Beijing is sweltering in 36-degree heat, there is sweat running down my back, I’m running late for an interview, and feeling just a little stressed because there is a Chinese police officer standing in front of me and he’s not letting me go anywhere.
Moments earlier I filmed the traffic at an intersection north of the city’s centre — possible B-roll for a video to go on the RNZ website. Dressed in trousers and a shirt and holding a proper radio microphone plugged into my smartphone, it’s plain that I am not a tourist and that’s what attracts the attention of the local bobbies.
The officer politely explains in some detail what is going on, but as I don’t speak Chinese I have absolutely no idea what I’ve done wrong. Fortunately I’ve just come from interviewing Dr Huang Ning, a graduate of the University of Auckland who works just down the road and he kindly comes to my rescue.
Dr Huang Ning (left) came to Gerritsen's assistance when police questioned him about taking photographs
A senior officer turns up to check the journalist visa in my passport (thank goodness I had that in my bag!) and I’m free to go, extremely late for an appointment with New Zealand’s ambassador to China and slightly disappointed that my request for a selfie with the officer I originally dealt with has been firmly declined.
That was my one encounter with authoritarian China. A reminder that the cursory security checks at every metro station and the ubiquitous police presence and security guards outside many buildings are not all for show.
I’m here to explore the impact of the diaspora of New Zealand-educated Chinese on the New Zealand-China relationship. It’s a story prompted by years of university types telling me that the real benefit of the lucrative international student trade is in long-term contact with former foreign students made good in their home countries.
I’ve always been a little sceptical about that so I finally got my act together, applied for a media grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation, and travelled to China to find out if New Zealand’s biggest group of foreign graduates is helping New Zealand Inc get ahead.
SEE: Disappearing students: How NZ is wasting opportunities with our Chinese graduates
Over the past 20 years, I’ve reported often on ups and downs in the flow of Chinese students to New Zealand but this is the first time I have set foot in mainland China and it is an enlightening experience.
I get no sense of culture shock or dislocation in Shanghai and Beijing. They are modern cities with easy-to-use metro systems and populations that seem incredibly tolerant of buffoons who don’t speak Chinese and use sign language to order food and seek directions.
Teenagers shyly try out their English on me, but look blank when I tell them where I am from. My own efforts to use a few words of Chinese learned from language apps largely fall flat — my pronunciation seems to be going horribly awry (I can’t even order a beer for goodness sake) and my only success is with numbers.
There are constant reminders of the rapid development of China’s economy — everybody is ordering taxis, hiring bicycles and paying for things using QR code on their phones, but the streets are swept by people using bamboo twig brooms. And there are reminders of China’s scale — I expect a bit of queue for the Forbidden City in Beijing but not the tens of thousands I find on a Saturday morning.
At alumni events for the University of Otago, I pepper former students with questions about their time in New Zealand and their ongoing contact with our country. They’re delightful. It’s clear their Kiwi education was a formative experience and they value the confidence and independence it gave them as much as the actual qualifications they earned.
I also talk to several New Zealand business leaders in Shanghai, getting a feel for the difficulties of doing business in China and of the value of employing Kiwi-educated Chinese citizens.
By the end of eight days in China I’m no expert, but I’m no longer completely ignorant about the country that is New Zealand’s single largest source of foreign students and our largest trade partner.