NZCFS History

The New Zealand China Society was founded in 1952, at a time when the Cold War had destroyed all relations between New Zealand and China. Some of its founding members had been involved in both material and personnel assistance to the efforts of New Zealander Rewi Alley to alleviate rural poverty through co-operatives and education. The Society’s main aim during the 1960s and ‘70s was providing opportunities for New Zealanders to learn about the new China, through public meetings and tours, and the campaign for diplomatic recognition of China by New Zealand, which finally occurred in 1972. In 1977 NZCFS became an Incorporated Society.

Towards a History of the Society: The Early Years

The following was written by former NZCFS National Secretary Dr. Alistair Shaw whose PhD thesis on the relations between New Zealanders and the PRC since 1949, entitled “Telling the Truth About People’s China”, is hoped to be published in the future. This excerpt covers the first five years of the Society’s existence, from 1952 to 1956.

When the Society began its activities in 1952, the Korean War and the Cold War dominated many New Zealander’s view of the world and the work of the Society was difficult. It’s members were primarily those who wanted to publicise the achievements of the socialist countries, including China. It was faced though with a dominant view in New Zealand society that China was a “threat”. The ‘China threat’ construction was a recent one although built on historic ones. Just a few years earlier China and New Zealand had been on the same side of a war against Japan. Chinese resistance to Japanese aggression had been a cause celebre in New Zealand and the toil of the Chinese peasants, as witnessed from a New Zealand that also regarded itself as having an agrarian identity, had been largely favourable.

New Zealand’s most famous son in China, Rewi Alley, said that in the 1920s he had read in the Weekly News ‘on the great revolution in China’ and decided he ‘would like to go and have a look at [it]’. Alley’s exploits with Indusco during the War of Resistance and activities such as the transport of sheep to China along the Burma Road by CORSO fuelled the public imagination.

The image of China depicted by those there during the Japanese occupation had drawn an extremely sympathetic audience in New Zealand, especially when New Zealand too was at war with Japan. In fact this time represented, for the first time, the beginning of a shift away from a preponderance of anti-Chinese racism.

While most New Zealanders were fed a diet of China ‘being lost’, those New Zealanders with firsthand experience presented an image of ‘unimaginable suffering of the people under Chiang’s Kuomintang regime’. The KMT did have its supporters, William Goddard for example, but the NZCFS consisted of people who believed in the idea that everything was going to change under the CCP. For them, the Communist Party of China represented order, stability and a new beginning. For those who would be the founders of the NZCFS, the PRC was ‘New China’, a project to which they were prepared to offer their complete support. As New Zealand made its commitment to the containment of communism, China was depicted as a ‘coiled dragon’ whose unfolding would spread socialism and the ‘yellow peril’ southwards. This was exacerbated by war on the Korean peninsular, where New Zealand and Chinese troops faced off against one another.

Reflecting this popular position, New Zealand’s involvement in the Korean War was supported by both main political parties, had universal press approval and only the ‘numerically insignificant New Zealand Communist Party’ opposed the commitment of New Zealand troops. Rewi Alley’s efforts to speak against New Zealand’s participation, and to condemn what he referred to as biological warfare on the part of the United Nations troops, resulted in official efforts to discredit him throughout 1952.

The organisation that was formed to represent alternative images of the PRC, the New Zealand China Society, was actually dreamed up in China. Alley and Shirley Barton, the latter in China on behalf of CORSO and working with Alley’s Indusco project, wrote to their New Zealand supporters suggesting that they convert the support they had offered through aid into political support for the new regime. This was by no means an easy task as the small-scale publications supporting China or opposing New Zealand’s commitment in Korea were officially denounced as ‘communist fronts’ and dissenting views to the majority had ‘difficulty finding expression in the press’.

Shirley Barton worked with Alley in China where she was Chinese Field Secretary for CORSO from 1947 until CORSO’s work formerly finished with Liberation. She stayed in China and assisted Alley with the production of his first two books, Yo Banfa, which she edited, and its companion edition The People Have Strength, published after she returned to New Zealand. She was also an important confident for both him and R. A. K. Mason whom she saw and corresponded regularly. Her papers, now deposited with the National Library, show she continued to be a regular and effusive correspondent with Alley helping him, in part, to craft his messages in accordance with developments in New Zealand. She was a member of the CPNZ, having worked with the CPNZ bookstore (Progressive Books) and the CPNZ-dominated Peace Council before she went to China and formally joined the Party after her return from China in 1953. Whilst in New China she attended the Asia-Pacific Peace Conference, which is discussed in chapter 2, joining the New Zealand delegation in Beijing as an observer. She became Secretary of the then Auckland-based New Zealand China Friendship Society on the retirement of Mabel Lee for health reasons in 1954 and was the first National Secretary when the society was formed on a national basis, with Mason as President, in 1958.

Other early prominent participants had also been to China to see things with their own eyes, as part of a tradition that would be crucial to legitimating their claims to having experiential knowledge about China. They included nurses Kathleen Hall and Isobel Thompson who had both worked during the war years in northern China, and Professor James Bertram who had been a correspondent in China and later a Japanese prisoner of war.

Kathleen Hall went to China in early 1923 and spent two years studying Chinese before working in mission hospitals in Datong, Hejian and Anguo. In 1933 she set up a cottage hospital in Songjiazhuang, a small village in western Hebei. By 1938 the area lay in the no-man’s land between the Japanese-occupied lowland and the mountain headquarters of the Eighth Route Army. Hall made trips to Peking to collect supplies for the hospital and when asked by the medical adviser to the Eighth Route Army, Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor, she would also bring back medical supplies for the army. In 1939 the Japanese carried out a punitive raid on Songjiazhuang, destroying the mission and hospital, and demanded Hall be expelled from China. Back in New Zealand, she spoke on China whenever she had the opportunity and worked for the missions, for the China Aid Council and for CORSO. She was involved in setting up branches of the New Zealand China Friendship Society. In March 1960 she met Rewi Alley for the first time, home on a visit from his work in China. She returned to China to take part in the national day celebrations in Beijing later that year and visited China again in 1964 as a guest of the Chinese Peoples Association for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.

In 1935 James Bertram accepted a travelling fellowship from the Rhodes Trust to visit China, and spent 1936 in Beijing learning Chinese. He made his way the following year to Xi’an, where KMT leader General Chiang Kai-shek had been seized by officers sympathetic to the communists, a crisis that led to the formation of the United Front against the Japanese invaders. After interviewing Mao Tse-tung in Yan’an (the first British journalist to do so), he travelled for five months with the Eighth Route Army in north China. These experiences resulted in his books Crisis in China (1937) and North China Front (1939). During these two years Bertram became acquainted with a number of the men and women who would later take high posts in communist China. He later worked for Song Qingling’s China Defence League (CDL), soliciting and distributing western refugee and medical aid. Bertram worked for the league in Hong Kong until the Japanese seized the colony in December 1941. He became a prisoner of war in Hong Kong and Tokyo for nearly four years. After the war, he also travelled for a period throughout New Zealand as a CORSO representative and was directed help once again to Song Qingling and to Rewi Alley. The remainder of Bertram’s life was spent as an academic. He was active for a while in groups such as the Society for Closer Relations with Russia and the New Zealand China Society, but was never attracted to the Party politics that sometimes dominated those organisations. He returned to China with the official cultural group discussed in chapter 2 in 1956, and again in 1986 as an honorary guest of the Chinese government for the anniversary of Chiang Kai-shek’s capture.

Isobel Thompson worked in China as a nurse with CORSO, the Field Service Unit (Quakers) and the Chinese Welfare Fund (headed by Song Qingling) from 1947 until June 1950. She met and worked with medical doctor George Hatem, a close confident and friend of Rewi Alley who, like Alley, was spend the rest of his life working in China. Through CORSO she worked with Shirley Barton and on her way back to New Zealand, in Hong Kong, she stayed with Kathleen Hall in Hong Kong. She joined the NZCFS on her return but was never took up a leading role. She would return to China in 1990, as a member of a ‘prominent person’s delegation’.

From the beginning, those involved with the people-to-people relationship with China were sympathetic to at least some aspect of the communist vision that China represented. This was true even if, like James Bertram, they explained this by claiming that they were required by a commitment to ‘accuracy’ to acknowledge communism’s ‘achievements in China’.

It was common in left-wing circles to equate peace not with pacifism but with the struggle against imperialism and for socialism. For those in the ‘peace movement’, by preventing imperialist war, they were allowing the socialist project to consolidate itself in China. The bulk of the early membership of the Society had been involved, or would concurrently be involved, in organisations such as the New Zealand Peace Council. One person reflecting this, who was at the first meeting of the NZCFS was Flora Gould, a national committee member of the CPNZ and secretary to the Peace Council. The first New Zealand delegation to the new People’s Republic was to the Peking Peace Conference, led not by someone who had previously expressed any interest in China but by Alan Monteith, returned serviceman and chair of the New Zealand Peace Council. It was in such organisations that the Society saw the opportunity to build its membership and a number of early activities were conducted in conjunction between the two groups, further assisted by leaders who were common to both organisations. Rewi Alley hosted the delegation in China. He had been shifted from his work as headmaster at the Shandan Bailie School and with the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives movement to be a ‘peace worker’ based in Beijing. The committee that hosted the Peace Conference had been formed as the Chinese People’s Committee to Safeguard World Peace on 2 October 1949. It would eventually become the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), with which the NZCFS has its primary relationship now.

RAK Mason was representative of the New Zealand side of this. He would become the Auckland branch president in 1954 and the Society’s first national president and had been involved in the Peace Council. Although Mason and Shirley Barton made ‘it a rule to keep all spare time and energy for China business’, they broke that rule ‘to help the H-bomb protests’. For those who travelled to the PRC under the Society’s auspices in the 1950s, peace was a common refrain, as this note from trade unionist Harold Kay, who went to China in 1955 explains:

Probably one of the most outstanding impressions I gained was of the sincere desire of the Chinese people for peace, so that they can go ahead to build up their standard of living by being given the opportunity to increase production through years of peace.

The general impression I had of China was that the people know where they are going… in order to raise the standard of living… they need peace, and it is fantastic to think China is a warlike nation. The very thing that would break down the reconstruction of China would be war, and it is logical to say that one thing more than anything else the Chinese people want is peace.

The New Zealand China Friendship Society was formed at a meeting in Auckland on 27 February 1952. Mabel Lee instigated it and the first meetings were at her house. The Society was being actively promoted from China. Alley and Barton, then working with Alley as the secretary of Gong He, wrote to the New Zealand supporters of CORSO and Alley’s work with INDUSCO suggesting that the way to continue this support was to fight for political recognition of the new Chinese regime by way of a friendship organisation. Alley’s letter to Wolfgang Rosenberg sets this out:

…in the matter of AID, it is now felt that China’s need is not so great as the needs of the struggling peace and friendship movements… the best way for friends overseas to help the Chinese people is to put all their efforts into maintaining and furthering of these friendly relations… may I venture to suggest that your group form the nucleus of a New Zealand China Friendship Association, with which I should feel honoured to keep in contact and give any help in my power.

Lee became secretary but when her eyesight failed she asked Shirley Barton, then back from China, to replace her. The latter was elected in March 1954. She commented: ‘It wasn’t an easy time to start a movement befriending the new China’.

Dorothea Beyda, Mason’s wife, also joined the Society. As she said to John Caselberg: ‘We sympathised with its aims and were only too ready to be roped in as members. This gave Ron a real interest and he took part with zest… We had meetings, lectures, film shows with films sent from China’. In 1954 Mason, then Chairperson of the Society, wrote ‘Why China Matters to Us’, a pamphlet published by the Society. This stated:

China is in the front rank of world importance today. Her population is one half of that of all Asia, one quarter of the whole human race… We in New Zealand have an especial interest in China, as a near neighbour and another Pacific country. Questions involved in relations with this great country are crucial for us all. It is the purpose of the New Zealand China Friendship Association to assist actively in their solution.

Typical of the early members of the Society, Mason’s other associations were with a trade union (the General Labourers Union whose paper he edited) and the Auckland Peace Council.

The Society was born in 1952 of ‘the necessity for a sane policy towards the newly established People’s Republic of China’. Its initial goal was for diplomatic recognition by New Zealand of the PRC and one of its aims was ‘To clear the mists of ignorance and provide accurate information leading to mutual understanding and mutual respect between our two peoples’. Early members were left-wingers who had supported Alley and CORSO’s work in China, such as Wolfgang Rosenberg. The organisation of the Society was mostly taken over on their return by those who had actually been in China, such as Shirley Barton, just back from six years working with Alley for CORSO, Barbara Spencer, who had also been with Alley at Shandan, and Kathleen Hall.

There were few Chinese formerly involved in the Society because it was difficult, in particular for those whose own immigration status was unclear, to be seen to be supportive of Communist China. The fear of intervention from A few Chinese-New Zealanders who had citizenship such as Jim Wong, Nancy Goddard (nee Kwok) and later Jock Hoe rose to prominence but for many their involvement was either veiled in secrecy or through a companion front organisation.

Other members and early travellers to the PRC tended to come from socialist and trade union backgrounds, such as Bill McLeod and Bernie Hornfeck, and Nancy and George Goddard. There were also individual visits by members of the New Zealand Labour Party people to China through the 1950s. In 1955 Warren Freer, a New Zealand Labour MP, and his wife went for a one-month visit. Former Labour MP Ormond Wilson led a tour in 1956. John A. Lee and Walter Nash spoke in favour of recognising the PRC. The earliest trade union contacts were through the left-wing trade unions such as the Labourers. New Zealand peace activists also had regular contact at this time. In April 1959, two vice-chairmen of the New Zealand Peace Council, Willis Airey and Warren Feer, were entertained at a banquet, with their wives, by Guo Moruo. From June to July 1960, H. W. Auland, a farmer and another vice-chairman of the New Zealand Peace Council, and his wife spent, a month in China at the invitation of the Chinese Peace Council. It was Mr. Auland’s third visit.

In the early part of the decade, in the years immediately after ‘Liberation’ when New Zealand troops faced off against Chinese soldiers in Korea, the opprobrium from official circles for those who sought connection with the People’s Republic of China was particularly marked. Anne-Marie Brady writes that the New Zealand government even participated in a campaign to discredit Rewi Alley after letters in New Zealand newspapers supporting Alley’s viewpoint on China and the Korean War far outweighed those opposing it. She says that editors of New Zealand’s major newspapers willingly participated in the campaign against Alley. The main paper in Alley’s home city of Christchurch, where support for him was strongest, likened his work for the Chinese to that of Goebbels, and called him ‘a Moscow agent on a propaganda mission’.

This government-instigated campaign, falling as it did on those already raised on a diet of anti-communism, was highly successful in demonising both China and those who sought friendship with it. Margaret Garland, on her way to the Peking Peace Conference in 1952, recounted the following exchange:

A friend rang me up next day to ask me for lunch during the holidays and I told her I didn’t think I could because I was thinking of going to Peking.

‘Peking! China! You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’

‘But it’s a Peace Conference.’

‘Peace Conference! Rubbish! I won’t discuss it. Absolute nonsense. Fellow-traveller, that’s what you are…I would have nothing to do with them. The Chinese communists have done horrible things.’

‘What have they done?’

‘I can’t remember just at the moment but I know they have.’

Looking back from the position in 1992, NZCFS president Bill Willmott noted the circumstances these pioneers faced:

Among [the early members] there were a few who had direct experience of China through their association with Rewi Alley and his projects, the Shandan Bailie School and the Gung Ho Industrial Collectives. The wide support these projects had enjoyed in New Zealand during the previous decade when CORSO was established had been seriously eroded by the anti-communist rhetoric and government policies of those dark days.

The first images that New Zealanders brought out of what they saw and described as ‘new’ China reflected then both their own support for this new society and an awareness of the incredulity that they knew their representations would find back home. For example, in her book Journey to New China, Margaret Garland went to an enormous effort to detail the machinations that proved that her visit to a practicing Chinese church was neither staged nor in anyway interfered with by the Chinese authorities. The book details her participation in the 1952 New Zealand delegation to the Beijing Peace Conference. These involved last minute arrangements and essentially ‘dropping in’ on the service while it was in progress.

As it was a Baptist church, there was no sign of any Christian symbol and I suddenly realised that the picture of Mao on the vestibule was rather an indication that it might be being used to teach a different doctrine. I therefore asked if we could see the Bible that usually was used for reading the scriptures. The minister sent one of his friends into another room and he returned in a moment with three fat bibles in Chinese. They had stamped on the edges in English, ‘Baptist Church, Canton’. I said to Miss Hsui, ‘Now we are convinced’. She said, ‘Do you want me to translate that? You did believe him before, surely?’ The way she said this satisfied me that she herself was quite sure that the minister was telling us the truth.

The images throughout the reports of these earliest trips are of a developing China now being able to feed its people, drawing a contrast with the situation under the Guomindang and pre-liberation China. When Harold Kay asked Rewi Alley why those witnessing the May Day parade seemed so happy and so supportive of the new regime Alley responded: ‘before the liberation they were hungry, whereas now they are fed and clothed’.

Shirley Barton described the NZCFS’s efforts thus:

So the intrepid little China Friendship Association of 1952 set out to do battle with every means within its power: public meetings and panels of speakers, letters to the Prime Minister and MPs, newspapers and delegations urging recognition, film shows, exhibitions.

In October 1956 the NZCFS hosted the ‘history-making event’ of the visit of a Chinese Classical Theatre troupe. ‘These highly-talented and charming people won all hearts and delighted large audiences in the three main centres’. The group, including 90 members of the Beijing Opera Company, were hosted at mayoral receptions in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. At a reception given by the Auckland Chinese community, RAK Mason welcomed the visitors, saying: ‘Soon, we trust, through our door… will walk the accredited ambassador of New China. That will be a great day, but we shall still be needing you unofficial ambassadors’.