OBITUARY: William Edward Willmott, known as Bill, had a longstanding affinity with China.
The famous scholar and long-time president of the New Zealand China Friendship Society (NZCFS) dedicated his life to improving Kiwi-China relations and was considered in some circles to be one of New Zealand’s leading experts. from China.
Friend and current NZCFS National President Dave Bromwich said the respect that Willmott has earned through his work with his various organizations allows the company to hold certain privileges that are “the envy of friendship organizations. ‘other countries”.
“I owe where I am and the privilege of the commitments that I have had at my disposal … to the opportunities that have given me [Willmott] provided either directly to me or through the company.
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Willmott was considered a leading expert on China, both in New Zealand and in China, which earned him a lot of respect, Bromwich said.
He also became a “linchpin” supporting the legacy of Rewi Alley, the Kiwi writer and political activist who founded the company and dedicated 60 years of his life to the Chinese Communist Party.
Willmott has always focused on building and strengthening relationships with China, while trying to educate others about the country, Bromwich said.
Willmott never shied away from expressing his opinions or criticizing opposing views, but he always did so with respect.
“He approached him intelligently, impartially and with a high level of academic credibility, he just presented it clearly and cleanly without engaging in any personal attack.”
Willmott touched many people throughout his life and it was supported by a wave of respect and condolences from many Chinese friends and colleagues since his death, Bromwich said.
The esteemed academic died on October 12, at the age of 89.
Willmott was born to Earl and Katherine Willmott in Chengdu, western China on February 7, 1932.
Her parents were both educational missionaries of 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 Sichuan dialect. The family went on sabbatical before he started school, traveling to Europe for a year.
When they returned to China in 1937, Willmott had to start his studies in Kobe, Japan because the family was arrested during a Japanese blockade on the Yangtze River.
Meanwhile, until the mid-1930s, Japan had invaded China and a protracted and vicious war ensued. Inflation was so severe in China in 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 transported in a Douglas DC-3 – before having pressurized cabins – from Chongqing to the new school.
After completing her studies, Willmott followed her older sisters to attend Oberlin College, a famous liberal arts college in Ohio.
He obtained 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 of Inukjuak in northern Quebec in 1958. His study time focused on the living conditions of the Inuit and the enormous problem of tuberculosis (a potentially serious infectious bacterial disease that affects mainly the lungs), which was rampant at the time.
Willmott continued his academic journey and obtained a doctorate in social anthropology from the London School of Economics in 1964. His research consisted of spending a year in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, where he analyzed the Chinese diaspora in the country. .
His work has been widely acclaimed and published in two books which are considered preliminary studies 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 position was teaching anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. It was during the Vietnam War when huge political unrest was rife. Given his rich knowledge and experience of Southeast Asia, Willmott became a leader in anti-war protests.
He often led large protests in the streets and at the university and offered public lectures every Friday to help people understand the context of the war. The lectures were held in the 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 professor of sociology at the University of Canterbury three years later and gained a reputation as a compelling speaker.
He was a firm believer in teaching time 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 president of Canterbury Civil Liberties Union and was very committed to this cause.
In January 1985, Willmott married his third wife, Madgin, in Christchurch. They stayed together until his death.
Willmott retired from his post as a sociologist in 1998 and became an associate researcher in Pacific studies at the Macmillan Brown Library at the University of Canterbury, studying Chinese communities in the Pacific and Oceania. He ended this role in 2006.
Although he left China at the age of 17, the country has remained close to Willmott’s heart.
In 1989, Willmott became president of the NZCFS. He held the position for 10 years over two terms and led 14 tours in China. His work saw him honored by the Chinese as an international friendship ambassador in 2002, and he was also made a life member of the society that year.
He also chaired the Christchurch-Gansu Friendship Relations Committee for several years, and in 1986 was appointed Honorary Professor of Sociology at Shanxi University and Honorary Director of Shandan Bailie School in Gansu Province.
In 1998, he received the Rewi Alley Honorary Award for having been a promoter of “Gung-Ho” cooperatives (Chinese industrial cooperatives).
In 2001 Willmott was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for service in building New Zealand-China relations.
Willmott’s role in establishing relations between China and Christchurch was also recognized when he received a Christchurch Civic Award in 2008.
Willmott is survived by his wife Diana, one son, three daughters and two daughters-in-law.