In an ongoing Antipodean streak, I’ve described how successfully united-front organisations have embedded themselves within both sides of New Zealand politics (“Skirt lifted, jewels unveiled“; “Kalendae octobres“). That description might eventually need an update, but not before a government is formed, which might still take a couple of days. In the meantime, I propose to look at another aspect of PRC influence in NZ: PRC-orientated business, as illustrated by trade in one particular product, and its links to local politics.
As in my previous NZ posts, there’s some inevitable overlap with the revelations in the Brady report (Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping), whither I refer the more inquisitive reader; I will add, however, some new data and point to recent developments.
This post explores the intersection of politics, business, palaeobotany, trade-portal forensics and rectified dendronymy.
The rectification of dendronyms
The kauri (Agathis australis (D.Don) Lindl.) is a large coniferous tree that grows only in the north of New Zealand’s North Island. The name is of Maori origin, and one of its Chinese names is what one might expect in such circumstances: a sound transcription, 考里松 kǎolǐ sōng ‘kauri “pine”‘. That name isn’t commonly used. To the timber merchants covered in the central section of this post, the most species is typically known as 贝壳杉 bèiké shān ‘conch “fir”‘. The shān part is unremarkable; it occurs in the names of several coniferous trees. But what about the ‘shell’/’conch’ part? Bèiké actually is for ‘cowrie’, a mollusk whose shells once served as currency. Although the English words are unrelated (kauri from Maori, cowrie from Hindi < Sanskrit kaparda), the similar pronunciation might have motivated a folk etymology at some point before the Chinese term was coined.
I can’t tell for sure where and when the confusion originated, but it’s clear that early 19th-century English-language authors used any number of spellings to approximate the Maori pronunciation, and these indeed included cowrie. An example is the first systematic botanical description of the species, by David Don0 in 1824, who acknowledges the gift of “a large mass of the Cowrie resin”.
Dammara (=Agathis) australis in Lambert et al., A description of the genus Pinus… (1824)
A. australis, or New Zealand Cowdie Pine[ ]is one of the finest trees in the world, often growing perfectly straight to the height of 100 feet or more, and yielding one of the best descriptions of wood for masts.
but also kawrie on the same page.
The stage was set for mixing up the names of the shells with the Maori word for the tree, also in writing, already in the early 19th-century. [New information on this point has now been brought to my attention. An update is coming.]
As for the genus names, Agathis is transparently Greek (ἀγαθίς ‘ball of thread’, describing the female cone) and australis means ‘southern’, but the first genus Dammara is less obvious. The name is much older than Lindon: it was introduced to Western botanical literature in Rumphius‘ Herbarium amboniense2, published in 1741. Rumphius describes the tree now known as Agathis dammara, calling it Dammara alba, a Latinisation of the Malay he cites as damar puti. Damar refers to a number of resin products in SE Asia3.
The kauri tree’s unique characteristics were noted in the earliest descriptions: Don mentions its restricted distribution:
Habitat in Nova-Zeelandiæ nemoribus copiosè præsertim circa Æstuarium Queen Charlotte’s dictum.
“Grows in the woodlands of New Zealand, with particular abundance near the estuary called Queen Charlotte’s” (perhaps referring to Queen Charlotte Sound (Tōtaranui)). He also says it
may be ranked as one of the finest timber trees which New Zealand produces
Kauri cone via New Zealand Plant Conservation Network
Fine though the standing tree is, the relevant ‘kauri bonanza’ here involves subfossil kauri trees buried in the swamps of the north of the North Island. Thanks to the acidic soil, trees up to 45,0004 years old are preserved well enough to be of dendochronological significance, and, more relevantly here, to make the wood workable.
Besides the transcriptional 考里松 kǎolǐ sōng and the molluscan 贝壳杉 bèiké shān, a third name is used for this underground form: 新西兰阴沉木 Xīnxīlán yīnchénmù. This is not a proper species name; it means ‘New Zealand buried/subfossil wood’, which I suppose unambiguously describes kauri. 阴沉木 yīnchénmù can in turn be replaced with 乌木 wūmù or other (near-)synonyms.
The trade in swamp kauri began in the 1980s, but the real boom came in this decade. This on New Zealand Geographic piece describes an initial free-for-all period, followed by more proactive regulation brought in after damage to indigenous wetlands and assorted peculiar business practices generated attention. The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), which regulates the milling and export of the product, maintains a helpful page that includes quantitative reports going back two years.
According to the relevant laws and regulations, subfossil kauri is only allowed to be exported as “a finished product” or as “whole or sawn stumps or roots” not from “indigenous forest land”. There’s a specific definition of ‘stump’ (essentially, roots plus a section of trunk as high as the maximum diameter), but things seem less specific with ‘finished products’. The whole trade is controversial, and its detractors argue that enormous slabs sold as ‘tabletops’ or whole logs with some perfunctory carving described as ‘temple poles’ or ‘artworks’ are taking advantage of a legal loophole to actually sell the wood as a raw material. A conservationist group called the Northland Environmental Protection Society (NEPS) has taken the government to court alleging the subfossil logs are fossils, in a legal sense that would forbid their sale abroad; they lost and are now waiting for a Court of Appeal ruling.
The main export destination has been a certain populous Asian land. In the halcyon days of the subfossil kauri trade (2013 to 2015) more than 90% of all exports went to China:
Note that the graph is logarithmic. The peak is above 3500 m3/y. Source: MPI, Quarterly report of swamp kauri activity, Dec ’16.
After 2015, exports to China suddenly decreased. 2015 was also the year stricter monitoring was put in place. It’s not immediately clear if there’s a causal link between such scrutiny and the abrupt fall in exports to China.
From the June ’17 report.
Reports have continued to emerge of suspicious-looking kauri slabs offered for sale on trading portals, both in New Zealand and China. The government’s consistent position has been that the trade is proactively monitored and illegal exports do not occur.
For a halcyon-day example of this, let’s consider a Radio NZ report from June ’15. Pictures of kauri logs for sale had appeared on Chinese trading portal Alibaba 阿里巴巴. Logs can legally be exported if carved into an artwork in its definitive form, thus constituting a ‘finished product’. (Presumably, if some prosaic buyer chooses to recycle such completed artworks into, say, furniture, that’s their problem.) The relevant minister of the day, Nathan Guy, defended the trade:
I have seen some photos where some fantastic-looking swamp logs have been carved and they’re going to be an amazing feature for our country in an international country that they’re destined for.
It’s unclear if Guy was referring to this specific log:
A fantastic-looking kauri log, offered for sale to an ‘international country’ on Alibaba, via Radio NZ.
People unamused at the government’s handling of this included Dover Samuels, a Northland Maori leader, and the aforementioned NEPS. Interestingly, a further individual unhappy with these fantastic, amazing NZ finished products exported to international countries was Winston Peters, leader of the small right-wing New Zealand First party. Peters, affectionately known as Winnie, has emerged as the ‘kingmaker’ after the last election, and is expected to announce which of the major parties he will allow to form a government this week. He happens to be from kauri country, and was MP for Northland at the time.
Here’s what Winnie had to say:
If they think that this sort of chiselled scribbles on an ancient Maori log is art, then they are not fit to the job that they’re occupying.
He referred to claims the MPI was following the law in allowing exports of such ‘finished products’ to proceed as “bunkum” and “balderdash“, and warned against the “environmental despoliation” created by uncontrolled digging.
That was, of course, during the halcyon days. As we have seen, regulations got stricter after that, and exports to China subsequently decreased. However, a case similar to the one in the Radio NZ story was reported days ago by Peter de Graaf for the Northland Advocate. The article refers to tip-offs on suspected illegal exports to the MPI, including, again, Alibaba offers of massive amounts of swamp kauri slabs. One company involved was New Zealand Forest Enterprise, owned by James Qian (Qian Liping 钱黎平). De Graaf quotes an MPI spokesperson saying they “spoke” to Qian’s company, and found “it is aware of the rules. As a result, we have no further concerns in relation to its activities”. The MPI did not believe the slabs were “actual product for sale”, which raises the issue of what they were doing on a trading portal accompanying a sales offer. Qian, interviewed for the article, didn’t provide an explanation, but said the advert was “very old” and promised to take it down. I haven’t found the actual listing on Alibaba, perhaps because it’s no longer there, but 2013 offers from Qian’s company and a Shanghai distributor are still preserved on another trade portal. Quite likely, the story refers to the posting shown below, found on the English version of Alibaba and shared on social media.
Qian’s swamp-kauri offer on Alibaba English, via Malcom Justice (@MPD_NZ).
The adverts above, as well as the ones I’ve seen in complaints to the MPI, come from English-language websites. As a modest contribution to the kauri-advert canon, I’ll give a few examples from Chinese trade portals. I haven’t seen these particular pictures in English-language media, but of course others might have reported them on social media or directly to the MPI.
The Sino-kauri corpus
First, some slabs.
新西兰五万年阴沉木原木大板 “50,000-year-old New Zealand ‘buried wood’ log slabs” (source)
These 4.5m-long slabs have some markings and a label which readers more cognisant of the industry might be able to identify. The advert, from 2015, can be found on New Zealand Forests Ltd’s page on timber-trading portal wood168.net (Zhongguo muye xinxi wang 中国木业信息网). Other products on offer include swamp kauri stumps, some more finished-looking slabs, and some non-kauri timber. (Readers who don’t read Chinese wishing to consult that page can search for product names containing the word 阴沉木 yīnchénmù ‘buried wood’.)
New Zealand Forests Ltd’s page on wood168.net
New Zealand Forests Ltd is led by Zhou Jiang 周疆, affectionately known as 豆花周 Douhua Zhou or Tofuman. In an interview with the Chinese Herald (先驱报), he tells how, after many successes in the food and other industries, he decided to enter the kauri business, establishing two companies, NZ Forests and Kauri World in 2010. Kauri World was dissolved in 2015, but NZ Forests remains active, with Zhou as a shareholder and director.
Zhou Jiang 周疆, via the Chinese Herald, via read01.com
Zhou says that he established contacts with Maori groups to get their agreement to exploit the resource. In 2013, the company “inspired” PM English’s gift of the Kiwi-Panda Ball, crafted by swamp-kauri woodturner Alby Hall, to Xi Jinping, to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishent of diplomatic relations. The company’s press release notes that it “works closely with local iwi [Maori tribes] to promote New Zealand culture to the world.” As seen above, support for the swamp kauri trade was less than unanimous in the Maori community, but some clearly don’t object to NZ Forests’ activities.
[New Zealand Forests Ltd] notes that the ancient Kauri used to craft the Kiwi-Panda Ball has been carbon dated as nearly 50,000 years old and is therefore very appropriate to be presented to one of the world’s oldest civilisations with a recorded history of 5,000 years.
Astute readers will appreciate the flattering time-span inflation, appropriate to the exchange of gifts between illustrious dignitaries like English and Xi. As of press time, swamp kauri hasn’t been carbon-dated to 50000 years ago, and China doesn’t yet have 5000 years of recorded history. As the senior partner in the bilateral relation, the Chinese side was treated to more generous number inflation than the trees.
Alby Hall, Kiwi-Panda Ball (panda hemisphere). Swamp kauri, “inspired by New Zealand Forests Ltd”, 2013. New Zealand’s official gift to the People’s Republic of China. New Zealand Forests Ltd press release via Scoop.
Here’s another slab offered by Zhou’s companies:
From another 2015 posting
This one looks more finished, and could pass as a rustic table. It’s listed as offered by NZ Forests on the trade portal quoted above, and also on another one, China Timber (中国木材网), where it’s ascribed to one Fuzhou Yima Trading Co., Ltd (福州伊玛贸易有限公司). Fuzhou City government information systems don’t seem to record a company with that name, which could be due to a clerical error, the company’s extinction, or its non-existence. Regardless, the contact data on the page match those of Kauri World in New Zealand, the company introduction actually refers to NZ Forests Ltd, and the same picture seems to be used on both websites. There can be no doubt that this posting also belongs to Zhou’s company.
Let’s look at one final Kauri World offer.
Another Kauri offer from 2015.
A closer look:
Per the advert, the log weighs between 1.5 and 2 t, was unearthed in February 2014, and once finished could be worth between $200k and $500k. For the export to be legal, such finishing would have to take place before shipment to China. The log is only 5000 years old (possibly a typo for the customarily inflated 50,000) and has “multiple burrs” (数瘤), considered a good thing.
Similarly, the picture on Kauri World’s homepage, which serves as the Chinese version of NZ Forests’ website,
shows a swamp-kauri log being loaded into an Orient Overseas Container Line container, perhaps for shipment to another New Zealand location, since the product doesn’t look quite finished. If actually finished, the geometry of the base doesn’t augur well for its structural stability as a temple pole, so a different use could be intended. Then again, the picture doesn’t constitute a business offer and may differ from actual products being sold.
Incidentally, the fantastic, finished log featured in the Radio NZ story quoted above also came from New Zealand Forests Ltd. On the English version of Alibaba, they dispensed with any ‘temple pole’ euphemisms and called the pieces just ‘logs‘.
All the pictures above were most likely taken in New Zealand. It’s not clear whether the products they show were actually sold and exported, as the MPI might have blocked some such exports. It’s not hard to find pictures of swamp kauri being offered by traders in China. Here’s a piece of a rather particular shape, offered in 2014 by a Xiamen trading company (without any visible link to any particular NZ exporter).
I’ve also seen swamp-kauri offers from China-based traders posted as late as last year.
The legal and dendrometric subtleties involved in assessing the legality of exporting all those products escape me, but it should be clear that the limits of the ‘finished product’ concept were being tested.
Besides New Zealand Forests, one of the biggest players in the kauri trade was an Oravida Kauri, a Stone Shi business. Upon first encountering his name, some readers will assume it alludes to Marshall Stone and the duality named after him. Such an assumption would be mistaken: ‘Stone’ is simply the translation of his surname. His full Chinese name is Shi Deyi 石德毅. There is a certain duality between ‘Shi’ and ‘Stone’ as given names and surnames, and also between Stone Shi’s activities in China and New Zealand, and his links to business and politics.
Stone Shi’s best known activities are selling milk and buying airports. Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons report devotes him two paragraphs, worth quoting in full.
In 2011 Shi Deyi (also known as Stone Shi, 石德毅) donated $56,500 (via Oravida NZ) to National and secured a game of golf with John Key in return. The photo of the match is still used in Oravida publicity. Shi donated a further $30,000 via Oravida in 2013, in 2016 he gave $50,000, and then a further $50,000 in 2017. Shi is CEO of Shanghai Jiacheng Investment Management 上海嘉诚投资管理有限公司, but in New Zealand he is most well known as the director of the milk products company Oravida. Shi also bought Ardmore airport, Auckland’s second airport, in 2016. In 2005 Shi was involved in a fraud case in China; his business partner got life in prison, while he was sentenced to pay debts and compensation. Stone Shi is now a rotating chair of a Red Capitalists organization, the Shanghai Entrepreneurs Association (上海新沪商联合会). This is a grouping of 2,000 of the most powerful companies in China, and is under the supervision of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce as well as the United Front Work Department. The Shanghai Entrepreneurs Association is a channel for public-private partnerships in China. It currently has an MOU with the New Zealand China Trade Association.
Shi bought Oravida in 2010 under its former name Kiwi Dairy, from Terry Lee; a businessman associated with Shanghai Pengxin. Former New Zealand National PM Jenny Shipley is a director of Oravida, as, for almost five years until 2017, was David Wong-Tung, the husband of National MP Judith Collins. Collins’ relationship with Oravida attracted media scrutiny when she attended a private dinner with a Chinese customs official and Shi when Oravida were having difficulty exporting their products to China. The National government later gave Oravida $6000 to help it to overcome border issues.”
Brady also provides a picture showing Shi at a prime-ministerial golf match. As a modest contribution to the Shi golfing-portrait genre, here’s a PM-less portrait, from a Sheshan 佘山 golf club magazine.
After the fraud case in the early aughts, Stone Shi resurfaced in New Zealand, attracting considerable media attention with the airport purchase and high-level political connections. He was also fully rehabilitated in the Motherland, as shown by his prominence in the Shanghai Entrepreneurs Association.
Serendipitously enough, another airport-related incident occurred last month, a week before the election. A pipeline that fed fuel to Auckland airport (the big one, not Stone’s) ruptured, leading to cancelled and postponed flights. An investigation underway. The pipe’s owner believes it “was damaged by a digger before it ruptured”. The investigators have met some obstacles. The owner of the property where the accident occurred doesn’t live there, and investigators have not been able to locate him after presumably searching for a month. This is perhaps understandable, since he (it is a ‘he’ according to press reports) is allegedly not in the phone book and might have left the country. If abreast of these developments, ‘he’ might be disinclined to show up, since a fine could be waiting. The digging, media reports claimed soon after the incident, was in fact an “exploratory search for swamp kauri“. Later, it was said that the damage could have occurred back in the heroic age of the swamp (~’14). It has been asked whether the kauri exploration responsible for the rupture, or earlier damage to the pipe, was related for Oravida Kauri, now renamed Kauri Ruakaka Ltd.
The hypothesis is hardly far-fetched. The reasoning is simple: digging is already openly considered the most probable cause, based on an analysis of the broken pipe; industry sources talked specifically about swamp-kauri exploration, and satellite images shared by Twitter user @matarikipax appear to indicate traces of recent activity and a log lying on the ground; if the cause was indeed kauri digging, the first place to ask is Kauri Ruakaka, the nearest kauri business and a major player in the heroic age. It seems obvious that these links should be analysed. However, no mention of a Oravida Kauri or its successor Kauri Ruakaka has been made, as far as I’ve seen, in media reports.
Stone Shi, a National Party donor, is still a director of Kauri Ruakaka. Judith Collins, the National MP whose husband was a director at the company until a few months ago, is the minister of energy and resources.
This is not a pipe
Again, I’m not enough of a New-Zealandist and forensic palaeodendrometrician to provide an informed opinion on the legality of the proposed sales above. They might be fully compliant with the relevant definitions of ‘stump’, ‘finished’ and other xylurgical concepts. By giving those examples, besides enriching the kauri-advert canon with some Chinese-language specimens, I meant to illustrate how this China-orientated sector has been ‘testing the limits’ of the regulations, as well as the controversy surrounding the kauri trade. In that controversy, the government’s position is consistent with its general attitude towards China-related issues: the benefits of trade with China and Chinese investment overweigh environmental concerns and overrides the opposition of (some) Maori. In all fairness, the MPI’s response to complaints after the free-for-all era has been transparent, and a remarkable amount of information on the trade is publicly available. It’s the government’s position on a largely Chinese-dominated sector, consistent with its overall attitudes to the PRC, that I find worth taking note of.
Soon after the incident, a reporter claimed to have filed a story that covered the possible links between the pipe rupture and kauri digging with The Dominion Post. The editor who decided to put the article “on hold” denied there had been any political, legal or other pressure, but found “too many ifs, maybes [and] perhapses” in it. Perhaps that should be called an epistemological pressure; maybe, such pressure could have been resisted if the piece didn’t misrepresent the conditionals and probabilities. Even if that one article was bad, it’s quite remarkable that no one else has taken up the issue, in what would seem a competitive media environment. That was another motivation for consolidating my observations here.
The current state of knowledge is, indeed, a chain of conditionals. The various links between the location of the ruptured section, Stone Shi’s business and his political connections don’t warrant, at the moment, the conclusion that his company has any responsibility for the incident. On the other hand, the media silence on all these links only brings them to the foreground. Again, it might turn out that no work was ever done for Shi’s companies near the broken pipeline, but why is no one asking him, or even mentioning the possibility, or discussing it with people who’ve brought it up?
I might update the post with any new developments.
[Thanks to Geoff Wade]
0 Lambert, Aylmer Bourke, Ferdinand Bauer and David Don, A description of the genus Pinus: illustrated with figures, directions relative to the cultivation, and remarks on the uses of the several species, vol.2, London: J. White, 1824. Available at the Biodiversity Library.
2 Rumphius, Georg[ius] Everhard[=Rumpf, Georg Eberhard], Het Amboinsche kruid-boek…/Herbarium amboinense…, vol. 2. Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht: Apud Fransicum Changuion, Joannem Catuffe, Hermannum Uytwerf, 1741. Available on the Botanicus Digital Library.
3 Rumphius also gives the Malay name damar batu, ‘stone resin’. I’m grateful to Geoff Wade for references and comments on the Malay terms.
4 Turney, Chris S.M. et al., “The potential of New Zealand kauri (Agathis australis) for testing the synchronicity of abrupt climate change during the Last Glacial Interval (60,000—11,700 years ago)”, Quaternary Science Reviews 29 (2010) 3677-3682. Available on the one of the authors’ Academia page.