We owe a war debt to China

18:47, Nov 20 2013

I realise a lot of Southlanders are not excited by our growing friendship with China. Cold War attitudes and fear of the "yellow peril" still dominate the thinking of a minority on council.

Now that China is firmly established as our biggest trading partner, has the largest number of fee-paying overseas students in this country, and is our fastest growing tourist market, we simply can not turn our backs on them. I believe local government can play a small but significant role in extending the hand of friendship.

The Chinese played a major role in developing our first major export industry. In both Southland and Otago, Chinese gold miners worked hard and helped build a strong local economy.

In World War II China helped save Australia and New Zealand from invasion by refusing to surrender to the Japanese, who had made it to New Guinea and were methodically bombing Darwin. In fact, more bombs were dropped on Darwin than Pearl Harbour.

The Anzac armies had been sent to Europe and the Middle East, so we were virtually defenceless. If China had surrendered to Japan, as Russia did to Germany in WWI, that would have released 26 divisions for the battle raging in New Guinea and Darwin.

Rewi Alley, a young farm boy from Castle Rock, fought heroically in WWI and then travelled to China for a job as a fire safety officer. When the Japanese invaded China, instead of running home, he established Chinese industrial co-operatives (Gung Ho) that supplied food, blankets and ammunition to the Nationalist and Communist armies fighting the invaders.


He is now recognised as one of China's top 10 friends. His courage helped New Zealand become the first Western country to establish a free-trade agreement with China, and the first Western country to open an embassy in communist China.

There is an excellent exhibition about Rewi Alley on display at the Christchurch Museum, not far from the Paua House, so if you get an opportunity to visit the Garden City you should check it out.

I would like to apologise to all my readers who are not interested in history because over the next year I will be writing a lot about WWI.

The Government has set aside a fund of $17 million so New Zealand can commemorate the 100th anniversary of this epic struggle. It was the world's first major mechanical war involving machine guns, mines, gas, planes and tanks.

The battles fought were catastrophic. More than 70 million soldiers were mobilised. Of those, 9.4 million were killed and 15.4 million were wounded. About 3 million soldiers were raised from the British Empire.

The only "humane" aspect of the war was that slaughtering civilians was not considered acceptable. Only 5 per cent of the casualties were civilians, whereas in WWII more than 50 per cent of the casualties were the victims of carpet bombing or ethnic cleansing.

And what triggered off this international tragedy? It almost reads like a comedy of errors. A Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, and five of his romantic schoolmates decided to assassinate the Austrian Emperor Franz Ferdinand and free their country.

They knew he would be speaking at the Sarajevo town hall, so the wannabe assassins spread out along the quay he would be driving along. The first "terrorist" wet his pants and was too traumatised to open fire. The second was worried about accidentally hitting Empress Sophie so he ran way. The third assassin did manage to throw a hand grenade but he missed the car and wounded a few spectators and Princip, their heroic leader, was so disgusted by their efforts he stormed off the scene and went to the nearest caf for a cup of coffee. A modern day Al Qaeda squad would by now have died of shame.

Franz Ferdinand gave his speech and everything went well at the town hall, but on the way home his chauffeur took the wrong road and when trying to reverse he stalled the car, by an amazing coincidence right outside the caf where Princip had been drinking his coffee.

At a range of one metre even he couldn't miss and both Franz and Sophie were shot dead. Austria declared war on Serbia, which had an alliance with Russia, which had an alliance with France, which had an alliance with Britain. Austria had an alliance with Germany, which had an alliance with Turkey and so on and so forth, until every major industrial nation on earth was sucked into the nightmare. If you have any stories involving WWI please let me know.

» Tim Shadbolt is the mayor of Invercargill.

The Southland Times