China’s Ambassador Chen signs off with a bang as he bids farewell to his ‘2nd home’

Chinese Ambassador Chen Xiaodong. Picture: File/Oupa Mokoena/Independent Newspapers

Chinese Ambassador Chen Xiaodong. Picture: File/Oupa Mokoena/Independent Newspapers

Published Mar 10, 2024


“All good things,” so the saying goes, “must come to the end.” Paraphrased, if you will, I’d say, in the case of the outgoing top envoy of China to South Africa, Ambassador Chen Xiaodong: It was so good it had to come to the end.

A large number of top government ministers and officials, particularly from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) bore testimony to the highest regard with which Chen is held in a country that has been his home over nearly the past four years.

He was China’s sixth ambassador to SA since the establishment by Nelson Mandela of diplomatic ties 25 years ago.

Having started his work in SA on September 23rd, 2020, Chen has practically worked a total 1 230 days as a China’s top envoy.

Chen’s posting to a country regarded as a gateway to Africa was characterised by global hiccups in the form of the outbreak of the global pandemic, Covid-19.

An unprecedented phenomenon in modern history, Covid-19 cast the entire international community into a series of new norms.

Of particular observation was a spate of lockdowns over extended period of time, where families and communities were quarantined in the privacy of their spaces in an endeavour to minimise the spread of Covid-19.

Despite the sudden hindrance to his diplomatic mission, Chen continued to lead his embassy staff into a series of virtual engagements with critical stakeholders. He spread China’s foreign policy across the length and breadth of South Africa like gospel.

He championed cooperation with various government departments and civil society groupings in SA, thereby ensuring that the presence of programmes of the People’s Republic of China featured in the national media platforms as well as social media.

And Covid-19 restrictions were lifted; Chen accelerated his stakeholder management with vigour and determination. He held strategic events at the HQ of the Embassy of China in SA in Arcadia in the capital city of Pretoria.

In regular attendance would SA government ministers pursuing the country’s programmes of collaboration, geopolitical scholars and commentators, local and international media, members of the Diplomatic Corps and a noticeable presence of the Chinese community in SA.

Throughout his tenure as China’s public face in SA, Chen led from the front with humility and wisdom. A rather shy character at face value, he nonetheless was remarkably deeply engaging once he started going.

He had a distinctly Chinese accent and a soft voice through which he articulated his country’s mission in SA and the continent, particularly the flagship project better known as the Road and Belt Initiative.

At a personal level Chen was warm and knowledgeable about geopolitical current affairs. He rolled up his sleeves when explaining China’s position on any issue, particularly on unilateralism.

China, Chen would constantly argue, believes in the international rule of law and multipolar-led global architecture. Like Beijing and the Communist Party of China (CPC), Chen spoke frequently about the UN Charter that places great emphasis on the respect for international law.

China’s foreign policy framework also espouses the notion of “shared prosperity”, believing in a win-win approach and outcome in all their mutually beneficial engagements.

Chen is set to leave SA at the end of March, having served with diligence and distinction.

The large number of government ministers and public figures that attended Chen’s farewell reception were a testament of his legacy, a legacy he built brick-by-brick determined to improve the lives of the less-fortunate especially across black living areas of SA, where unemployment and inequality pose a strong threat to the country’s democratic project.

Among members of the SA’s Executive who attended Chen’s farewell was Ministers Kgosientsho Ramokgopa (Electricity), with whom the embassy managed to sign an energy deal aimed to alleviating SA’s electricity crisis.

Also present was Minister of Tourism, Patricia De Lille, who has become a good friend of China and had worked with Chen on moves to establish visa waiver arrangement for the citizens of both countries amid blossoming bilateral relations.

The list is quite long, but includes the following serving ministers: Enoch Godongwana (Finance), Thoko Didiza (Agriculture), Angie Motshekga (Basic Education), Dr Blade Nzimande (Higher Education), Pravin Gordhan (Public Enterprises), Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (Presidency), Lindiwe Zulu (Social Development), Bheki Cele (Police), Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams (Small Business), Ronald Lamola (Justice), Senzo Mchunu (Water) and Sihle Zikalala (Public Works).

Also gracing the occasion was SA’s former President Kgalema Motlanthe and his wife, Gugu Motlanthe. The list truly marks a high honour for a top envoy that went on about his work respectful of all people.

The event was an amazing outpouring of love for Chen, the CPC and the People’s Republic of China.

There was also a significant presence of academics, journalists, foreign diplomats, members of business and civil society, to name a few.

Addressing his farewell reception, an emotional Chen described SA as “a Rainbow nation full of charm and vitality.” A country, Chen added, that has “God’s Dining Table in the magnificent Table Mountain”.

In his own words, SA has left him completely “mesmerized” by its litany of beautiful attractions “and 12 official languages”.

He said he was proud that the China-SA relations reached “the Golden Era” during his tenure, a period that was marked by the state visit of China’s President Xi Jinping in August 2023 when he also attended the ground-breaking BRICS Heads of Summit in Sandton.

“China has been SA’s largest trading partner for 15 years in a row, and SA participated in the China International Import Expo for 6 years straight,” he said.

Under Chen’s watch, China actively took part in SA’s Investment Conferences, organised a Chinese-invested Enterprises’ Job Fair for the SA people, and held a China-SA New Energy Investment and Cooperation Conference.

“We also provided assistance to SA such as emergency electricity equipment, so as to contribute to SA’s economic development and job creation,” he said.

Chen was also very pleased by the growing popularity of the Chinese language in SA. He said: “The 7th Confucius Institute in SA has been unveiled at the Venda University.”

Although there were many areas of successful cooperation in the Beijing-Pretoria relations, the expansion of BRICS at the summit held in Johannesburg last year stand out.

“There, we achieved a historic expansion of membership under the SA Chairship,” he said.

“The key reason for China-SA relations’ massive achievements is that we enjoy the personal commitment to design and guidance by President Xi and President Ramaphosa,” he added.

In conclusion, Chen said: “I strongly believe that as China and SA continue to move forward hand-in-hand, the future of our two countries and our relations will be more brilliant.”

SA will always be a second home for Chen and his family. He will be remembered long after he has returned to his motherland as an ambassador who loved SA and its people, diversity, culture and lasting friendship.

So long, Chen. Go well.

Your contribution for the China-SA relations will go down in history as one of the most exciting chapters.