China: Seeing is believing

Leadership Network members had their preconceptions of China challenged at a hui that opened their eyes to the extraordinary developments the country has undergone and provided insights into how ‘NZ Inc’ operates there.

The hui was held to coincide with the Opening Doors to the West business forums organised by the China Chamber of Commerce New Zealand and the municipal governments of the host cities, Chengdu and Xi’an. The forums, which the Foundation sponsored, provided an opportunity for New Zealand companies to network with local companies and learn about doing business in China.

Leadership Network members talk about their experiences in China

The Foundation’s director leadership and entrepreneurship Adam McConnochie says, “Knowing about China and what it’s like to do business there through study or what you see in the media is one thing, but actually being there and experiencing it first hand really exposes you to the sheer scale of the marketplace.”

He says one of the most valuable aspects of attending the forum was joining the 80 other Kiwis of the delegation and hearing their stories.

The businesses represented included Pic’s Peanut Butter, All Birds, Zespri, Auckland Airport and Moa Beer. Representatives from honey exporters, tourism providers, banking and the public sector also attended.

Network member Peter McKenzie says hearing from Pic's Peanut Butter founder Pic Picot about how the spread has been reinterpreted by Chinese consumers as a healthy baby food option provided a fascinating insight into how a new market can throw up the unexpected. He says this reinterpretation goes beyond just products.

“It was remarkable to observe how New Zealand behaviour and products are refractured and reinterpreted when cast through the Chinese prism. New Zealand individuals and businesses have to be prepared for that.”

A number of the Leadership Network members who took part in the hui say they were not prepared by just how huge and dynamic China is.

“I’m coming away with many preconceptions completely upset,” says Leadership Network member Sarah Novak, who recently completed her master’s dissertation looking at the differing perspectives of tourists and locals on environmental issues.

“I was particularly surprised by how sophisticated and dominating China’s infrastructure and technology are – more so than other powerful, wealthy countries I’ve visited.”

However, she also says New Zealand should learn from the negatives that come with such change and “preserve what is unique and important about our place”.

“Not everything [in China] is pretty. In some ways China gives us a lesson in what can be achieved but also some of the risks,” she says.    

Leadership Network members looking through VR goggles

The group learning about the Terracotta Warriors after touring the UNESCO heritage site

Outside of the business forum, hui activities included a site visit to tech giants Tencent Holdings (owners of WeChat), visiting the Terracotta Warriors, and hearing from New Zealand Ambassador to China Clare Fearnley, who spoke about the China-New Zealand relationship and her leadership journey at the ministry.

A highlight for many of the network members was attending a Tang Dynasty welcoming ceremony normally reserved for heads of state.

Designed to awe and impress, the Tang ceremony was an opulent extravaganza on a grand scale. It was held on Xi an’s old city wall and included marching soldiers dressed in period armoury, dancers and lasers lighting the sky.

Two Leadership Network members standing in front of a traditional style Chinese building lit up by lights

Peter MacKenzie and Sarah Novak in Xi'an

Sarah says it was during this performance, with the skyscrapers of Xi’an as a backdrop, that she was overcome with the sense of how large China is “…physically, but also historically, technologically and temporally.”

“China appeared to me at that moment simultaneously an ancient yet incredibly advanced, powerful country, and it made me think about how New Zealand will carve out a place in this new world,” she says. 

A number of the group noted a proverb Ambassador Fearnley said about China as particularly resonating with them: “Seeing is believing, and seeing once is better than hearing one hundred times.”