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Through Chinese eyes: He Wenping (part 3)

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2 December 2011 09:09

Armed with your questions, Peter Martin and David Cohen from Sinocentric speak to the Director of African Studies at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, He Wenping. Part 1 here; part 2 here.

Frances: How does China view its relationship with and approach to Libya now? How have China's relationships with North African countries changed since the Arab Spring?

He: I think our relations with post-Qadhafi Libya are back to the normal track. Some people say that because China did not support the bombing, maybe our interests will be hurt. But China couldn't — you cannot imagine China would support any bombing. It's against our principles. I think because we were neutral at the very beginning, once things became clear, and we knew that even the people in Tripoli supported the NTC (National Transitional Council), there was no reason for China not to support the NTC, and then we recognised the NTC and give them assistance.

And also we got the promise guaranteed from NTC as well, they promised all those deals we have signed with the previous administration will be guaranteed. Those deals, those contracts, are all good for the people themselves. The house-building is almost finished, which is houses for the people, not palaces, not parliament buildings. So all those contracts, some half-finished, some maybe 80% finished, if they are continued I think it is a good thing for the Libyan people. Actually, you know, our contact with the NTC was not so late. At that time Qadhafi was still in charge of all of Tripoli, and we made contact with NTC, we even invited key members of the NTC to Beijing.

Even some of our private companies like Huawei were doing business in Benghazi. Without Huawei's contribution, the NTC could not have had very good communications. Now they are trying to organise the new coalition government. If security can be guaranteed, I think Chinese workers will return to continue their work. And also I think there will be new contracts, because the war caused lots of damage. I don't think its good policy to say, who helped me, I will give so many shares to them — I think a transparent, open system is good for the people of Libya themselves. And I see no reason Chinese oil companies will not join the bidding.

Hillel: How is China navigating through its principle of non-interference in domestic affairs of other conflicts when dealing with African countries? Is China solely relying on the governments in power or does it make exceptions in cases where power is fragmented due to ethnic/civil war?

He: I read a recent speech by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and he said this policy is not only a part of the past, but also the present, and it will remain long into the future. I don't think non-interference is a stubborn or outdated policy — actually I think it is very flexible. Obviously, in the era of globalisation, it is very hard to say what is domestic and what is global. I do think we need to have some kind of definition of domestic and international, maybe when a conflict has been escalated to such an extent, that it is time for all responsible parties to step in. So when a conflict is beginning, we push diplomatic means. But if the case has been escalated to a very high level, then all the international organisations, especially the UN, and the regional and subregional organisations, they know things better. If you pay a close watch, when they make decisions we never say no. The decision made by the Arab League about Libya, even Russia said was not so suitable, but our foreign ministry spokesman has never said so.

Hillel: How would you assess China's capacity to serve as mediator or honest broker in inter-state and ethnic and civil war on the African continent? Is there a room for China to serve as an unique mediator or is China bound to work only as a supporter of United Nations/African Union peacemaking endeavors?

He: Well, we have some capacity, because normally our stance is quite neutral. For example in the Libya case, we never said we support Qadhafi — there were no weapons there, no special forces, no material support. So this neutral stance can offer us some advantage to be a negotiator or mediator, but otherwise if you are fully behind some party, then the role of being a mediator is quite different. But I think we also have quite a lot of disadvantages, because the non-interference policy constrains us. If we want to do some interference, it will be a very positive interference. I think bombing is a very negative interference, and in Libya once the opposition parties felt that they had very strong backup, it made negotiation difficult.

And then there's intelligence — the US, Canada, and other countries have lots of people in those zones, both civil society and even intelligence agents, so if the opposition party has organised a committee, they know who they are. But we have no idea, we do not have the information. So we have that potential capability, but non-intervention makes it hard to get information on the ground, so the two are like the chicken and the egg.

Matthew: To what extent are Chinese SOEs interested in partnering with other countries in Africa, for example using Australian technology and skills in their projects (given that in excess of 200 Australian companies are already active in Africa, according to DFAT)?

He: I think of course, the longer they are based in Africa, the more willing they'll be to cooperate with other partners, especially with big multinational companies. For example, last year I spent half a month doing interviews with Chinese companies in Uganda and I asked them why you are interested to join workshops with Norwegian companies? And they said they thought they could learn advanced management skills, and advanced technical knowledge from the Norwegian companies, because the Norwegian companies had been based there for many years. But so far, we have not seen so much cooperation in reality. In part, because China's experience in Africa is not so compatible with Australian or US companies, and also because of the area they are in — the majority are in infrastructure. I think they have the willingness.

Pete and David: How have popular impressions of Africans in China changed recently?

He: If I talk to a taxi driver, or sometimes my students, still of course they think Africa is a poorer continent with a lot of conflicts. When the news reports on Africa it is always the bad stories — war, refugees, AIDS. But the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation, especially when it was in Beijing in 2006, that summit has been like a big PR campaign for Africa in China. When it was in Beijing there was decoration everywhere, all the streets were decorated with African scenery — giraffes, elephants, and so on. So that served as a public education about Africa for Chinese people. So I think people now, even though there are lots of conflicts, people think there is lots of potential there. Otherwise you cannot explain why so many businesspeople rush there.

Pete and David: What about racism?

He: Of course, I think this prejudice does exist. Even my very close friend mentioned to me, his son is studying the in US, and he said that if he marries a white girl, that's all right, but not if he marries a black girl. So it does exist. But I think you know, China is not a mixed pot like the United States, because the US is a society with many people coming from different parts of the world, and there are many African-Americans. But China was historically a very closed society. Now, at least in Guangzhou, quite a lot of Africans are there. So it's gradual, but I think now we are in the process of becoming more globalised.

Photo by Flickr user DavidKenny.

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