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Zhong Jianhua: China’s OBOR and its Implications for Sino-African Relations

On April 5, 2017, Emory University, in conjunction with the Atlanta Confucius Institute and the Emory Institute for Developing Nations and the Halle Institute, hosted Zhong Jianhua, the former Chinese Ambassador to South Africa and the former Special Representative on African Affairs of the Chinese Government, to speak about the One Belt One Road initiative. Peppered through with anecdotes from his time spent within the Chinese political apparatus, what occurred was a conversation about the new wave of Chinese globalism that has begun to emerge in Africa. Consisting of five economic corridors over land and sea, OBOR aims to connect 65 countries with a population of 4.4 billion people who have a gross annual GDP of USD$23 trillion. In Africa, the level of Chinese investment has grown exponentially in the last 15 years. In 2016, China pledged to invest USD$60 billion specifically in African infrastructure projects.

The Ambassador worked hard to present the issue in a way that highlighted the Chinese perspective, citing that China does not forget the support of African countries for the PRC’s ascension to the U.N. Security Council. It was not so long ago the Ambassador recalled that the now second largest economy in the world was little more than a developing neighbor to the Soviet Union. Taking his post in 1977 two years before Deng Xiaoping’s famous Reform and Opening Up, Zhong witnessed this transformation firsthand. Through this, he describes the beauty and struggle that comes with development, and the plethora of lessons gained because of it.  In his mind, China wants to lend their experiences to other developing nations, to help when asked, and bring what they can to the international stage.

On the other hand, he identified that often these relationships are transactional: nothing is free.  Drawing from the Chinese saying “I develop, you profit” (我发展,你发财), Zhong elaborates on the concept of “win-win” engagement, or mutually beneficial relationships that China aims to deliver. When asked a question from the audience about whether the quality of Chinese goods coming into Liberia was an issue, Zhong explained that by coming into markets the Chinese are breaking cycles of poverty. Cheap textiles for example make it easier for locals to purchase new goods, and canned food allows people to eat. People don’t like inferior goods, and will not purchase them; markets will naturally react and poor quality products will not be sold. In so being, the issue will correct itself and uplift all those involved.

One thing that was emphasized by the former Special Envoy was the idea that programs need to be initiated for and led by those countries they directly involve. Since 1956, China has adhered to the principle of noninterference. There is no cookie cutter solution to conflict, and in his former position the Ambassador learned this quite well. Being directly involved in the peace process after the civil war erupted in South Sudan, he spoke about the necessity for contextualization, and the need for conflicts to be handled through local, culturally-appropriate means. Put simply, you cannot ask for people to abandon their ways, nor can you ask people to forget their history. Peace and development can only be secured when all parties are on board and all have something to gain.

By way of conclusion, Amb. Zhong suggested that we are sitting on a precipice of change. As One Belt One Road continues to expand and the Chinese method seems to be taking root, countries no longer want to deal with a West that will try and oust their leaders and change their ways. Rather all parties should seek a compromise, a “win-win” solution for all parties involved. If countries like the U.S. and China wish to help, they will have to do so understanding that they can only offer help – it is up to the other if they wish to take it.

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