OPINION: Exploding the boardroom bully myth

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Another month in Queenstown, another visiting billionaire.

October brought Italian luxury clothing magnate, Pier Luigi Loro Piana, to talk up the ultra-fine merino wool industry. Last month it was Jiang Zhaobai’s turn.

Jiang who?

That’s Jiang Zhaobai, 51, chairman of Shanghai Pengxin Group and controversial buyer of the Crafar dairy farms and Taupo’s Lochinver Station. He’s listed by Forbes magazine as one of the 100 richest people in China.

Accompanied by 50 fellow Shanghai entrepreneurs, Jiang flew into town to attend a cocktail function at the Hilton Queenstown, where he was officially welcomed as its new owner.

Despatched by Mountain Scene to smell the money, I expected to see a Shanghai hatchet man, an unsmiling boardroom bully with a voracious appetite for New Zealand land.

Instead I saw a relaxed and affable bloke cheerfully work the room, crack jokes with his entourage and – with the help of his interpreter – glad-hand Queenstown’s business, council and tourism bosses.

A five-minute interview reminded me of something I’d realised before but forgotten: like every other seriously rich person I’ve met – admittedly only half a dozen – he was genial, considerate and remarkably open.

He went to great pains to answer my key question: what was his message to NZers concerned about foreign – especially Chinese – purchases of land and companies?

His companies weren’t interested in buying land for its own sake, Jiang said, but as a means of satisfying the insatiable demand in China for high-quality agricultural goods.

They would invest heavily in improving the land, and link New Zealand farmers with their vast distribution networks in China.

He saw himself as a “promoter and ambassador” of New Zealand in China, and urged Kiwis to accept Chinese investment as a “win-win outcome for everyone”.

Eighteen months ago, China became New Zealand’s biggest trading partner, a status it is likely to keep for decades in what is shaping up to be the “Chinese Century”.

We can expect more Chinese capital to flow into New Zealand, closely followed by more Chinese people to manage it.

Who can blame them?

Jiang says he’s lost count of the times he’d visited Queenstown.

He also spoke wistfully of wanting to spend more time relaxing in the resort with his family.

Just last week, Chinese dairy giant Yili said it would invest a further $400 million in its Oceania Dairy factory near Waimate, adding another 150 jobs to the 70-odd already created.

That’s on top of its initial outlay of $236m.

With their capital, distribution networks and access to technology, foreign investors could help transform New Zealand’s commodity-based export industries – and not just dairy – to more sophisticated, higher-value products.

If a foreign investor can’t make a compelling case for doing just that, then we shouldn’t approve their investment applications.

Ask yourself this: if a Dutch or Belgian company had bought the run-down Crafar farms, would it have provoked half the outcry that Shanghai Pengxin’s purchase did?

A latent racism sits in the gut of many, particularly older, New Zealanders.

Just ask Winston Peters.

ed@scene.co.nz