by Chris Trotter
New Imperiums For Old: China now stands where Britain stood: an economic colossus with expectations of this country that New Zealanders are only reluctantly beginning to comprehend. The thought that the Chinese might want something in return for opening up their market to our milk powder and baby formula has come very late to the ordinary Kiwi.
SONJA DAVIES was only in Parliament for six years. But, she could hardly have chosen a worse six-year period to be a Labour MP. Her time as MP for the Wellington seat of Pencarrow (1987-1993) coincided with the crescendo of Rogernomics and the splitting of the Labour Party. It was not a happy time for the celebrated feminist and trade union fighter, and she was only too happy to hand her seat over to Trevor Mallard and get out.
It wasn’t just the awfulness of life in the Labour Party in the late-1980s and early-90s that depressed Sonja Davies. As a shrewd observer of both local and international politics, she rapidly became aware that New Zealand was passing through a period of fundamental cultural and economic re-orientation. What concerned her most was how little New Zealanders were being told and, therefore, how little they knew, about the changes that were radically reshaping what it means to be a New Zealander.
“If people had any idea about the scale of these changes,” she confided to me early in her first term as MP for Pencarrow,” they’d be horrified. It’s been decided that New Zealand’s future lies in Asia. That’s got massive implications – but most people haven’t a clue. No one asked them and certainly no one’s telling them.”
Sonja Davies: People would be horrified.
New Zealand’s embrace of Asia (remember Jim Bolger’s startling comment that “New Zealand is an Asian country”?) was a policy driven by the same elite group of bureaucrats and businesspeople that had sponsored Roger Douglas’s “Quiet Revolution”. New Zealand’s once heavily-protected economy had been thrown open to the world in anticipation of the world’s major economies doing the same.
Significantly, the corollary of the free movement of capital, goods and services across international borders – the free movement of peoples – remained largely unexamined. Most New Zealanders simply did not realise that if their country was determined to trade freely with the whole world, then, more and more, its population would come to resemble the people with whom it was trading. If most of those people hailed from Asia, then New Zealand would, indeed, become “an Asian country”.
Why Asia? Simply because the traditional destinations for New Zealand’s exports, Europe and the United States, were largely satiated markets. Even worse, they remained highly protected markets. Throughout Asia generally, however, and, more specifically, in China, it was evident that millions of hitherto poor peasants and workers would soon be entering the ranks of a new and materialistically inclined “Middle Class”.
And, if history was any guide, one of the principal effects of these millions of Chinese becoming wealthy would be a dramatic change in their dietary habits. The demand would go up for protein, protein and more protein. And protein was – and is – what New Zealanders do best. Increasingly, the diplomatic and trade focus shifted from the global free trade chimeras of APEC and the Doha Round of the WTO, to the golden prize of a single, bilateral, free trade agreement with the People’s Republic of China.
That agreement was the crowning achievement of the Helen Clark-led Labour Government (1999-2008) and there can be no disputing its enormous and beneficial impact on the New Zealand economy. Equally indisputable, however, are the profound socio-cultural and political impacts of China becoming this country’s largest trading partner.
The New Zealand historian, James Belich, describes the political and socio-cultural effects of New Zealand being transformed into Britain’s “protein factory” as “The Great Tightening”. Essentially, this country was re-colonised by British capitalists and its population re- educated accordingly. That the process was carried out by people who looked like us and talked like us – our own kith and kin, as it were – did not make it any less destructive of our national sovereignty. More than 18,000 young New Zealanders’ died in World War I: their blood exchanged for our butter’s guaranteed access to the British market. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, William Massey, was happy to pay the butcher’s bill.
China now stands where Britain stood: an economic colossus with expectations of this country that New Zealanders are only reluctantly beginning to comprehend. The thought that the Chinese might want something in return for opening up their market to our milk powder and baby formula has come very late to the ordinary Kiwi.
That Labour is leading the discussion about how much, precisely, the Chinese have a right to expect from New Zealanders is entirely fitting. After all, it was Labour who sealed the deal. It was Labour, too, who presided over the electorally unmandated “turn” towards Asia in the late-80s. That they are, at last, addressing the misgivings expressed to me by Sonja Davies’ all those years ago, is to be applauded – not condemned.
Labour’s Chinese whispers have nothing to do with racism. They’re about national sovereignty and the people’s will.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 July 2015.