A lifetime of friendship with China

Academic, China expert b: February 7, 1932 d: October 12, 2021 By Jonathan Guildford



Stuff NZ Newspapers



William Edward Willmott, known as Bill, had a longstanding affinity with China. The renowned academic and long-term president of the New Zealand China Friendship Society (NZCFS) dedicated his life to enhancing Kiwi and Chinese relations and was regarded in some circles as one of New Zealand’s leading experts on China. Friend and current NZCFS national president Dave Bromwich said the respect Willmott achieved through his work with his various organisations allowed the society to hold certain privileges that were ‘‘the envy of other country friendship organisations’’. ‘‘I owe where I am and the privilege of the engagements that I’ve had available to me . . . to the opportunities that [Willmott] provided either directly to me or through the society.’’ Willmott was viewed as a leading expert on China, both within New Zealand and in China, gaining him a great deal of respect, Bromwich said. He also became a ‘‘king pin’’ in supporting the legacies of Rewi Alley, the Kiwi writer and political activist who founded the society and dedicated 60 years of his life to the Communist Party of China. Willmott was always focused on building and strengthening relations with China, while also trying to educate others on the country, Bromwich said. Willmott never shied away from voicing his opinions or critiquing opposing views, but he always did it respectfully. ‘‘He approached it intelligently, impartially and with a high level of academic credibility, he just presented clearly and cleanly without engaging in any personal attacks.’’ Willmott touched many people throughout his life and that was backed up by an outpouring of respect and condolences from numerous Chinese friends and colleagues since his death, Bromwich said. The esteemed academic died on October 12 last year, aged 89. Willmott was born to Earl and Katherine Willmott in Chengdu, west China, on February 7, 1932. His parents were both educational missionaries from the Canadian Methodist Church, who went on to become teachers in China. They were both very supportive of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary movement. Bill Willmott’s first language was Mandarin, with a Sichuanese dialect. The family set off on sabbatical leave before he started school, travelling Europe for a year. When they moved back to China in 1937, Willmott had to begin his schooling in Kobe, Japan, as the family were stopped at a Japanese blockade on the Yangtze River. During this time, through the mid-1930s, Japan had invaded China and a prolonged and vicious war ensued. Inflation was so bad in China by the early 1940s that the mission decided to close the school and send the missionary children, or ‘‘mishkids’’, to an American school in Mussoorie, India. Willmott and his older brother Dick were flown in a Douglas DC-3 – before they had pressurised cabins – from Chongqing to the new school. After finishing school, Willmott followed his older sisters by attending Oberlin College, a renowned liberal arts college, in Ohio. He completed a bachelor of arts in sociology before completing a master of arts in anthropology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. His research was based on the Inuit community at Inukjuak in Northern Quebec in 1958. His studies time focussed on the living conditions of the Inuit and the huge issue of tuberculosis (a potentially serious infectious bacterial disease that mainly affects the lungs), which was rife at the time. Willmott continued down the academic path, completing a PhD in social anthropology at the London School of Economics in 1964. His research involved spending a year in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, where he analysed the Chinese diaspora in the country. His work was highly acclaimed and published in two books that are considered preliminary studying in Cambodia for students of Southeast Asian history. During this time, Willmott married Canadian national Pat Toby and they had a daughter, Nicole Diane, in 1964. Willmott’s first academic appointment was teaching anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This was during the Vietnam War when huge political unrest was commonplace. Given his rich knowledge and experience of Southeast Asia, Willmott became a leader in protests against the war. He often led big street and university demonstrations and offered public lectures each Friday to help people understand the background of the war. The lectures were held in student common rooms and attracted up to 1000 people. Willmott moved to New Zealand on sabbatical with his second wife, Anne, in 1971. He became a professor of sociology at the University of Canterbury three years later, and gained a reputation for being a compelling lecturer. He had a strong belief in giving time for teaching and, alongside Wolfgang Rosenberg, established the North Korea Friendship Society and led a delegation to North Korea in 1979. At that time Willmott was also chair of the Canterbury Civil Liberties Union and was very committed to that cause. In January 1985, Willmott married his third wife, Diana Madgin, in Christchurch. They remained together until his death. Willmott retired from his sociology role in 1998 and became a research associate in Pacific studies at the University of Canterbury’s Macmillan Brown Library, researching Chinese communities throughout the Pacific and Oceania. He ended this role in 2006. Despite leaving China when he was 17, the country remained close to Willmott’s heart. In 1989, Willmott became president of the NZCFS. He held the role for 10 years over two terms and led 14 tours to China. His work saw him honoured by the Chinese as an International Friendship Ambassador in 2002, and he was made a life member of the society that year too. He also chaired the Christchurch-Gansu Friendly Relations Committee for several years and in 1986, was appointed honorary professor of sociology at the University of Shanxi, and an honorary principal of the Shandan Bailie School in the Gansu Province. In 1998, he received the Rewi Alley Honorary Award for being a promoter of ‘‘Gung-Ho’’ Cooperatives (Chinese industrial cooperatives). In 2001, Willmott became a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to building New Zealand and China relations. Willmott’s role in building relations between China and Christchurch was also acknowledged when he received a Christchurch Civic Award in 2008. Willmott is survived by his wife Diana, a son, three daughters, and two step-daughters.