10 questions with Duncan Campbell and Brian Moloughney



Q1: Why create a book for the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with China?

The decision taken in December 1972 to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, 20-odd years after its founding, has proven a consequential one. Over the course of 50 years, the engagement with China has been transformative of both our economic circumstances and the makeup of our society. The People’s Republic is now one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most important, but most challenging, relationships. In light of such circumstances, we thought that the occasion called for some reflection on the part of individual New Zealanders about the various ways that China had impinged upon their lives, in the hope that this might serve to offer a more nuanced (and complex) view of both our countries, and the traffic between them.

Q2: How did you decide on who to approach?

A group of those involved with the People’s Republic over the years got together and started drafting up lists of people who might be approached. We then convened a workshop to foster interest in the project, and suggestions were made also about possible posthumous contributions. For various reasons, some of those we approached decided not to be involved. An early decision was made to limit the number of contributions to 50 voices and so, sadly, a number of the contributions offered us could not be included, by reason of either space or balance.

Q3: What was their brief?

The book is certainly not the ‘official’ account of the relationship. Rather, we wished to capture insights into aspects of this relationship and its evolving meanings in the lives of individual New Zealanders, bringing together the voices of some 50 people who, through text (prose or poetry), image, or photograph, write about what this relationship has meant to them and the trajectory of their lives. The anthology was intended to be commemorative rather than, necessarily, celebratory, reflections fixed on the page before they were forgotten. What did the relationship mean then? What does it mean now? How is this relationship best thought of? How will it be thought of in the future? Moments, events, sights or smells, insistent memories of triumphs or less than complete successes, occasions that changed one’s understanding or appreciation of aspects of Chinese life and culture, or which didn’t, encounters with people or places that nag at the mind, fragments, vignettes, snapshots, snatches of conversations, real or imaginary, extracts from longer works, instances of insight or misunderstanding, cultural clashes, cultural commonalities.

Q4: Who is this intended reader? And what do you hope they gain from reading the book?

Firstly, we hope that anyone who has engaged with China over the course of the last half century of the relationship between New Zealand and the People’s Republic of China might care to dip into this anthology. We hope that it offers some individual reflections on the lived reality of an engagement with the country and her people that might be interesting, even useful, as we grope our way into the future. More generally, we hope that anyone interested in an evolving Aotearoa New Zealand identity and the part that our relationship with China might have played in this process will be interested in the book, and moved by some of the tales it tells.

Q5: What was the most surprising thing you discovered during your selection and editing of the chapters?

The richness and the diversity of the responses to China on the part of ordinary New Zealanders. The deepness of the cultural connections.

Q6: Were there any challenges in managing so many authors, and from such different backgrounds?

In general terms, the mainstream engagement with the People’s Republic of China on the part of ordinary New Zealanders has moved through phases of enchantment (1970s-1980s), disenchantment (after the violent suppression of protests in June 1989), fitful and wary re-engagement (mid-90s onwards), ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ (early 2000s), to, presently, grave disquiet (about, for instance, human rights in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere in the People’s Republic). But chronology did not offer any easy architecture for the anthology; some periods were under-represented, others over-represented, and, in many cases, the contributions ranged over different periods, reflecting on the differences between these periods. We settled on a structure that grouped the contributions loosely under five themes: Beginnings, People, Place, Occasion, and Transformations. Throughout the editing process, we were intent on trying to retain the diversity of voice.

Q7: When did you first become interested in China?

DMC: I started studying Chinese in Malaysia in the 1970s, having done a degree in English Literature and History at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington. When the opportunity to study in the People’s Republic of China under the auspices of the China Exchange Programme came by, I jumped at it, spending 1976-1978 there. I suppose that initially my motivations for doing so were largely political; that changed almost as soon as I walked across the Lo Wu Bridge over the Sham Chun River and into the People’s Republic. I’ve spent the rest of my life trying better to understand the experiences I had during those years, as China embarked upon its post-Mao Zedong transformation.

BM: In my case, I benefitted from good undergraduate teaching about Asia at the University of Canterbury, which followed a few years back-packing across the region, and together these experiences stimulated a desire to know more about China. This led to a period of study in China, supported by the China Exchange Programme, and then a PhD in Chinese history. The richness of China’s cultures and traditions, and the friends made along the way, have sustained my continued engagement with the place and its people.

Q8: What would be the most significant change in our relationship with China over the last 50 years?

The trading relationship. While the economic benefits of this have been of great value to New Zealanders, the anxiety now must be our over-dependence on the China market for our products. And was our pre-Covid 19 over-reliance on both tourists and international students from the People’s Republic at all either desirable or sustainable, environmentally or ethically?

Q9: What is the greatest challenge today for New Zealand in our relationship with China?

For the first time in our history, we are now faced with the reality that our major trading partner works to values and practices that are, in many cases, antithetical to those that we try to hold fast to. And the geostrategic circumstances of the world have rapidly become more challenging, most obviously for us in the Pacific. How we seek to negotiate this treacherous landscape will be a challenge and will require of us increased levels of understanding of the realities of contemporary China.

Q10: If people could take one thing from this book what would you want it to be?

That China, however we might think about it, has played (and will continue to play) an often surprising part in our pasts, present and futures. That China is a fundamental part of how we should think of ourselves, and our place in this world.