Panamanian politician blazes a trail for China ties
A Chinese-born Panamanian politician, who acted as a key intermediary for the China-Panama diplomatic relationship, is in many ways blazing a trail for that relationship.
Chen Guoji, advisor to Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, is a Panamanian official who still cares deeply for his country of birth.
During two years working at the Panama-China Trade Development Office, Chen devoted himself to promoting friendship between the two countries.
According to Chen, the two countries began negotiations on establishing diplomatic relations in 1994, and Varela expressed his wish to establish diplomatic ties with China about 10 years ago. Finally in June 13, 2017, the two countries established diplomatic relations.
Chen witnessed the entire process of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Panama, and accompanied the Panamanian foreign minister to sign the diplomatic memorandum with Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing.
“Seeing the two countries establishing diplomatic relations is seeing years of hard work and hope finally come true”, Chen said during a ceremony in January in Beijing honoring his work.
“When I look back at the moment when the two foreign ministers signed the memorandum and seeing the flags of the two countries rise together, I felt excited”, he added.
Chen accompanied the Panamanian president during his visit to China in November.
China and Panama signed 19 cooperation agreements during Varela’s visit, and the two countries’ trade ministers said in December that they will begin negotiations in June to sign a free-trade deal, consolidating a relationship that has strengthened after the Central American nation ditched ties with Taiwan.
Air China will open the first direct flights to Panama in March.
“Opening direct flights will make it convenient for those ethnic Chinese in Panama to come back to China and visit their families”, Chen said, adding that trade cooperation between the two countries will boost their businesses in Panama.
Panama could take advantage of its abundant resources, geographical position and experiences in shipping, logistics and finance to cooperate with China and the two countries are highly complementary in industry, he said.
“More and more Chinese enterprises will invest in Panama, and exchanges and cooperation in bilateral trade, culture and other fields will also become more frequent”, he said.
Originally from South China’s Guangdong province, Chen’s family immigrated to Panama when he was 16 years old.
He has been living and working in Panama for 36 years. Initially, he started working for the family business, and later began his own business career, engaging in retail, trade and real estate.
Although he is successful in business, he raised concerns about the local Chinese community in Panama over their lack of political involvement.
The ethnic Chinese community in Panama began to form in the latter half of the 19th century after a group of 705 Chinese workers arrived in Panama on the clipper Sea
Witch in 1854. They have had a presence in the country for more than 160 years, and about 200,000 live there now.
The Chinese who came to Panama in the early years worked as laborers, repaired railways and built the famous canal. Gradually, they started their own businesses.
Their dedication, hard work and ambition have seen many Panamanians of Chinese origin reach influential positions as successful entrepreneurs and professionals, and they have contributed greatly to the economic, cultural, social and technological development of Panama.
In 1996, the Panamanian government issued a set of postage stamps to mark the contribution of those with Chinese heritage. In 2004, the government set aside March 30 as an annual day of commemoration.
However, most ethnic Chinese, despite their commercial success, stay clear of political involvement.
“In many other countries, those of Chinese ethnicity are involved with politics”, Chen said, adding that their lack of involvement may hinder their community’s development.
With the intention of “making a voice for the Chinese community,” Chen started his political career in 2005 and joined the Panameñistas Party led by Varela.
In the following years, he and Varela have been working together. in 2014, Varela won the presidential election and Chen became one of his key advisors.
Since then, Chen has been dedicated to championing the interests and status of ethnic Chinese.
In 2016, as a member of Panama’s National Ethnic Chinese Council, Chen and other ethnic Chinese members lobbied the government to issue a special administrative order, to provide longterm legal residency for Chinese citizens who stayed in the country illegally for various reasons.
Chen Guoji, advisor to the Panamanian president, has been at the forefront of China-Panama ties.