Encountering China reviewed in the New Zealand Journal of History


Bolin Hu reviews Encountering China: New Zealanders and the People’s Republic edited by Brian Moloughney and Duncan Campbell: 

ENCOUNTERING CHINA is a complex book that draws on fifty poems, articles, and reminiscences contributed by people spanning from diplomats and politicians to students, academics, and businesspeople. It offers a unique reflection on the part of individual New Zealanders about the Sino-New Zealand relationship since the establishment of formal diplomatic ties in 1972. As an alternative to narratives produced within the framework of ‘official’ accounts or national histories, the book approaches the complex question of ‘what is China’ and shows the diversity of individual perceptions of the country.

Encountering China uncovers the ebb-and-flow of engagement with the People’s Republic of China on the part of ordinary New Zealanders. This progressed from enchantment in the 1970s and 1980s, when China was seen as an icon of overcoming colonization that marked the beginning of a new era; to disenchantment in 1989 with Beijing’s suppression of popular protests; to re-engagement in the mid-1990s and early 2000s; to the current grave disquiet about China’s heavy-handed internal and external policies.

Contributors who visited China after Deng Xiaoping’s decision to open the country in 1978 share their memories of a country emerging from imperialist colonization and the internal disturbance that had characterized Mao Zedong’s rule. It was a time when freedom of speech was abundant. Contributors also recall the grim June of 1989, when the popular protest at Tiananmen Square was met with a violent crackdown by the Chinese Government, leaving a lasting impression on succeeding generations and feeding into concerns about China’s present controversial policies, particularly over human rights. 

However, as some other reminiscences show, China was more complex than many initially thought. The Chinese Government has, in fact, not always been the dominant force in its contact and interaction with Chinese civil society, while political agendas designed by the state have often been discounted. For example, Chinese TV programmes with commercial interests can take precedence over the public diplomacy that China intends to deliver. Many New Zealanders also remember that the Chinese would hide their record players and other valuables identified as products of ‘evil capitalism’ during the Cultural Revolution as an everyday form of resistance to the political agenda. 

Despite political disagreements, cultural exchanges and commercial connections between China and New Zealand have thrived since the 1990s, and this nongovernmental mutuality has proven fruitful to both sides. The birth of 2Degrees, for instance, was a product of New Zealand’s co-operation with Huawei (one of the leading telecoms in China) in the telecommunication area. Cultural communication, including student exchange programmes, has introduced individuals from the two nations to different cultural and social contexts, facilitating a better understanding of each other’s diversities and disparities. Daily contact and association with the Chinese has also allowed New Zealanders to observe and experience a different layer of the Sino-New Zealand relationship embedded in private spaces, such as friendships and working relationships. Those social contacts and interactions certainly furnish an alternative to the traditional perception of China that has concentrated heavily on politics.

Distinct among various Sino-New Zealand connections is the Chinese diaspora. One of the earliest links between the two nations was established by Chinese migrants who travelled, sojourned, and settled in New Zealand. Their prominent position in the national history of New Zealand and indispensable contribution to nation-building are indelible. An official apology from the New Zealand Government for the racist policy represented by the notorious Poll Tax it applied during the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries to the resident Chinese was momentous (the apology has recently been re-issued in Cantonese). New migrants from mainland China have made contributions to their host society that are no less significant. Encountering China pays tribute to the roles that Chinese migrants have played in the past and present which have successfully bridged China and New Zealand.

Transnational mobility and fluidity of identity have featured in this heterogenous Chinese diasporic community. New Zealanders with Chinese heritage often find themselves caught in a sense of in-betweenness that keeps asking the question of ‘who they are’. Their journey in locating and stabilizing their identities, recounted by numerous contributors to the book, is representative in many ways of members of the Chinese diaspora in similar situations. 

Although Encountering China loosely groups contributions that range across widely different areas, it offers valuable individual accounts and perspectives (albeit affected to a certain degree by the unreliability of social and individual memory) that challenge our traditional understanding of ‘China’ and the ‘Chinese’. The diversity of these two concepts is re-iterated throughout the book to remind readers to adopt a broader perspective regarding the current Sino-New Zealand relationship.