Last week, news came in that Australia and China had joined hands in the area of food security.
More specifically, the Gillard government in Canberra backed the Centre for Carbon, Water and Food at the University of Sydney, which is going to collaborate with Chinese Academy of Agriculture Science and Nanjing Agricultural University on this initiative.
The institutions are expected to dive into the business of sustainable food and land management, under which joint research labs will be established in both Australia and China. Sounds like good stuff.
Great stuff actually.
One of the advantages of covering a region you don’t live in is that you get this top-down, unbiased view on things, and what I had been seeing and hearing with regard to China and its interests in food-related assets in Australia and New Zealand was not pretty.
Over a couple of years of reporting on some of these topics, and also a visit to Australia, where I met food industry representatives as well as regular folk, I found this simmering hostility towards Chinese interests in farms and factories there.
And today, fresh in my mind are debates on issues like the sale of Cubbie Station in Australia to Shandong Ruyi Group, and also that of Crafar farms in New Zealand. Some of the off-the-record commentary, even as well as some public statements, was hostile and aggressive towards the Asian suitors in both these cases.
There is a possibility that I am underplaying some of the emotion I felt from these people, and I can safely say that some of it was borderline xenophobia.
Actually, it was a fistful of xenophobia and racism. And also tons of hypocrisy.
For example, the same industry which was heavily dependent on China for its soaring revenues, selling them infant formula and lamb cuts, also had elements that wanted the “Chinese kept out of their food.” They play dirty and don’t give a damn about quality and our people, one rep from a major food maker told me.
Some just sounded like drunk fans at a game.
I also heard some ridiculous notions that would put the “a” into absurd. One gem came from a financial services expert who said that tons of black money from China was being pumped into buying these assets. This was the retirement money, he said, of the lawmakers in China who were retiring with the change of command there.
What a load of rubbish. As far as I’m concerned, Australia and New Zealand should just do away with their monetary watchdogs and put this man in charge.
I am digressing now. What alarmed me most, though, was not the absurdity but the frequency with which I was hearing these thoughts. Industry folk, bartenders, students and even academics.
On a pure societal level, this was unbelievably hypocritical. You cannot imagine modern Australia without people of East Asia. The Chinese, the Taiwanese, the Koreans, the Vietnamese, the Thais... all of them are there and in numbers. And they form a critical chunk of the workforce doing everything from waiting tables and digging mines to building skyscrapers and running companies. What’s the problem with their money then?
So when the government backs a move like the one mentioned at the start of this piece, there is reason to be optimistic. Forget free markets, its heartening to see common sense and free thinking taking the lead. No one can deny that China’s hungry middle class and Australia and New Zealand’s food industry are a match made for each other. So why nitpick?
On another note, if anything, Aussies and Kiwis should embrace this changing dynamic only because East Asians saved them from their “modern contemporary cuisine.”
I know I was thanking those Chinese and Vietnamese every time I sat down for dinner on my visit to Australia.
Have your say: Do you agree with Ankush? Let us know in the comments below.