< Return to 2003 Award Winners page


Alistair with informants


Alistair outside the Kathleen Hall Clinic, Songjiazhuang (Hebei Province)


One of Alistair's interviewees, Israel Epstein — a longtime people-to-people diplomat who lived most of his adult life in China


Alistair at the memorial to Rewi Alley in Lanzhou?

Alistair Shaw

Victoria University of Wellington

Alistair's doctoral thesis explores "people-to-people" diplomacy (that is, sub-state exchanges) in the developing relationship between the People's Republic of China and New Zealand from 1949 to 2002. His two months in China in mid-2003 was partly supported by an Asia:NZ-NZASIA Research Award. It enabled him to visit Chinese organisations, and to meet with people involved in, people-to-people exchanges with foreign countries.

China's People-to-people diplomacy

Fieldwork in Beijing, Songjiazhuang and Shandan, mid-2003

The main purpose of my visit to China was to interview current and former Chinese participants in Chiona's people-to-people diplomacy with other countries. As things turned out, I was far more successful than I had expected. I had set myself a target of interviewing a dozen people and managed to have meetings with twenty-four. I came home with more than fifteen hours of tapes and around forty kilograms of publications and other materials that the interview subjects made available to me.

I was able to interview a broad cross-section of people engaged in people-to-people activities. These included foreigners resident in China, people involved in hosting people-to-people activities, people in leadership positions in the key organisations, and people retired from people-to-people activities. Interviewing the latter in particular gave me an understanding of the changes and continuities in people-to-people goals, activities and outcomes duirng the fifty-three years since the People's Republic of China was founded.

I was fortunate in having some contacts arranged before I left New Zealand. But not only was each interviewee very generous with their own time, and often with material, they also suggested other people I might contact and consult

Given their political nature, the issues I wanted to discuss could have been considered sensitive. Central to my research is the changing representation of China abroad. A common claim is that China's people-to-people activities constitute propaganda, and that foreigners engaged in them are somehow disloyal, even 'traitors', to their own countries. Undertaking research into such a sensitive issue, while relying on official Chinese government connections (in this case quasi-official), is notoriously difficult. Although I found some hesitancy among members of some of the organisations I approached, this did not in the end constitute a real barrier.

Most of my interviews were conducted in Beijing. However the support of NZASIA/Asia 2000 also enabled me to travel outside of the capital to explore how the activities of two New Zealanders are remembered in present day China.

I spent a short time in Songjiazhuang, the small Hebei village in which New Zealand nurse Kathleen Hall tended the sick during what the Chinese refer to as 'the war of resistance against Japanese aggression'. Hall also helped the Communists' 8th Route Army and was described by Norman Bethune (a Canadian doctor who worked with the Communists in the late-1930s) as 'an angel'. She is fondly remembered among the local people, and the local medical clinic and primary school is named after her. I interviewed school children, local peasants, the headmaster, clinic head and village leaders.

I also traveled to Shandan, via the capital of Gansu province, Lanzhou. These two cities are homes to schools founded by Rewi Alley, remembered in China as 'a great internationalist and social activist'. I was able to discuss Alley, his memory, and the ongoing contact between the schools and New Zealand with a number of people, including some who had known Alley personally. I spoke with school managers, local Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) and foreign affairs officials, and with students at the two schools.

Thanks to the internet, I am able to continue my discussions with many of the people I met during this visit. In fact, I anticipate that one of the main outcomes of my fieldwork will be the continuing conversation I am able to have with these people. The material I obtained and the interviews I conducted were essential for my research project, but the ongoing relationships are particularly valuable.