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Beyond the Bale : June 2018
AUSTRALIAN WOOL IN CHINA – 50 YEARS Times have changed in China, and quickly. Even as recently as the 1980s, when Australian wool trade delegations visited China they would arrive – via Chinese state airline – at Shanghai Hongqiao airport situated in the middle of the countryside and surrounded by paddy fields. Today, the airport is in the same place but is surrounded by modern skyscrapers and high-speed bullet trains. The China we know today is not the China of 50 years ago, or 25 years ago, or even just 10 years ago. With 1.4 billion people driving a new consumer culture and an economy growing at more than 7% per year, today it seems that the only constant in China is change. But one thing that has endured is the country’s vast appetite and passion for Australian Merino wool and its deeply committed relationship with Australian woolgrowers. The first exports of wool to China started more than half a century ago, with some records dating back to the 1920s. Today China is Australia’s largest customer, buying about 75% of its total wool exports. The exports have risen markedly since 1980, from 21 million kilograms (mkg) greasy to 271 mkg greasy in 2017 (worth $2,759 million). As the Chinese economy rapidly expands and consumer tastes mature faster than anyone had imagined, China’s relationship with Australian Merino wool has now grown to encompass luxury and mainstream retail, high-tech processing facilities and, above all else, a higher demand for the fibre – which is good news for Australian woolgrowers. THE RELATIONSHIP WASN’T ALWAYS SO EASY... Visits to China 50 years ago (in the midst of the Cultural Revolution) were not permitted and wool trade negotiations instead took place at the twice-yearly Canton Trade Fair – not that it was any easier to get there, despite being just 100km over the border from Hong Kong. “To today’s visitor to Canton (Guangzhou) the entry problems of the 1960s would sound impossible,” said Ian McIvor AM, who visited Canton twice-yearly as a wool buyer in the southern markets. Firstly, visitors such as Mr McIvor had to apply for an invitation to attend from a contact organisation in China, after which they proceeded to Hong Kong, where they applied for a visa at the China Tourist Centre. They then had to wait two to three days until the visa was issued, before taking the train to Lo Wu and entering China. “At this stage, your passport and luggage were taken from you, a hotel room was allocated and you were issued with a ticket on the next train to Canton,” he said. On arrival in Canton a bus dropped people at an allocated hotel, where their luggage had been delivered to their room. But even once they arrived, travel in Canton was difficult due to the presence and influence of the Red Guards, who restricted movements and accompanied bus journeys to and from the fair. However, everything improved significantly after Australia’s recognition of China in 1972 and a period of economic liberalisation under People’s Republic of China leader Deng Xiaoping, who also modernised the industries of agriculture, science and technology. Former CEO of Michell Wool, Andrew Thomas. In a series of initiatives this year, AWI is marking more than half a century of a cross-cultural partnership between Australia and China – spanning the wool trade through to design creativity. By not only looking back at China’s astonishing growth, but more importantly looking to the future, AWI aims to secure Merino wool’s position as the fibre of choice for China’s burgeoning middle class and thereby increase awareness and demand for the fibre. A delegation of Chinese media visited Australia at the end of May, to not only experience the origin of this fine fibre but also celebrate the special bond between the two counties. Utilising its strong position in the market, AWI’s subsidiary The Woolmark Company will also present a selection of China’s established designers who have achieved success and recognition, locally and internationally, at a special event in China. It will showcase Australian Merino wool as a modern and innovative fibre used by the most important designers of the new world. The AWI initiatives will be reported in Beyond the Bale later this year. AWI MARKS HISTORY OF AUSTRALIAN WOOL IN CHINA Wool buyer Ian McIvor on one of his early visits to China. 24 OFF FARM