Farewell Message to H.E. Ambassador Chen Xiaodong

Since he came to the RSA in 2020, Ambassador Chen Xiaodong arrived at an opportune period to build on the impressive legacy of his able predecessors since South Africa and China rebuilt their relations, from 1998 onwards, and forge a strong bond of “comrades-plus-brothers” in their joint fight against past and present colonialism, racism, patriarchy, ecocide, and deglobalisation

South Africa - Pretoria - 27 October 2022. Chinese Ambassador Chen Xiaodong speaks to the media during the High-Level Dialogue on the 20th National Congress of the CPC. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Mar 5, 2024


Paul Tembe

In ordinary times, the departure of a member of the diplomatic corp goes without notice and mention in the host country. As befitting members of this old select profession, a self-effacing character is proverbial par for the course. This is more so in relation to the outgoing sixth Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the People's Republic of China (PRC) to the Republic of South Africa (RSA), His Excellency Ambassador Chen Xiaodong.

However, these are extraordinary times as the RSA joins the international community, in rebuilding lives and livelihoods wrecked after the cumulative devastation of the COVID-19 health and economic pandemic. This is more so when the world stands ready to join the PRC, working within the framework of the United Nations (UN), to halt the dogs of war in the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

These existential and colliding crises have underscored the importance, for humanity’s very survival, of consultation instead of confrontation, multipolarity instead of unipolarity, and win-win outcomes rather than a zero-sum game.

Since he came to the RSA in 2020, Ambassador Chen Xiaodong arrived at an opportune period to build on the impressive legacy of his able predecessors since South Africa and China rebuilt their relations, from 1998 onwards, and forge a strong bond of “comrades-plus-brothers” in their joint fight against past and present colonialism, racism, patriarchy, ecocide, and deglobalisation.

As a result, in the past four years, our countries have benefited from the stellar stewardship of Ambassador Chen in steering the ship of common development and shared trade relations based on mutual respect. Of course, the Ambassador’s links to the Republic of South Africa have a long track record since his early days and multiple trips to our shores, as the PRC’s Assistant Foreign Minister covering Africa.

His work has ensured that our respective countries metamorphose from ordinary country partnership, to strategic partnership and eventually to comprehensive strategic partnership. This was evident during the dark days in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

Lest we forget, the PRC’s support to RSA in fighting COVID-19 was arguably unparalleled by any other nation. For example, by August 2022 China had provided Africa and South Africa with 189 million vaccine doses, joint production of vaccines reached 400 million. China made available 1,000 medical experts who provided services on 250,000 clinical cases, conducted 30,000 operations, and trained 3,600 participants from the local healthcare communities. Such medical diplomacy need to be acknowledged highly.

What is the pragmatic purpose of this and why should one care at all?

First, the PRC is an invaluable partner for the RSA based on its incomparable achievements that the whole world is marveling and seeks to emulate. In recent years alone, China has managed to generate a notable per capita GDP of more than $12, 000 (R225 000) boosting its middle-income group of more than 400 million people. It has been able to maintain its position as the globe’s economic engine, the second-largest consumer market and amazingly, the world’s largest online retail market. Moreover, between 2000 and 2020, the PRC produced 60 million engineers.

Second, by 2021 alone, enterprises from the PRC had invested just well over US$25 billion into RSA. This investment has, in the process, gave birth in our country to over 400,000 jobs.

When Ambassador Chen is mentioned for his contributions in driving forward South Africa-China trade relations and in China-South Africa economic diplomacy, it is to highlight how that China remains our country’s largest trade partner for 13 years in succession and that South Africa has been China’s largest trading partner in the continent for 12 consecutive years. In the interim, this has produced tangible and measurable fruits in terms of skills transfer, reverse engineering, expertise sharing in areas of finance and energy sectors.

Third, in practical terms win-win outcomes were assured when it was announced in 2022 that our country’s exports to China had reached over US$33 billion. Encouragingly and despite the challenges of COVID-19, in 2021, our bilateral trade reached US$54 billion. Quite clearly there is a growing appetite for South African consumables in China since the latter is an important export market for our beef, citrus, wine, Rooibos tea and other consumables.

It is equally encouraging that Ambassador Chen has built on the programmes of stimulating local Chinese investments in home appliances like Huawei and Hisense, various minerals development enterprises and the automobile factory project of BAIC South Africa.

These bread-and-butter projects are reflection of great efforts at finding solutions that stand to add value to the mission of bettering the lives of all South Africans. In this sense, the legacy we can learn and impart from the PRC about modernisation and industrialisation is that they should be people-centred, based not on dogma but trial-and-error, based on local conditions, political will from executive leadership, and premised on primacy of implementation and even more steadfast implementation.

Fourth, the role of Ambassador Chen Xiaodong has been instrumental in the arena of ensuring international security to deal with internecine conflicts and working towards support of multilateral forums like the UN, AU, BRICS and FOCAC.

Why is it important, for Ambassador Chen and the PRC, to endeavour to work towards attainment of what he calls an “equal and orderly multipolar world and auniversally beneficial and inclusive economic globalization”?

Ambassador Chen offers several sensible reasons. Irrespective of its size, for the PRC, avoiding hegemonism and Cold War attitude is critical if we are to genuinely foster a democratic global order to solve a wave of conflicts from Ukraine, Gaza, Red Sea and emergent regional imbroglios on the African continent.

Working to forge an orderly multipolar world is realistic and realizable as the PRC has demonstrated in effectively negotiating the Saudi-Iran standoff. It is not far-off to achieve the same in conflict-ridden West Africa and in the age-old Palestine-Israel broedertwis.

Therefore, the departure of His Excellency Ambassador Chen Xiaodong represents a bittersweet moment. It is a departure of a brother and a friend, for all occasions, who exists our shores leaving a lasting legacy in his illustrious tour of duty. We will miss the Ambassador as he soars to even greater heights and as we continue to build joint communities of a shared future between the countries and peoples of South Africa and China.

TEMBE is a pragmatic sinologist and founder of SELE Encounters.