Madeleine Chapman reports from Beijing on one of the stranger aspects of being prime minister.
The setting is the New Zealand embassy in Beijing. It’s day one of the prime minister’s week-long trade mission to China. Tuesday is the big day – the first meeting between Hipkins and Xi Jinping. Monday is the pōwhiri, a business delegation panel, a media stand-up and an event titled Showcasing New Zealand. That’s the whole point of the trip, and this event is a literal interpretation of the theme. Tables are set up showing the products of various business delegates for invited guests and local media.
This is where Chris Hipkins has exactly 17 minutes to sell New Zealand. Te Matatini champions Te Whānau-ā-Apanui perform first, shortly after guests arrive. They’re a hit, and the 13-minute performance is exactly as long as people can handle standing still in the heat. There’s a bit of audience interaction and everyone is into it, particularly the business delegates from New Zealand, who are probably not the target audience for this one.
At 2pm, Hipkins is scheduled to speak. This isn’t part of the 17-minute sales line-up, it’s just one of many “remarks” he will give this week, largely saying the same thing each time: New Zealand is open for business and let’s strengthen our relationship with China. He says those things this time too, but it takes longer than expected as it requires live translating. Hipkins speaks noticeably slower than usual, which feels like it would be helpful for the local attendees if there wasn’t already someone translating from prepared notes.
As the speech ticks over the five-minute mark, chatter starts to build in the crowd. This is not an effective sales technique and is a bit of a downer after the great kapa haka opening. There are genuinely young people here and he is talking about fair trade agreements. I had thought 17 minutes was a laughably short amount of time but after a 10-minute speech, if feels like too much.
At 2.13pm, exactly as promised on the printed schedule, Hipkins’ 17-minute sales blitz begins.
2.13pm – Waiata
Te Whānau-ā-Apanui returns to support the speech with a waiata. Audience interest in Māori culture is high. Will they be as interested in milk and tertiary education?
It’s been 10 minutes since Hipkins arrived at the event and there is no way he’s not sweating. He’s wearing a dark suit (red tie, of course) and it’s 35 degrees. There are thunderstorms on the forecast so it’s more humid than usual.
2.15pm – Winter sports
We are two minutes behind schedule already, largely due to Hipkins speaking in slow motion for some reason. The local MC ushers Hipkins over to her and asks for a tour of New Zealand offerings. He nods. The first stop is a stall set up to look like a ski field. One of the aforementioned genuinely young people is standing with, I think, his father, waiting to speak to the prime minister. He must be a member of the China ski team that was noted earlier as regularly spending winters in NZ to train.
Hipkins shakes their hands and makes small talk. I presume he is letting them know that the government has just ensured the 2023 ski season will go ahead on Ruapehu by promising up to $5m to the liquidators of Ruapehu Alpine Lifts.
He then meets a photographer and influencer who has been to New Zealand. They take a group shot, then add Peeni Henare and take another. Then add Damien O’Connor and take another.
2.20pm – International study
Still two minutes behind schedule.
At the Education NZ booth, Hipkins meets some former international students. He shakes each of their hands and makes small talk. I presume he is letting them know that the government is expected to bail out universities today after a drop in international enrolments since 2020 contributed greatly to budget deficits across a number of tertiary institutions.
2.23pm – Meat
Huge detour here as Hipkins bypasses the fruit stall (which is next on the schedule) and heads straight to the barbecue. The timing needs to be impeccable for the kebabs to be done cooking exactly when Hipkins is in charge of the tongs. Evidently, the kebabs are nearly done and can’t wait another minute.
A branded apron appears and is tied around Hipkins’ waist. He approaches the barbecue, assesses the situation (some kebabs that are cooked) and asks, “are we seasoning them?” In the end he sprinkles a bit of salt – the bread and butter of seasonings – on them and serves up a plate. The chef holds it up for a photo with him but Hipkins is already gone.
2.27pm – Fruit
A backtrack to the NZTE stall for a photo with a fruit box. No time for handshakes now. Hipkins receives a whisper in the ear from his adviser, swiftly slots himself among the group and poses for a photo. O’Connor is also there. After 22 hours of flying yesterday, Hipkins will have had, at most, three hours of sleep last night.
2.28pm – Early exit
By god, he’s done it. After a slow start, Hipkins has completed his schedule of handshakes and one-sentence conversations with two minutes to spare. He’s a hero. He walks straight from the final table to the exit without looking back. But then somebody taps him on the shoulder. They need one last group shot. Hipkins turns, his eyes filled with despair.
2.29pm – Group photo
There’s still time. This group shot wasn’t even in the itinerary but unfortunately for the PM, if there’s an opening in the schedule, it will be filled. Hipkins stands in the centre, smiling that same smile. His face is admirably less sheeny than everyone else there, myself included. I watch this final moment and feel a big drop of sweat make its way down my back into my crack. Somehow I know deep in my bones that Hipkins is experiencing the same thing.
They take the large group photo in record time and he leaves again, still with 20 seconds to spare.
2.30pm – Exit
As Hipkins walks out of the embassy and towards the motorcade, he flexes his hands and walks with his arms held a little bit out by his sides as if to let them breathe. It must be a mess under there.
For 16 minutes and 40 seconds, Hipkins acted as New Zealand’s biggest influencer, posing with products and people for the sake of a few cameras. Did it benefit those businesses? Who knows. But he was in and out and on to the next thing. And the next thing is a meeting with Xi Jinping to discuss, probably, the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the small matter of human rights abuses within the context of a significant trade partnership.