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Trader Reveals Secret Assignment To Establish China Links

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

By Simon Louisson of NZPA

Wellington, July 10 NZPA - A book on pioneer New Zealand-China trader Victor Percival reveals former prime minister Walter Nash in the 1950s attempted to break ranks with ally, the United States, to establish diplomatic relations with then isolated China.

Mr Nash assigned him a secret, unofficial role to explore the possible establishment of diplomatic ties with the communist state.

In Bruce Kohn's book The Kiwi Pathfinder published this month, Mr Percival said he was summoned by the prime minister ahead of a planned visit to the Canton Spring Fair in 1958.

The Labour leader requested the National Party activist convey a message to senior Chinese government figures that the socialist government wished to establish relations.

Mr Nash was keenly aware such a move, at the height of the Cold War, would greatly antagonise Washington, with whom New Zealand had sided in the just-ended Korean War.

"I was gobsmacked. The Americans were insistent a trade embargo and diplomatic isolation were essential to impress on Beijing that efforts to encourage communist revolutions in East Asia were out of line," Mr Percival is quoted as saying in the book.

"New Zealand had just fought alongside US troops as part of a United Nations force against Chinese and North Korean military units in Korea... But here was the leader of our government proposing to break ranks."

Despite his political differences, Mr Percival saw the assignment as boosting his trading ties, the main driver in his lifelong pursuit of China.

Mr Nash subsequently wrote to Mr Percival extending good wishes for his China visit, and indicating they should meet on his return, but the premier did not mention the issue of diplomatic relations on paper.

The prime minister also used more conventional channels to pursue his goal.

In China Mr Percival met Rewi Alley, the former New Zealand sheep farmer who had been living in New Zealand since 1925 and who had deep contacts within the Chinese Communist Party, one of whom met Mr Percival.

One his return to New Zealand, Mr Nash told him it was a pity he could not proceed with his recognition decision.

"The Americans won't let us do it," the prime minister told him.

It wasn't until 1972 when the next Labour Government was in power under Norman Kirk that diplomatic relations were finally established.

However, Mr Percival's relations with the Chinese officials became warmer and warmer during 55 visits to China -- to such an extent that in one of his latest visits President Hu Jintao greeted him as "Lao Pengyou" (good old friend").

Mr Percival also reveals in the book occasional meetings with Bill Sutch, then a senior trade official who in 1975 was charged but acquitted for spying under the Official Secrets Act following clandestine meetings with a Russian diplomat.

Dr Sutch would meet Mr Percival at the St George Hotel in Wellington to discuss Sino-New Zealand trade, Chinese development under Chairman Mao and New Zealand's import licensing system.

However, the meetings came to end when Dr Sutch kept inviting along officials from the Soviet Embassy, Mr Percival said.

Author Kohn, a former NZPA correspondent to Washington and Hong Kong, said Dr Sutch attempted to persuade Mr Percival to add communist Eastern Europe to his trading activities but "he found reasons to excuse himself and the meetings tapered off".

Mr Percival was named by the Chinese Government in 1996 along with fellow New Zealanders Rewi Alley and Kathleen Hall among 500 Special Friends of China in the 20th century.

This year he was appointed Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to New Zealand-China trade and when New Zealand signed a Free Trade Agreement with China this year, Prime Minister Helen Clark commented that Mr Percival was "the man who started it all".

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