Hu Jintao’s calm face softened as he spoke poignantly of his greatest challenge since becoming President of China seven months ago. “I felt as if my heart was on fire.”
He was talking of the Sars epidemic, which claimed hundreds of lives as the new Chinese leadership fought to bring “this scourge” under control.
The virus originated in southern China. By the time the epidemic petered out, it had spread to 30 countries, infecting about 9000 people and killing nearly 1000.
“We felt guilty for the whole world,” Mr Hu said during a rare media briefing in Bangkok. “We believe disasters are our greatest teacher – we need to strengthen in the area of health.”
This sudden display of strong feeling at the tailend of the Apec summit underpins why the leader of the world’s largest nation will call on a small Auckland biotech company during his state visit to New Zealand this weekend.
Virionyx in Mangere is taking part in a project to develop a passive immunotherapy Sars treatment at the request of the United States Institute of Health. The US fears Sars could resurface in North America during the coming winter. President Hu also fears that new biosecurity threats could again devastate lives and economies.
China, with its 1.3 billion people, is projected to be the world’s biggest economy by the middle of the century. It is now the sixth largest. But despite its galloping growth rate which topped 9 per cent in the third quarter this year, many of its citizens are dirt poor.
There has been a sweeping transition at the top since the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress last November elected a “fourth generation” of leaders. President Jiang Zemin – whose piano playing entertained guests at a Christchurch gathering four years ago while buses masked the presence of protesters outside – finally stood down. Taking his place in March was awell-groomed and modernly attired man whose fresh face belies his 60 years.
It is too early into the Hu presidency to assess whether he will embark on a bold new reform era. Early signs are that he will continue apace with opening the economy and privatising state-owned enterprises.
Living standards and life expectancy have improved. But despite the reduction in poverty levels – which Mr Hu hails as “no mean feat” – there are pressing social issues: high unemployment, a property bubble, the weakened banking system and a growing income gap between China’s “new capitalists” and the peasantry.
Coming so soon into his presidency, Mr Hu’s visit is a diplomatic coup for Prime Minister Helen Clark, who says she will use the opportunity “to work with China as a key partner in the Asia Pacific region and internationally”.
Tight security surrounds the visit at the request of the Chinese Embassy, which fears a resurgence of protests against China’s human rights record on issues ranging from Tibet to religious freedom, the outlawed Falun Gong movement or even the independent status of Taiwan.
Last year Helen Clark marked the 30th anniversary of New Zealand’s diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic in a formal speech to the Asia Institute.
“I am hopeful,” she said, “that over the next 30 years in our relationship divergent views on human rights will become less prominent in our dialogue as China continues to deliver improved standards of living to all its people and becomes more attuned to international standards and expectations.”
Judging by his Bangkok performance, it will not take long for Helen Clark and Mr Hu to strike an accord. The resumption of world trade talks and insistence on a regional response to solving the North Korean nuclear threat are at the top of the Chinese leader’s external agenda.
US President George W. Bush’s own agenda to combat global terrorism dominated the Apec leaders’ communique. But a later statement released by President Hu focused almost solely on the need to resuscitate the World Trade Organisation’s development round and promote stronger economic growth in the region.
Getting to grips with the private Hu is not easy. His reputation as a “communist hardliner” who had cracked down on dissent as governor of Tibet and pole-vaulted traditional channels to reach an early position on the powerful politburo clearly impressed the outgoing generation of leaders.
But on the international stage Mr Hu is no unilateralist.
In an exclusive Herald briefing, China’s powerful Foreign Minister, Li Zhaoxing, said President Hu “attached great importance” to his New Zealand visit.
Mr Li singled out a shared respect by both countries for the world’s big multilateral institutions – in particular the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation. New Zealand was the first OECD country to approve China’s WTO accession.
China is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council – with the US – but strongly opposed President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.
“China and New Zealand have many identical and similar views in relation to Iraq,” said Mr Li, who is a former Ambassador to the UN. “So we are very happy that we have a friend in that part of the region of the world – New Zealand.”
During his meeting with Helen Clark on Sunday, Mr Hu is expected to cover proposals to strengthen the UN since the split over Iraq.
Said Mr Li: “Our job at the moment is together with our New Zealand colleagues to make the UN more fruitful, more stronger, so that our two peoples will benefit.
“The rest of the world will also benefit in the cause of peace and stability.”
China emerged as a leader in what has become known as the “GX” group ofdeveloping nations which opposed USand European Union dominance of the recent Cancun trade talks in Mexico.
The GX group and the Cairns group, to which New Zealand belongs, want to see agricultural protectionism reduced.
But Mr Li played down China’s own leadership role.
“I prefer the spirit and the letters enshrined in the charter of the UN, which emphasises the equality between states and of course emphasises the importance of countries to treat each other and one another as equals.”
In his talks with Helen Clark, President Hu is expected to stress China’s willingness to play by the WTO’s rules and work with New Zealand to bring the Doha round to a successful conclusion.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Simon Murdoch says the visit gives New Zealand a chance to establish a strong relationship with “a rising regional superpower”.
“It is a boon, a blessing and a great opportunity.”
While China is losing its totalitarian image, a strongly authoritarian state still occupies the commanding heights of the economy. But it is the private sector that makes China tick.
China’s importance to New Zealand is underscored by its status as our fourth largest trading partner, and steps towards a bilateral free trade deal will be discussed.
An announcement of a study to explore such a proposal is expected on Sunday, but it will be some years before formal negotiations begin.
China’s readiness to explore a stronger trading relationship with New Zealand is in stark contrast to the US, which has so far resisted this country’s blandishments for a separate bilateral deal.
This week Australian Prime Minister John Howard has juggled visits by President Hu and President Bush. But President Bush turned down Helen Clark’s invitation to visit this country.
The private sector will be heartened by the forthcoming Chinese announcement, but Helen Clark will have to steer very carefully in her response to avoid offending the US.
China is playing down its own regional leadership aspirations, but it has just become the third country to put a man in space and wants to be taken seriously as a burgeoning economic giant.
It is inevitably the face of the future, but Helen Clark must deal with the present – the US – as well.