Malawi’s newly established diplomatic relations with China have hit a snag after a Chinese envoy called Malawians beggars – a statement that angered the government. Voice of America English to Africa Service’s Lameck Masina in Blantyre reports that two months after Malawi and China established diplomatic ties, public resentment is brewing towards the Asian economic power. The Chinese envoy to Malawi is quoted as saying his office is tired of too many individuals, non-governmental organizations and government departments thronging its offices with begging bowls. Envoy Fan Guijin allegedly made the remark while talking with reporters.
A local daily newspaper, The Nation, quoted the envoy as saying Malawians should give his office breathing space because China is not the richest country in the world and is not a miracle worker that can assist in every sphere of development. The Chinese envoy also said Malawians should stop relying on donor money because no country has developed with foreign aid.
The remarks did not go down well with Malawians. Government spokesperson Patricia Kaliati told the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation that Guijin has a right to complain but should learn to lodge complaints through proper channels, “If they are finding problems beyond their control, they are supposed to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and he knows what diplomacy is all about. Yes, the media is part and parcel of government, but he is not supposed to address his problems using the media. I don’t think this is [proper]. And also if the minister of sports went there [to seek funding], it’s not an issue that he should to cite as an example. We have been going in different embassies finding out; can they do this, can they do this; is that an issue that one can raise in the papers?”
Kaliati asked the Chinese envoy to respect Malawi, even though it is poor. “Yes, we are poor in one way or another; they are entitled with due respect to their opinion, but they also got to know that as (the) Malawi government we’ve also got the right to be respected. Though poor, we have resources.”
Malawians also expressed their indignation through public gatherings, local radio phone-in programs and the opinion pages of big newspapers.
Guijin publicly dismissed the reports. He spoke to reporters a few days after his remarks were published. He said, “Reading this report I was shocked. Let me stress the following, we are ready to assist Malawi to the best of our ability. And I believe that there are quite a lot of what we can do here [but] let us concentrate on top priority and then we will move forward step by step. We cannot possibly deal with all problems at the same time. This is what I told [the reporter from The Nation.].”
But the Chinese envoy did acknowledge saying that Malawians should stop relying on donor money. “No country in the world can develop itself through foreign aid. This is a fact. To develop your economy is your job you have to do it yourselves.”
The envoy said he suspects the story was written under the influence of the Taiwanese government. He alleged that Taiwan is sponsoring opposition political parties in Malawi to unseat president Bingu wa Mutharika in the 2009 elections. But the opposition described the statement as rubbish and asked China to stay away from internal politics.
Commentators say the development was a bad start for relations between Malawi and China.
Rafik Hajat is the executive director of the independent Institute for Policy Interaction, a research-driven advocacy group specializing in democratic consolidation and social justice. He told VOA that China is not a friend Malawi can rely upon and trust,“We closed the door on a true friend and we opened the door on perhaps someone who is not a true friend and my question is: What do these people want in Malawi after all these years?”
Malawi established diplomatic relations with China in December 2007, ending 42 years of diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The move was announced in January by Minister of Affairs, Joyce Banda. She told reporters that Malawi had decided to establish ties with China because Malawi would probably gain considerable economic benefits.
China promised to fund some major projects started by Taiwan, such as the construction of a sports stadium
But commentators had warned Malawi in advance to tread carefully with China. They pointed to complaints from citizens of other countries, including Namibia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia, saying Chinese traders have flooded the market with cheap goods and pushed out local traders.
In Zambia, one of the African countries with longstanding relations with China, resentment towards Chinese business-people is widespread.
Low-paid Zambian workers employed by Chinese businesses complain of poor working conditions. Earlier this month, the Chinese managers of Chambishi Copper Smelter reinstated about 500 striking workers they had fired for striking and rioting over pay and working conditions. In re-hiring the workers the managers were responding to pressure from the National Union of Allied Workers.
China denies that it mistreats workers or drives small African entrepreneurs out of business. It says it’s trying to provide inexpensive consumer goods that many people could not otherwise afford.