China-africa Relations: New and Improved “All-weather Friendship”
New and Improved “All-weather Friendship”
From director-general of the Department of African Affairs in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Chinese ambassador to Mali and Morocco, Cheng Tao has dedicated over 30 years of his career to Africa. After his retirement, he opted out of the easy life in favor of continued engagement with diplomatic work. Consecutively, he served as vice president of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, director of the China International Studies Foundation, director of the African Research Center, and standing director of the Roundtable Conference on China-africa Cooperation. He believes all his efforts work in concert with Chinese and African government diplomacy, strengthening people-to-people exchange between the two sides. In addition, such positions provide a stage for Cheng to express his affection for Africa and make his contributions to China-africa cooperation.
Today, he remains an active propeller for China-africa communication. From time to time, Cheng Tao receives phone calls to discuss new Africa-related meetings, projects and lectures with various agencies. “I just work earnestly and diligently,” he says. “There is nothing magnificent about me. I did not write a very bold period, but I wrote it neatly.”
“Ambassador to Africa”
In 1981, Cheng was working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China when he was dispatched to Gabon. This was the first time that he set foot on the African continent.
In those days, most Chinese people were still unfamiliar with Africa, and considered it a remote, mysterious and even undeveloped continent. When Africa was mentioned, people thought of negative traits such as “hot climate, rampant mosquitoes and flies, and diseases.” In fact, as early as 1982, Gabon’s per capita annual income exceeded US$3,000, much higher than that of China, which stayed at only US$194 back then. People in Gabon lived in comfort and happiness. Therefore, Cheng’s first impression of Africa was very positive.
In his subsequent days as a diplomat, Cheng visited more than 40 African countries. Because he dealt with African affairs yearround, he became known as the “ambassador to Africa.” Over the years, he found Africa not entirely consistent with his original impression. Africa, he saw, is rich in resources and has a promising future. He was most impressed by five African countries: South Africa in the south of the continent, Morocco in the north, Mauritius in the east, Senegal in the west and Gabon in the middle.
Cheng noted that no one can forget South Africa. “South Africa’s economic output was the highest in Africa for quite a long time,” he explained. “The main reasons are that its policies align with its national conditions, and political stability and peaceful coexistence of all ethnic groups add to its charm.
South Africa is also rich in natural resources and diverse in external relations.”
“One time, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Africa, I led a delegation of 60 Chinese entrepreneurs to South Africa,” he recalled. “Unlike what most of those entrepreneurs expected of Africa, we didn’t see trash or graffiti anywhere in the streets. One day, pouring rain and lightning knocked out the traffic lights. But even without signals, traffic still flowed smoothly. We were all stunned by the scene.”
Morocco is a colorful country. Cheng likens it to a big tree. “It is deeply rooted in the land of Africa and absorbs its nutrients,” he illustrated. “However, its branches and leaves are bathed in the Arab sunshine and it breathes fresh air from Europe. It rests in Africa, but unlike a typical African country. It doesn’t grow in Europe, but is similar to a European country.” Morocco is an Arab country, but more open and democratic than its peers. About 90 percent of Morocco’s nationals are Muslims, but they live in harmony with Jews and Christians. During foreign National Day receptions in Morocco, pork products and sausages can be served. “But they must add a picture of a pig on pork products to warn Muslims.”
Mark Twain once said, “Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius.” Mauritius is often referred to as “Paradise Island.” Senegal is a small country with an area of about 200,000 square kilometers, but it is highly civilized. The World Bank’s World Development Report 2018 ranked Senegal as one of the most successful reform models in Africa.
China-africa Relations: Stable and Growing
Sino-african cooperation has a long history and a solid foundation. In the 1960s, many African countries sought independence from European colonialism. Nations were becoming liberated and the people demanded revolution. In response to this trend, China chose to support African countries. “The Chinese people who stood up never forgot the African people who had yet to stand.” Cheng said. “China wanted to help pull them up, and that is exactly what we did.” China has provided a great deal of assistance to Africa in political, economic and even military realms, helping many countries on the continent achieve national independence and shake off the chains of colonization.
“Through its aid to the continent, China has won trust from African countries and consolidated its friendship with Africa. It is precisely because of the unity of developing countries that China was freed from imperialist blockade, embargo and isolation. On October 25, 1971, the African people ‘carried’ China into the United Nations. Since then, Africa has also strongly supported China in many
relevant international affairs.”
Over the years, China- Africa cooperation has developed rapidly and achieved remarkable results. Cheng remarked that in recent years, if the relationship between the two sides changes, it will always be for the better. China has been Africa’s largest trading partner for eight consecutive years. In 2000, Sino- African trade amounted to more than US$10 billion, and the figure jumped to US$170 billion in 2017, an increase of nearly 20 times in 18 years. In 2000, China’s investment in Africa amounted to US$ 1 billion, and the latest data shows that the number is now over US$100 billion and has increased more than 100 fold.
At the Johannesburg Summit of the Forum on China-africa Cooperation in 2015, China- Africa relations were further upgraded by proposals declaring that China and Africa should seek “equality and mutual trust in politics, win- win cooperation in economy, mutual learning in civilization, mutual assistance in security and unity and coordination in international affairs.” This is a comprehensive strategic partnership. “We are not only a community of shared interests— we must closely establish a community of shared future between China and Africa,” insisted Cheng. “That’s the way it used to be and how it will be in the future.”
New Era, New Demands
Among various development concepts around the world, China and Africa share similar views and aspirations. Cheng cited the African proverb that “it is better to teach man to fish than to give him a fish.” This is exactly the same as the Chinese saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Africa now yearns for industrialization and agricultural modernization. African countries hope to learn from China’s development experience and jointly explore development paths in line with national conditions. Cheng believes that in this regard, Sino- African cooperation will become a new highlight.
Cheng opined that the development experience gained by any country should be wealth shared by human society. “The Chinese people who have stood up should pull up their brothers and help Africa stand up. We are getting rich and are willing to help Africa get rich. We are getting stronger, and we hope that African countries will also become stronger. This is the real heart of building a community of shared future.”
Xi Jinping’s report to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China pointed out that “the basic dimension of the Chinese context—that our country is still and will long remain in the primary stage of socialism—has not changed” and that “China’s international status as the world’s largest developing country has not changed.” Cheng Tao remarked, “China is still a developing country, and we are a community of shared interests with Africa. Internationally, we need to speak with one voice. Although a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China remains a developing country. China is still firmly committed to safeguarding the interests of developing countries as it emerges as a major power, and Africa’s support has played an irreplaceable and positive role in amplifying voices from developing countries in the international community.”
The current international situation has undergone profound changes, and trade protectionism and unilateralism are prevailing. In this context, Africa is an indispensable partner of China. “Not everyone in the world is self-centered and pursuing a zero-sum game,” Cheng asserted. “China and Africa are promoting the concept of win-win cooperation, and slowly winning understanding and acceptance from the world. Our common goal is to build a harmonious and beautiful society.”
Rainbow over Cape Town, South Africa. South Africa is one of the most industrialized countries in Africa and an upper-middle-income economy according to the World Bank. VCG
Cheng Tao with local children in Morocco. The Moroccan children show great affection for China.
A beach near Tamarin Bay, Mauritius. Over the past 30 years, Mauritius has developed from a low-income economy based on agriculture to a middle-income diversified economy. Much of its economic growth has been the result of the expansion of the luxury tourism sector. VCG
Cheng Tao speaking at the First Senior Officials Meeting of the Forum on China-africa Cooperation on November 25, 2002.
Then-chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi (left) awards Cheng Tao for his outstanding work as a diplomat.