The occasion to celebrate the 66th anniversary since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, held Thursday evening at the Chinese Embassy in Kigali, was a suited affair of diplomats whose voices were raised in a friendly way above the noise of the clinking Champagne glasses.
China was established on October 1, 1949 by Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, but ‘it’s okay in Chinese tradition to hold celebrations a few days earlier but not after,’ an embassy official explained when asked by Sunday Times why the event was held on September 25.
Everyone from the diplomatic community in Kigali was represented; Géraldine Mukeshimana, Minister of Agriculture and Animal husbandry, was there on behalf of the government and she delivered a message on behalf of President Paul Kagame who’s currently in New York.
“The Rwanda-China relations are in good health and I am glad to say China is one of the most reliable partners we have,” said Minister Mukeshimana before proposing a toast to good sustained bilateral relations between the two countries.
Everyone cheered and toasted, for the second time that evening, in the reception hall dominated by black suits and beaming red decorations hanging over the wide walls; red is the official colour of the Chinese Communist party.
The first toast had been proposed by Ambassador Shen Yongxiang at the climax of his speech in which he talked about China’s achievements in the last 66 years and more specifically, lauded the warm Sino-Rwanda relations.
“Since establishment of diplomatic relations, the friendly cooperation between China and Rwanda has blossomed…in 2014, bilateral trade between the two countries was US$207 million,” said Amb.Yongxiang.
From the Masaka-Kabuga road, to the 58 water wells around the country, an agricultural demonstration centre in Huye and a technical and vocational school in Northern Province, the impact of Chinese development assistance to Rwanda can be seen and felt in many sectors.
This year, several high profile Rwanda cabinet members including ministers of foreign affairs and cooperation, infrastructure, education and the state minister for TVETs have all visited China on various official missions related to their respective ministries.
In a few weeks, China will send another envoy to Rwanda to replace Ambassador Shen who is nearing retirement; he has been in the country for close to three years during which he has overseen major projects that have helped to maintain cordial relations between the two nations.
Minister Mukeshimana, in her speech, commended Ambassador Shen’s work in Rwanda which has helped further and maintain China’s commitment to South–South Cooperation.
South–South Cooperation is used historically to describe exchange of resources, technology, and knowledge between developing countries, which are also known in international relations as ‘countries of the global South.’
In an exclusive interview with Sunday Times, early last year, Ambassador Shen reflected on how China could assist Rwanda to boost exports and manufacturing; he noted that Rwandan tea, for example, was of great quality and Chinese people have enormous appetite for tea.
“However, Chinese consumers are not accustomed to tea from Rwanda but if Chinese companies could establish tea factories here and produce according to Chinese customers’ preference, Rwandan tea exports to China could rise,” Amb Shen said then.
He also reflected on China’s experience in manufacturing and Rwanda’s abundant human labour and said; “we could well combine our respective advantages by encouraging Chinese manufacturers to start plants in Rwanda and export products to other countries or the region.”
All these are opportunities for the two countries to explore to further cement bilateral ties. Currently, in a bid to boost Rwanda’s nascent export sector, China extends duty-free treatment to 95 percent of Rwandan products in the Chinese market.
China and the world
The establishment of China as a one party communist state with a socialist economic model inspired isolation from the rest of the world led by United States, the de-facto global leader of democratic states with free market economies. But that was 66 years ago.
On Thursday, US ambassador to Rwanda Erica J. Barks-Ruggles was one of many other envoys who graced the occasion, pointing to the success of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and opening up policy which introduced China to the world where it now holds a leadership role.
The guests were served tasty Chinese foods and a cocktail of Chinese and western wines and spirits on display which carried an important symbolism.
Incidentally, as Chinese embassies around the world celebrated the 66th anniversary, President Xi Jinping was on an historical state visit to Washington where he discussed various topics of global importance with his host US President Barrack Obama.
Obama himself has been to Beijing before where he has rallied the leader of the now second largest economy to provide leadership on global issues such as climate change and cyber crime.
Amb Shen made mention of the need to allow ‘African solutions for African problems’ to prevail which emphasized the principle that has shaped China’s foreign policy on Africa, ‘non-interventionist and win-win partnerships.’
China’s favorable policy on Africa has encouraged a shift in recent decades, towards the east from the west where donor countries gave long lists of mostly undesirable conditionalities to countries that have sought to get development aid to build economies.
But to many China critics, its policy on Africa is aimed at caressing the mineral and resource rich continent into sleep to give way for Chinese businessmen to make off with raw materials to fuel their hungry home industries whose products return to Africa in form of imports.
Chinese leaders deny those allegations and have concentrated in recent times on further cementing what Premier Li Keqiang described on his recent visit to Kenya, as ‘building brotherly partnerships’ with Africa.
Those partnerships can be seen in China’s pledge to fund East Africa’s multi-billion dollar standard gauge railway aimed at facilitating trade within the region and to create jobs to fight poverty.
Elsewhere in Africa, there are at least 2500 direct Chinese investments that have invested over US$30 billion on the continent, according to Amb Shen.
Benjamin Gasamagera, the chairman of the Rwanda Private Sector Federation, who speaks fluent Mandarin, believes language can unlock the true potential of China-Africa relations; if more people can speak Chinese, it would bridge the gap often filled by translators.
These and many others could be topics for discussion as African and Chinese leaders meet this December at the summit of the China-Africa cooperation forum to be held in South Africa.