The fascinating destiny between a Chinese diplomat and Rewi Alley

China's outgoing Consul General in Auckland, Xu Erwen, reflects on her childhood chance meeting with Rewi Alley, how it shaped her own life, and continues to guide the spirit of China-New Zealand relations.


Can you recall your fondest childhood memory? For myself, it was being at kindergarten one day when a foreign man came to visit. He took photos for us, played games and ended up staying for a whole week. I clearly remember his warm smile, blue eyes and the fluent Chinese he spoke.

In China's Hunan Province in the 1960s, foreigners were a very rare sight, so this was an experience none of us could forget easily. Later, my mother told me this "grandpa with a big nose" was from a country far away called New Zealand. She said his name was Rewi Alley, and he'd come to China to dedicate his life to Chinese people's liberation and building New China.

Of course, he also played a pioneering role in bringing New Zealand and China closer together, as well as China's deepened friendship with the rest of the world.

Amazingly, these experience in my childhood influenced the path I took later on. From that moment of encounter with Rewi Alley, New Zealand became a place of fascination for me, and I encouraged myself to follow his example as someone who looked outward and fought for the ideals of peace, justice, friendship and common development.

After graduating from university, I joined the diplomatic service. That was a time of China starting the era of reform and opening up to the outside world, a time of new thinking, optimism and closer relations between China and many other countries, including New Zealand.

In 2015, I was luckily appointed Consul General of the Peoples' Republic of China in Auckland. This is a huge personal honour for me. I took up with the memory of Rewi Alley sharp in my mind and determined to do the same to New Zealand just as he made a lasting impact on China.

Fortunately, decades of hard work by leaders of both countries have already laid the foundations for a relationship that stands out among China's ties to other developed nations.

The many 'firsts' we share, from New Zealand supporting China's accession to the WTO in 1997, to the recent announcement of negotiations to upgrade our FTA, show that New Zealand's relationship with China is an innovative one.

The challenge I set myself here was to continue the spirit of innovation by finding new opportunities to build connections between New Zealand and China.

A starting point for me has been the famous Chinese saying "If you want to prosper, first build a road." New Zealand will always be defined by its geographic isolation, so helping build greater connectivity between New Zealand and China has been a defining goal and idea of my posting.

The most convenient and efficient road between New Zealand and China is clearly aviation and shipping. So for more than three years, I have put a huge amount of energy into strengthening air and maritime links between Auckland and major cities in China.

Every time I received a delegation from Chinese provinces and cities or met with the heads of Major Chinese airlines, local officials, airport managers and business leaders, I championed greater connectivity as a means to benefiting people in both countries.

The results speak for themselves, with the number of direct flights between Auckland and major Chinese cities quadrupling in just a few years to as many as 160 a week during peak times. This has not only helped meet the growing demand for New Zealand tourism and ultra-premium export products such as live seafood, but also brought greater choice and competition for Kiwi passengers and generated sustainable employment and income for local tourism operators and producers.

According to Auckland Airport, every flight brings in an average income of about $180 million annually. Looking ahead, Auckland has a real opportunity to become an international aviation hub to link China and East Asia with South America, similar to Dubai, Singapore or Paris today.

This prospect is a good example of how cooperation between New Zealand and China fits into the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China's vision to promote closer ties between countries through development-led trade growth.

Air connectivity is just one of the many ways New Zealand can leverage the BRI to grow cooperation with China, as well as the many other countries that are participating in the initiative.

A number of Kiwi academic institutions and think tanks are currently working on plans and ideas for New Zealand's participation under the BRI and I'm confident this will give full play to the massive potential the initiative presents.

According to a recent survey by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, 44 per cent of New Zealanders have already heard of the BRI.

My memory of Rewi Alley has also inspired me to explore as much of New Zealand as possible during my time in the country. Just as Alley's diaries reveal visits to numerous parts of China, covering remote areas and vast distances, I have made a point of visiting almost every town, city and corner in my consular districts, from the Far North to Waikato.

At Waitangi Day celebrations, the Auckland Lantern Festival and events like Balloons over Waikato, the warmness and hospitality of New Zealanders have touched me deeply. I've also been invited into the homes of Māori friends and experienced true manaakitanga, reminding me that Rewi Alley himself was named after a respected Māori Chief.

I've also been privileged to attend important meetings, such as the China Business Summit, and the Tripartite Economic Summits of Auckland, Guangzhou and Los Angeles. I have received many important delegations from China including the one led by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, hosted dozens of receptions for the distinguished guests, and facilitated agreements between companies, universities, institutes and governments between our two countries.

These meetings and interactions are where the new ideas and energy for the next chapter of the relationship are shared and formed, and would not be possible without the lifelong work of people like Rewi Alley and others. They put people's wellbeing at the center of their work, and this continues to be a key purpose of Chinese diplomacy today.

With the joint efforts continuing on both sides, our history of innovative and pragmatic cooperation has delivered remarkable achievements. Thanks to the growth of direct flights, fresh milk from the Waikato can now be enjoyed by families in Shanghai just 72 hours after milking. Other products like fresh beef, mutton, seafood, fruit and more can easily be exported to China's booming consumer markets.

Just look at the two-way trade figures, which ticked over $30 billion last year, a full two years earlier than forecast. Then consider that trade is just one part of the connections New Zealand and China are making, with new grown exchanges in culture, education, tourism, film, science, and so on every year.

These are things that benefit New Zealanders from all walks of life, from farmers and entrepreneurs to engineers and film producers.

A final way my memory of Rewi Alley has shaped my time in New Zealand is through promoting greater cultural understanding between Chinese and New Zealanders. Alley pioneered people-to-people exchanges many decades ago, and I have worked hard to find new ways for our two countries to learn about our distinct cultures and histories.

During Premier Li Keqiang's visit to New Zealand in 2017, under the facilitation by our Embassy and Consulate, an agreement was signed to establish a Chinese cultural centre in Auckland, which makes New Zealand the first western country to have two Chinese cultural centres.

Auckland's popular Lantern Festival has become one of the biggest celebrations in New Zealand, attracting more than 200,000 people every year.

Chinese Language Week encourages Kiwis to give Mandarin a go, and through the Confucius Institute in Auckland, thousands of local students have taken part in global Chinese speech competitions.

Tourism also plays a large role in growing cultural understanding. 2019 is the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism, encouraging people in both countries to experience the difference of our respective landscapes, histories, cultures and cuisines.

It is estimated that the number of two-way visitors will reach one million in the coming years, and this can only help to reduce barriers of understanding and foster greater friendship between us.

The co-operation on film between our two countries are booming which is and will act as another driving force for our economy, people and friendship.

Sadly, my time in Auckland is coming to an end. When I leave, I will do so knowing I have made a positive impact on China-New Zealand relations, inspired by my own memory of Rewi Alley, who would be amazed at the current relationship if he were still alive today.

As inheritors of his legacy, we should all keep his memory alive by maintaining the strong momentum in the relationship, so as to make greater contribution to peace and development in Asia-Pacific and throughout the world.

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