For Shanghai Pengxin, the purchase was an opportunity to expand its fledgling farming interests. Among those who can afford it, baby formula made with New Zealand milk is highly valued in China because it is seen as pure, particularly in light of the melamine scandal.
Shanghai Pengxin spokesman Cedric Allan says he and the company were taken by surprise at the nationwide outcry.
"There was no significant Chinese investment in New Zealand farms before, so that was a first. And the size of China makes people more apprehensive than they are about other countries," he said. "There was also an emotional campaign run against the purchase, the likes of which I haven't seen before. I guess in times of financial uncertainty, people say 'Heavens. Should we really be selling farms overseas?'"
Edward Moana-Emery spent five weeks this year camped on one of the farms in protest before he was arrested by police. Standing outside his tribe's "wharenui," or meeting house, he summons the spirits of his Maori ancestors. He says his tribe — the Ngati Rereahu — wants to buy back two of the farms, because they hold special historical significance and were improperly taken away by British settlers.
China should understand the significance of losing land, because Hong Kong was taken by the British, he says. "They gave Hong Kong back to you Chinese. You fellows had all the celebrations. How do you think we feel? Because we have lost the land for 126 years."
Allan says the company is willing to meet with the tribe about the two farms, but "whether they get a deal depends on whether it works for us and them. As an overseas investor, it's very hard to buy farms, and we don't sell them lightly."
In Argentina, a town in Rio Negro province prevented a Chinese company from signing a 30-year lease for nearly 800,000 acres of farmland on the grounds that agriculture on that scale would interfere with traditional cattle-raising in an area steeped in the gaucho, or cowboy, myth. The order blocking the lease said the deal would have forced the local people to watch their history and tradition "flow as if draining the blood from our soil for the destined ports of others."
Still, many farmers in New Zealand are acutely aware of the importance of China, which has become by far the largest buyer of the country's dairy products.
Over the past decade, New Zealand's trade with China has more than doubled as a percentage of GDP, and China has overtaken the U.S. as New Zealand's second-largest export market after Australia.
"The whole question of foreign investment is always an emotional one," says Brian Hanna, the mayor of Te Kuiti, another Waikato town, and a farmer himself. "I think land is important. But we can't have our cake and eat it. We need overseas investment and we are not big enough to sustain our own economy at the moment."
Around the globe, there remains a more existential fear: that China is buying up farmland to ensure food supply for its 1.3 billion people. But Xu Jianguo, China's ambassador to New Zealand, says Chinese investors simply see a market opportunity.
In fact, he says China's strategy is quite the opposite. No other country would have the ability to feed China in a food crisis, he says, and any dependence on other countries could be used as a weapon against China.
"With the improvement of Chinese people's living standards and welfare, we do have high-end consuming needs," Xu says. "Yes, we do import a lot of red wines from France and dairy products from New Zealand. But that volume compared to the total needs of the Chinese market is ... "
He laughs, trying to find the English language analogy to describe something so tiny.
Perry reported from the Waikato region in New Zealand. Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong, Jack Chang in Mexico City, Joe McDonald in Beijing, Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Alan Clendenning in Madrid contributed.