The New Zealand Ambassador to China Clare Fearnley Photo: Courtesy of the New Zealand Embassy in China

One of the most remarkable things for visitors at the New Zealand Embassy in China is to find that almost all the foreign staff members at the embassy can speak Chinese well. Among them, Clare Fearnley, the New Zealand Ambassador to China, particularly stands out with her strong Chinese language capabilities and knowledge about Chinese culture.

Officially taking the position as the New Zealand Ambassador to China in May last year, Ambassador Fearnley has been traveling to many provinces and meeting people to promote governmental, economic and people-to-people ties between China and New Zealand.

Although only half a year has passed, 2019 has already been an eventful year in bilateral relations, with visits to China from the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern in April  followed by the Minister for Trade and Export Growth later that month, the Tourism Minister’s visit in June, and then the Minister of Defense in July, and the Minster of Agriculture in August. Meanwhile, both sides are now working on the upgrade of the free trade agreement (FTA), which will reflect the changing circumstances of both countries.

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Global Times sat with Fearnley, who spoke with the Global Times about the changing China and its connection with New Zealand, as well as her good expectations for future ties.

Early connection with China’s changes

China and New Zealand established diplomatic relations in 1972 and no one knew at that time that only six years later in 1978, the country and its people were embracing the world with its open arm and determination for a social and economic progress. Many foreign students were able to take this opportunity to experience China – a country that was still not familiar to people from the West. Among them was Fearnley. 

“There is a tradition in New Zealand for young people to travel for “OE” – overseas experience – before they start to work, or more recently before they start at university,” Fearnley said. “I was curious about China, so when I found the opportunity to come and teach in China in the mid-1980s, I thought it was a fantastic way of having OE – a gap between finishing my university study and starting my working life.”

Fearnley went to Xi’an, Shaanxi Province to teach English – and then got a scholarship to study at Peking University and at the Beijing Language Institute – in the 1980s. She also worked in the private sector. That gap year in China ended up lasting five years.

This early experience was just the beginning of a long-lasting links. In the 1980s, she was in Xi’an and Beijing, and in the 1990s, she was in Shanghai, as Consul-General and more recently back in Beijing. Looking back at all those early experiences in China, she felt very fortunate. “I had the opportunity to experience China in a lot of different ways, as a traveler, student and teacher, and subsequently, as a diplomat as well,” she said. “So I have been very fortunate to see China over a 35 year period, to get to know people better and develop a little bit more understanding about Chinese language, history and culture.”

In June, the ambassador had a trip to Xi’an, during which she revisited the Xi’an International Studies University where she used to teach in the 1980s. She was no longer a teacher, but a diplomat. Describing this trip, she said that she found it very moving. “I had the wonderful experience of going back and seeing the old school and meeting the people there,” she said. “Neither they nor I were expecting in the 1980s that I’d go into diplomacy and come back in this role, so I guess it was a surprise. But it was a great pleasure to return to the city and to the school.” Fearnley noted that the city was almost unrecognizable in terms of development.

The changes in Xi’an were just the tip of the iceberg in China’s dramatic development over the past decades. Fearnley commented that 1949 brought a close to a very turbulent period for China and the economic progress over the last 40 years with reforms and opening-up, lifted seven hundred million Chinese people out of poverty. “That of course had a huge impact not only on China, but on the region,” she added.

Growing bilateral ties

At the bilateral level, China-New Zealand relationship has grown significantly. 

Looking back on the early links between China and New Zealand, the figures like Rewi Alley who had a very special role in establishing links in the early days with the People’s Republic of China. Since then, so much has happened and the two countries’ connections are no longer just about one person. The ambassador said 2017 marked 45 years of diplomatic relations, and last year that the two countries celebrated the 10th anniversary of the bilateral FTA, which came into effect in 2008. This agreement has been a platform for significant bilateral economic growth. 

In April, the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern had her first official visit to China in her current role, and both sides agreed on the path ahead in the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between China and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, the bilateral exchanges have seen a good rise, especially in people-to-people connections. Fearnley said that she always believes that experience tends to be the best teacher and the first-hand experience that comes with travel, living, working and study in another country is valuable. “We have a lot of Kiwis who come to China each year. By proportion of population, there is a higher percentage of Kiwis visiting China than Chinese people visiting New Zealand. We have over 90,000 New Zealanders visiting China each year and over 400,000 Chinese who visit New Zealand,” she said. “Our two countries are accessible to each other with over fifty direct flights a week.”

The ambassador said that there is a lot of interest and curiosity on the New Zealand side and she gave the example of the Chinese Language Week that takes place every year and tens of thousands of New Zealanders are learning Chinese. There are around 200,000 Kiwis who have Chinese ethnicity.

Beyond language, Chinese culture is also accessible in New Zealand. Recently, the national museum of New Zealand Te Papa hosted a very special exhibition Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality from the Shaanxi History Museum. This had the highest attendance level of any international exhibition held at Te Papa. “I think that is an indicator of the interest and curiosity New Zealanders have about Chinese culture,” Fearnley said.

Closer to Maori and Hollywood movies

As China draws New Zealanders to travel and study, New Zealand is also becoming one of the most popular places for Chinese people to explore. According to the New Zealand Embassy in China, in the last five years, tourism in New Zealand has grown rapidly. China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner in goods and is also the second largest source of tourism in New Zealand.

In order to better promote the New Zealand culture to Chinese guests who come to the New Zealand Embassy, He Pakiaka, a room furnished with Maori carvings and weaving, sits at the heart of the embassy. Whenever there are visitors, the embassy staff will proudly show them around this room of New Zealand indigenous culture. When the Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis visited here in June, a group of Maori performers showcased traditional kapa haka (song and dance) to the Chinese audience.

“The works in He Pakiaka were gifted by different iwi [tribal groups] in New Zealand. It is very meaningful to have this room at the heart of the embassy,” Fearnley said. She reported that feedback from Chinese visitors to New Zealand indicates the deep impression that Maori culture leaves with them.

In addition to Maori culture, people are coming to New Zealand also for some great movies.

Fearnley said a large proportion of tourists, when they were asked why they wanted to come to New Zealand, responded that the Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and The Hobbit (2012-14) films had influenced their decisions. “Hobbiton is one of the places where some of the scenes were shot for both sets of movies. It is in the upper north island area not far from Hamilton and it’s now a very popular place to visit for many Chinese people,” she said.