Wednesday, 8 June 2011

This is New Zealand: Asian Edition

One of my favourite literary genres is the promotional book. It might have something to do with my dear godmother, who for a number of Christmases in a row gave me books that her husband picked up at trade fairs, including a monumental - and in so many ways, absolutely delightful - History of Methane, a relic of a not-so-distant time when the word emissions had almost exclusively scatological meanings.

Of special and more recent interest to me is the subset of this genre that promotes whole countries and their ways of life. I talked briefly a while ago about this particular gem

but neglected to make the dutiful point that nationalistic propaganda sprouting from a rich compost of lies and embellishments is hardly the sole domain of totalitarian governments. Everybody does it. You’ll find as much self-criticism in this type of offering as you do in the average national anthem. Nonetheless, these books generally make very interesting reading, precisely in fact because of their lies and obfuscations, as well as the occasional truths that filter through the promotional message.

There are some reassuring constants: the people of all nations, we are told, are uncommonly resourceful and ingenious, hard working and interested in pursuing a variety of interests. Sports and the arts play important roles in their lives, as does family. I am looking forward to a book professing that the citizens of, say, Latvia, are a slothful and tedious bunch who loathe children and are really letting themselves go in the fitness department, but it doesn’t seem to be forthcoming (at least not from the Latvians themselves). Also, most countries whose literature I have come across are 'a country of contrasts', which apparently is a good thing.

Predictable niceties are also written about each nation’s great artistic beauty and its rich and colourful traditions. But these aren't ordinary guidebooks, and a reminder of their mercantile aims, often on a very large scale, is never far behind. Here is a page from G. Selmer Fougner's A Good Living Tour of Italy (1955):

The advertisment goes on to say, in case you were wondering, that 'graving and floating docks can handle supertankers'. And who didn't tour Italy with his or her supertanker, in those days?

Another point of difference is that these kinds of books invariably project an uncritical and cohesive image of the country's political structures and policies. Look in particular for the ideological statements that underpin the sections on government, welfare and society, if you're into the comparative literature of propaganda. Case in point: the About New Zealand booklet published by the country's Ministry of Foreign affairs and Trade in 1999 - at the tail end of nine year of Tory rule - which reads as a manual on the virtues of neoliberalism. We learn for instance that
[s]uccessive [New Zealand] governments have shaped an environment for a leaner, more productive economy by championing reform, deregulation and sound financial policies at home, while pursuing open and liberalised trade and investment policies abroad. (p. 27)
We all know that ‘leaner’ means ‘employing fewer people’, but whatever repercussions this transition might have had on the securing of welfare provisions is left unsaid. In fact, the myth of the smooth, harmonious operation of the state machinery invariably espoused by these books can complicate things a bit when it comes to boasting a nation's historical achievements. About New Zealand needs for instance to accommodate both the pride in the pioneering role played by the country in the areas of labour relations and welfare entitlements, and the idea that getting rid of such entitlements was a good thing. Here's what the book has to say about health services:
In the 1930s, New Zealand made history by being the first nation to establish a comprehensive welfare system. The aim was to provide people with security ‘from the cradle to the grave’ through assistance for the sick, the unemployed and for families. A wide range of medical care was also provided free of charge. Almost 70 years later, the cost of providing social welfare has grown. Welfare benefits are now more tightly targeted at those most in need. Today the emphasis of the social welfare system is on providing income support to ensure those facing difficulties can be helped back to self-reliance and well-being. (p. 34)
Deftly, neatly, this paragraph bridges together a far poorer, less advanced New Zealand which yet believed that it should care for its citizens as a matter of duty, to the contemporary, far richer and more advanced New Zealand, where ensuring the people's well-being is just too darn expensive. And naturally none of this is allowed to interfere with the notion that by crossing this particular bridge the country has experienced anything but progress.

As it happens, I am the fortuitous but nonetheless proud owner of a precursor to that booklet written in 1986, at the very time when this significant change of ideological course was being charted. I say fortuitous because there was never a time when you could buy or pick up this very lavishly produced book, which was intended as a gift for Chinese businessmen and government officers.

This puts the fantastically entitled This is New Zealand - Asian Edition in a particular sub-category of nation-promoting books, those specifically aimed at encouraging foreign investment and trade. This is a tricky and elaborate exercise that requires a certain amount of grovelling to go along with the requisite pride in the display of the nation's treasures to the chosen bidder. Hence the seemingly peculiar decision - given the overall politics of the book's authors and sponsors - to open with an appeal to the ambassadorship of Rewi Alley, a New Zealander who dedicated his life to the cause of Chinese communism. But do not be fooled: as the contribution of stockbroking firm Renouf Partners makes clear, the book is firmly aligned with the Douglas manifesto and its 'major restructuring of the economy'. In an especially welcome development, we are informed,
a growing financial sector is blossoming, helped by rapid and bold moves to free the economy from a mass of regulations and controls that had developed over the years. It has been said that the "New" is being put back into "Zealand". (p. 113)
(I couldn't find a lot of information about Renouf Partners, by the way, other than in a document by Chris Lee that lists it among a number of firms that went belly up under Douglas' tenure as a result of having been 'perhaps honestly, but incompetently run'. It sounds like they might have put the "usual" back into "bankruptcy".)

For all the talk of restructuring and radical innovation, the book still boxes New Zealand in its traditional role of primary producer, declaring it from the outset 'a well stocked farm in the Pacific' (p. 17), capable of such feats as - in what is possibly my all-time favourite caption - 'integrating forestry and farming':

The image below of a refrigerated container full of fresh produce opening onto a pristine landscape encapsulates the idea of New Zealand that is being sold to the reader by a list of major players: the Meat Board, Owens investments, National Bloodstock, Feltex, Wattie Industries, Tasman Forestry, the State Coal Mines and a number of companies servicing the primary sector - even the lone representative of the electronics industry, AWA, turns out to be involved in the production of fruit grading machinery.

One contributor stands out and may at first seem a little puzzling: the Justice Department. It appears that the export envisaged here is expertise on how to deliver a Western-style justice system, should China ever be interested. In the relevant section the reader is helpfully informed that
[o]ne of the dilemmas in any democracy is the tension between the desire to strengthen and extend government powers to provide and effective government, and the need to uphold and protect the rights and freedoms of the individual. (p. 125)
For all the condescension in this particular snippet, the book is deferential towards China and studiously avoids topics that may offend or complicate the picture of what the country has to offer. Therefore it skips directly from the 'ancient times' of Maori settlement to 'today's lifestyle', without so much as a mention of the arrival of the Europeans or the Treaty of Waitangi. It name checks the presence of Chinese immigrants from the second half of the eighteenth century, but glosses over the sorry race relations record that accompanied it. It even contributes to the time-honoured tradition of using Asian as a substitute for Chinese (no other nationality is mentioned). Its Māori content, including some stunning artwork, sets a picturesque scene, but is never placed within the easily domesticated concept of the Māori renaissance, let alone the harsher realities of persistent socio-economic differentials. Moreover, none of the businesses promoted through the book have an explicit Māori dimension, making the customary exploitation of iconography and lore that much more grating.

None of this, however, is altogether untypical. As I suggested above, these kinds of books are often more significant for what they leave out than for what they include. Lacking as they are in critical perspective, they cannot be regarded as documents of a nation's changing modes of self-examination, but rather of the ways in which myths and fictions of nationhood are constructed. Also, they generally have very pretty pictures.

This is New Zealand - Asian Edition. Wellington: Sheffield House, 1986.
An earlier version of this post appeared on my blog.

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