Over the last few years, Wellington’s Gibson Group has pioneered New Zealand attempts to build business relationships with China that prioritise intellectual property and media rather than primary industries. CEO Victoria Spackman describes what it is like to visit China for business rather than tourism.

A fast plane to China
Meetings are rather formal
Busi­ness meet­ings in China can rather be formal

8.17am New Zea­l­and time — above the Pacific Ocean, Auck­land to Hong Kong, NZ87, seat 26F.

This is my ninth trip to China in the last four years, includ­ing four in 2013 alone. Paul, the man sit­ting next to me on the plane, has been 40 times in ten years. Our busi­ness con­nec­tions with China are com­pletely dif­fer­ent, but our exper­i­ences are sim­il­ar. I’m work­ing on films and TV pro­grammes and the design of vis­it­or exper­i­ences. He imports com­mer­cial fur­niture into New Zealand.

We swap famil­i­ar stor­ies — long flights for short vis­its, vis­it­ing cit­ies of mil­lions of people that no one back home has heard of, try­ing to stay sober at busi­ness din­ners, rely­ing on oth­ers for the qual­ity of inform­a­tion, build­ing trust. There are hun­dreds of busi­nesspeople doing this every day and, from the con­ver­sa­tions I have, their exper­i­ences are similar.

I don’t know the man next to me well enough to ask about the dis­asters, but I’m sure he has had them. I know of sev­er­al: a trus­ted part­ner who one day took hun­dreds of thou­sands of yuan out of a joint bank account and dis­ap­peared; ser­vices nev­er paid for, des­pite months of prom­ises; the fraud­u­lent employ­ee who took years to fire because he had con­trol of the com­pany seal, and in China the com­pany seal is needed to fire someone. And, of course, the truly tra­gic story of Fonterra’s entan­gle­ment with Sanlu, which led to deaths.

Doing busi­ness in China is not for the faint-hearted.

The Gib­son Group engages with China for many reas­ons: it’s close to New Zea­l­and com­pared with Europe and some parts of the US; it’s one of the only eco­nom­ies in recent years has actu­ally been grow­ing at a decent rate; we have very strong gov­ern­ment sup­port for our engage­ment and are build­ing good con­nec­tions in the areas we need; and the coun­try is mod­ern­ising (not West­ern­ising; there’s a dif­fer­ence) rap­idly. Reas­ons cited by oth­er busi­nesses are that China’s middle class is increas­ing in wealth and size; the Chinese want to buy lux­ury goods or goods that help them live well; and that as par­ents achieve high­er incomes, they feed their kids more pro­tein. We make pro­tein in New Zea­l­and, in large amounts. You might have noticed.

joy wisdom dream
Gib­son Group’s Steve Barr and Vic­tor­ia Spack­man encour­aged to joy, wis­dom and dream
that's one large library 2
Guang­zhou Lib­rary is one big library












8.31am Beijing time — on my way out of Hong Kong on Through Train T824 (north­bound to Guang­zhou), coach 2, seat 28 (upstairs).


Our busi­ness is a lot fur­ther down Maslow’s hier­archy of needs than pro­tein — we sell cul­ture, con­nec­tion, storytelling. We’ve made pro­grammes about New Zea­l­and wine-mak­ing and wine cul­ture, and about Chinese stu­dents study­ing in New Zea­l­and. They’ve screened on a hand­ful of the hun­dreds of chan­nels in China, to a poten­tial audi­ence in the hun­dreds of mil­lions. It’s impossible to tell how many people they’ve reached — the Chinese don’t release rat­ings in the way that we do here — but it will be a num­ber I can’t hold prop­erly in my head. In China, if you’re ‘one in a mil­lion’, there are 1,300 oth­ers of you.

In addi­tion to those two TV shows, we have a couple of vis­it­or exper­i­ence designs in China under our belt, a few films in devel­op­ment and sev­er­al dis­cus­sions about new TV pro­grammes under­way (my reas­on for this trip: the New Zea­l­and Film Com­mis­sion (NZFC) del­eg­a­tion to Guang­zhou, Shang­hai and Beijing).

The guy next to me on the train (dif­fer­ent guy this time) is chan­ging SIM cards as we go through Shen­zhen — pre­sum­ably from a Hong Kong SIM to a Chinese one. I know I’m in China now because there is more red on the signs and ban­ners, and the hand­rails on the foot­bridges are hos­pit­al green — these are the things I recog­nise. The “Wel­come to China” text from Voda­fone has just arrived. Every­one else seems to be get­ting them too. All down the train. I’ll get sev­er­al of those over the com­ing days as my phone gets con­fused about where it is.


there is media everywhere - back  of taxi seat10.38am Beijing time — taxi on the way from Guang­zhou train sta­tion to hotel (back seat of course). Taxi driver singing Chinese pop rock at the top of his voice. Per­haps he knows I’m a TV per­son and he’s auditioning.


As I leave the train and move towards the taxi rank, I am care­ful not to touch things more than I have to. When I’m in China I wash my hands a lot. I use instant hand­wash and tis­sues. I don’t enjoy the rain and cov­er small cuts quickly. I’m care­ful what I eat. These are all my attempts to stay well.

Unlike food pro­du­cers, we’re selling a ser­vice — we’ll invent, design, cre­ate and deliv­er an exhib­i­tion, film or TV pro­gramme. It won’t exist before you pay us for it and you can’t handle it before you buy. This is dif­fi­cult any­where in the world; it’s argu­ably more dif­fi­cult here. We are essen­tially hir­ing out the high-qual­ity brains of the people we employ. That’s straight­for­ward intel­lec­tu­al prop­erty, and one of the chal­lenges for us is that IP isn’t always highly val­ued here in China. That atti­tude is chan­ging, but not quickly. The things that have been val­ued here are things you can see, touch, eat, or put in your house or pock­et. There is always anoth­er brain in China.


9.55am two days later — Shang­hai hotel con­fer­ence room.


If this is Wed­nes­day it must be Shang­hai. This del­eg­a­tion is full of people who have ideas that they want to pro­duce with China. We’ve just met a man who has made two co-pro­duc­tions with Aus­tralia and some of us are seek­ing a rela­tion­ship with him. There have been sev­er­al oth­ers in the last few days who could be good con­tacts. I have col­lec­ted about 30 busi­ness cards already. Being with the gov­ern­ment-run NZFC helps: doors are opened to us that would oth­er­wise have remained firmly closed. We are greeted favour­ably in most of the places we go, includ­ing by the NZFC’s gov­ern­ment equi­val­ents in China. These people are very import­ant to busi­ness here. It’s taken me a long time to get used to the need for gov­ern­ment in business.

View of Pudong from the Bund
View of Pud­ong from the Bund in Shanghai


2.42pm same day — on the steps of the Shang­hai Theatre Academy.


I’m here for anoth­er three days of relent­less meet­ings, 5am starts, bus trips and noodle soup for break­fast. Actu­ally l like the noodles; they set me up for the day. I’m assess­ing every per­son I meet for wheth­er they can add value to us or wheth­er we can add value to them. They’re doing the same to me. It’s exhaust­ing. There are a lot of people here to assess.

When I get home it will be a case of fol­low­ing up, fur­ther assess­ment and then tent­at­ive for­ward move­ments. At some point we’ll make films. It will take luck and cour­age and dip­lomacy, and the films will be great. You’ll be proud.