Zealand. These two pieces talk to each other in a way that is common through the collection, and  enhances it.

There is also the search for the korowai gifted to Mao and several historically valuable first-hand accounts of globally important people – Hua Guofeng, Zhao Ziyang (both premiers of China), Rewi Alley – and events: Democracy Wall, 1978, Tiananmen Square, 1989, the Sichuan earthquake, 2008 and, in New Zealand, the apology for the 19th century poll tax on Chinese migrants.

Jason Young’s piece surveys responses to intellectual engagement with China in the current climate. He is understanding but not doctrinaire, which seems to be in the best traditions of New Zealand’s China relationship.  I note that most New Zealand published books get printed in southern China; Encountering China was printed in Singapore. I suspect printing in China would have been difficult given coverage of Xinjiang, Tiananmen, and environmental activism.

I habitually pretend to know more about China than I do. Reading this collection reconfirmed this, but gently. It was like sitting down and being spoken to by someone wise and learned. There is showing, not telling; and the recounting of these unique personal stories is placed in the wider context.  

Some credit for the tone and approach must go to the editors, the editorial board, the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre, the publishers (Nicola Legat and Tracey Borgfelt), their team at Massey and not least Kate Stone, who edited the individual pieces. But it also says much about the intelligence of the people who have helped shape the New Zealand – China relationship, some from long before this was particularly profitable. The expertise is impressive, the more so for being quietly delivered. It is expertise of which New Zealand can be justly proud.

The collection overall has a cultural, intellectual and diplomatic flavour rather than a commercial one. Many others could have contributed; but the combination works. There is mention of trade and commercial experience to provide business texture, but the collection is a reminder that the history between the two countries is richer and more varied than headlines might have you believe. Commerce has been its most obvious manifestation for fifteen years or so, but it is arguably a result of much wider engagement – social, cultural, artistic, diplomatic, individual – over five decades. 

The book also forms a record of a rare if not unique New Zealand government effort. It is hard to think of other examples of such structured, long-term thinking. There was the Colombo Plan and subsequent endeavours in South East Asia, and a focus on Japan from the 1960s to the mid-1990s. But they did not endure or burgeon as the China endeavour has; nor have they faced such controversy.

1972 was only five years after the British Mission in Peking had been sacked and burned by the Red Guards. The Cultural Revolution was still underway and the Gang of Four were in charge. The outlook was intimidating. Yet from the early 1970s New Zealand governments selected, facilitated or supported talented people and sent them to China in the hope that something would evolve. This was long term investment.

I don’t know enough to conclude whether this was visionary, a gamble or semi-accidental like much of government policy; but I think vision deserves a reasonable degree of credit. Success was not guaranteed but nor was it accidental. The commitment has endured. In contrast to efforts in, say, West Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and Africa.

The choice of an image by Simon Kaan for the cover artwork is inspired. He personifies the blending of cultures in New Zealand and in our foreign relations. He is also part of the story, having been the inaugural recipient of a New Zealand creative residency at Beijing’s Red Gate Gallery in 2004.

I should disclose that I know several of the contributors (and am related to one) and have long admired many others. Please don’t let this put you off. Encountering China is everything I have hoped it would be. If you don’t know China, the anecdotal style is accessible; if you do, there are riches upon which to feast.

This is not the easiest time to be a Sinophile – or even just sino-curious. In this we are closer to 1972 than we might think. Duncan Campbell and others speculate on China’s future trajectory. China and Xi have pivoted spectacularly since this book was published just two months ago. To have any chance of keeping up, New Zealand needs the sort of people and thinking represented in Encountering China.


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