Saturday 31st of July 2021
















Kiwifruits are native to China but it was New Zealand that perfected the golden variety found on supermarket shelves today.

It costs New Zealand farmers a sizable amount of money to license the SunGold kiwifruit and sell it across the world.

New Zealand even has a kiwifruit regulator that makes decisions on all national issues pertaining to the little furry fruit and at the moment there is one brewing between local growers, the owner of the SunGold copyright and China. 

Central to the story is a man named Haoyu Gao, who is accused of smuggling cuttings of the prized SunGold to China's Sichuan province, enabling local farmers to cultivate several orchards of counterfeit plants. 

Now New Zealand needs to decide how to deal with China — SunGold kiwifruit lover, customer, and "pirate". 

Striking gold 

SunGold kiwifruits are known for their tangy sweetness and bright yellow flesh. They're smooth in texture and have fewer seeds than their green counterparts.

Another quality of the SunGold is its tolerance to a disease that devastated the previous variety of golden kiwifruits. 

In 2010, an alleged biosecurity breach brought the pseudomonas syringae pv actinadiae (PSA) disease to New Zealand's fertile plains.

PSA destroyed crops and saw orchard owners rip out vines or cut them down to the base in an event that was "as close as you'd get to an overnight collapse" of the industry, according to Richard Rennie from Farmers Weekly. 

Mr Rennie has been following the New Zealand kiwifruit industry for 13 years and says that event left many growers without a crop.

While necessity is the mother of invention, New Zealand had been developing the new gold varieties well before PSA hit.

A little luck and good planning resulted in the quick development of a variety that was far less susceptible to PSA and by 2012, farmers were sowing seedlings of the new SunGold kiwifruit.  

After enduring the kind of disease outbreak customs departments dread, the development of SunGold was indeed like striking gold. 

"It's proving to be quite fortuitous," Mr Rennie said.   

"As a fruit, it has a better taste profile. It's easier to pack and it grows really prolifically. You get a really high yield off it as a crop. 

"It's the best of both worlds, really." 

Zespri is the co-operative that owns the SunGold brand and the body that sells farmers the licence to grow it.

The payment is a one-off and farmers gain access to global supply chains and marketing campaigns.  

Farmers purchase licences by the hectare. At the moment it costs more than $500,000 for every new hectare of SunGold farmers want to plant — a sizable investment.   

But the variety has become the golden child of the New Zealand kiwifruit family, selling the most trays across the world and driving the $3 billion in global sales Zespri made last financial year

Farmers get a nice return too, both in gate prices and a dividend paid by the co-operative.

There is a lot on the line. 

The 'pirate' and his golden cuttings 

While New Zealand producers take on costs to expand their orchards, plantations of counterfeit SunGold kiwifruits are growing across China. 

The vines are producing a golden variety of kiwifruits, but they are not licensed or held to the same quality standards as those grown by Zespri farmers in New Zealand, so they are referred to as counterfeits or "unauthorised" plants. 

The first plants in these unauthorised Chinese orchards were believed to have come from Haoyu Gao.

Court documents reveal how Zespri came to discover their SunGold plants growing in China and the private investigation that led them to Gao. 

It started with a rumour. 

It was 2016 and Zespri's China-based staff had heard their prized SunGold variety was being grown locally. 

They engaged private investigators and on their advice, contacted a grower in China who "openly admitted" he was cultivating SunGold kiwifruit and welcomed Zespri staff onto his orchard to see for themselves, according to court documents

The Chinese grower did not say how he had obtained the plants, but the investigation allegedly revealed a connection to Gao. 

Gao bought an orchard in New Zealand in 2013 and signed with Zespri to grow SunGold, but Zespri alleges he then went ahead and made some agreements of his own, promising exclusive access and supply to the Chinese grower, according to court documents.  

Zespri took their case to New Zealand's High Court and Justice Sarah Katz found Gao had breached both NZ intellectual property law and his licence agreement with Zespri.

In her judgement, Justice Katz wrote that Gao had taken "budwood" of the SunGold kiwifruit to China, supplied growers and had likely been paid for it, although the exact amount was not clear. 

She found in favour of Zespri and ordered Gao to pay $15 million in damages. He is now appealing. 

The court result was a win for Zespri, but it didn't change much. 

Zespri now estimates there are more than 5,000 hectares of counterfeit SunGold in China, predominately in the Sichuan Province.    

Zespri said the industry there was "increasing rapidly" and would soon "compete head-to-head" with the New Zealand season, in a document sent to growers

"Unauthorised growing [is] forecast to surpass Zespri exports into China by 2023," another Zespri document reads.  

The situation puts the New Zealand industry in a delicate spot. 

It must work to defend its intellectual property and the value of its licence, but China is also one of Zespri's biggest buyers of real deal SunGold kiwifruits.


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For years now, the whole world has been gripped by the Sino-American confrontation. China is actively pushing the US and other Western countries from the top positions in various spheres of world economy and politics, and the US is fiercely resisting this. Important allies of the US in the West are the main states of the Anglosphere — the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. As far back as World War II, the intelligence services of these countries began to cooperate, which led to the emergence of the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance, whose system of information collection and transmission envelops the entire Western world.

When the current period of aggravation in Sino-American relations began, the US began to actively involve all of its partners in the confrontation. Cooperation within the framework of the Five Eyes Alliance has also begun to steer in an anti-Chinese direction. Thus, in order to protect the strategic information of the alliance states from Chinese intelligence, at the instigation of the United States a process was launched of forcing Chinese telecommunications companies such as Huawei and ZTE out of the states of the Five Eyes.

However, unexpectedly for Washington, not all members of the alliance agreed to unconditionally follow its demands. New Zealand began to sabotage the American fight with China.

Recall that China is its largest trading partner, accounting for up to a third of all New Zealand exports, and that before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, one of the country’s main sources of foreign exchange was tourists from the PRC.

When the US demanded in 2018 that all Five Eyes members stop buying and using Chinese telecommunications equipment because of the threat of espionage, New Zealand initially obeyed and banned the use of Huawei equipment in building its 5G network in late 2018. However, in January 2019, China imposed precautionary trade sanctions against New Zealand, and the following month, the latter’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that Huawei could participate in work on the future New Zealand 5G network after a security check of the project by the New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).

Shortly thereafter, in April 2019, Jacinda Ardern visited Beijing, where she met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and pledged to further cherish China-New Zealand relations.

Some time later, there was another intriguing swing in New Zealand between the old partners and China.

In November 2020, members of the Five Eyes issued a joint statement calling on the PRC leadership to stop repressive measures against the democratic opposition in the Hong Kong Legislative Council. After that, the Five Eyes was regularly criticized by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Beijing claimed that members of the alliance formed a “conspiracy” against it. New Zealand soon joined in this criticism. In April 2021, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said her country was uncomfortable with the Five Eyes’ outreach. According to her, New Zealand does not welcome the involvement of the Five Eyes in speaking out on issues outside the alliance’s purview. Mahuta also said that since China is New Zealand’s main trading partner, it now needs predictable diplomatic relations with that country. New Zealand reserves the right to speak out on issues in which it does not agree with Beijing, such as the situation in Hong Kong or in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where Western countries believe ethnic and religious minorities are oppressed.

After these statements by the head of the New Zealand Foreign Ministry, many media began to write that there was a split in the Five Eyes Alliance and that New Zealand was preparing to leave the Western world and yield to the authority of China. These reports may be overly exaggerated, but given the volume of Sino-New Zealand trade and the vivid displays of deference to Beijing by the New Zealand leadership, the emergence of such views does not seem surprising.

On May 3, 2021, the 7th China Business Summit was held in Auckland, where the PRC and New Zealand traditionally discuss economic cooperation. The event was attended by such dignitaries as Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Secretary of Commerce Damien O’Connor, and PRC Ambassador to New Zealand Wu Xi. Among the issues discussed at the event were the development of bilateral trade and the economic crisis associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a number of issues went beyond trade and economic relations.

Consequently, Jacinda Ardern said that as the PRC’s role in the world has increased, it has become increasingly difficult to resolve differences with that state, and that there are issues on which China and New Zealand disagree and will never be able to agree. In the words of the leader of New Zealand, there are several conflicts between the Chinese and New Zealand systems and interests and values that define those systems, and these conflicts are only increasing as Chinese influence grows. Ardern also said this is a challenge not only for New Zealand, but for many other countries in the Indo-Pacific region, Europe and elsewhere. However, she toned down her speech, adding that the mentioned controversies should not play a defining role in Sino-New Zealand relations.


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