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China’s ambassador to South Africa departs on a high note

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Picture: Jacques Naude / Independent Newspapers / January 29, 2024 – Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China in South Africa, Chen Xiaodong, South Africa’s Minister of Tourism, Patricia de Lille, Ambassador Chen’s wife Zhang Bin, and Siyabonga Cwele, South African ambassador to China, join the performers onstage during the 2024 Chinese New Year celebrations, also known as the Spring Festival, at Sun Arena Time Square. The year 2024 is dedicated as the Year of the Dragon.

By David Monyae

The curtain will soon come down on Chinese ambassador to South Africa Chen Xiaodong’s term of office. Ambassador Xiaodong took over as China’s sixth ambassador to South Africa in 2020 when he succeeded Ambassador Lin Songtian. Having previously served as the Chinese ambassador to Singapore from 2015 to 2017 and as the assistant foreign minister in charge of African Affairs, the outgoing ambassador came to South Africa as a seasoned diplomat.

He assumed his post at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic which brought the global economy to a screeching halt. South Africa was one of the most severely affected countries by the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa. As such, Ambassador Xiaodong had to stir South Africa-China relations through the pandemic and ensure that they emerged stronger. The ambassador presided over Chinese donations of anti-pandemic materials to South Africa in November 2020 to help South Africa contain the pandemic.

At the beginning of his term, Mr Xiaodong promised to expand and deepen the Sino-South African relationship. On that score he has performed remarkably well. Trade between China and South Africa increased from US$25.8 billion in 2019, the year before he took over, to US$47 billion in 2022. This saw China continue being South Africa’s biggest trading partner for 15 consecutive years. South Africa has also been China’s biggest trade partner in Africa for 14 years.

South African products such as beef and Rooibos tea have found new markets in China, a development that will expand trade between the two countries even further. Moreover, Chinese companies have continued to invest in various sectors of the South African economy thus creating much-needed jobs in a country struggling with high unemployment rates.

China’s foreign direct investment stock in South Africa increased from US$6 billion in 2019 to almost US$10 billion in 2023 making China one of South Africa’s biggest sources of foreign investment. About 170 Chinese companies have invested in various sectors of the South African economy including finance, automobile, mining, energy and technology.

In August 2023, Ambassador Xiaodong’s office oversaw the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s successful and productive state visit to South Africa. Over the years, South Africa and China have co-operated closely on international issues. They have adopted common positions on strategic areas ranging from technology and trade to global peace and security and the reform of global governance institutions. The two countries have advanced a common agenda on multilateral platforms such as the United Nations, the BRICS group, the Group of 20 (G20) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) among others.

The outgoing ambassador has maintained and promoted the geopolitical and ideological bond that binds China and South Africa and makes their partnership productive. It is not hyperbole to say that the Sino-South African relationship has become a model of South-South co-operation.

Perhaps more than anything else, Mr Xiaodong will be remembered as the poverty-fighting ambassador in line with China’s Global Development Initiative (GDI) which stresses the importance of eradicating poverty and promoting common prosperity. The GDI is a global development strategy some of whose priority areas include poverty eradication, food security and putting people at the centre of development projects.

The ambassador presided over numerous donations targeting the underprivileged and vulnerable sections of the South African society. These initiatives encompassed donating school shoes to poor students, food parcels to impoverished communities, disaster relief materials to communities affected by heavy flooding in KwaZulu Natal (KZN) in 2022, and food supplies to the Bramely Child Welfare. Whenever, he ventured out to visit poor communities, Ambassador Chen was keen to share China’s experiences and lessons in eradicating extreme poverty among its people.

In December 2023 in the depths of the power crisis in South Africa, Mr Xiaodong facilitated the donation of generators to ensure the continuation of critical public services during loadshedding. The outgoing ambassador was at home around poor communities in South Africa and exchanging ideas with them. His effortless mixing and mingling with the grassroots symbolised a refreshing qualitative shift in China-South Africa relations. He took China-South Africa relations from the halls of power where they have been confined to the common man on the streets thus giving the relationship a new element.

As he leaves his post after almost four years, Ambassador Xiaodong, has played a critical role in driving the continued growth of the relationship between the two countries. His efforts and initiatives have taken this relationship to a new level and set a firm foundation for further growth at a time when the relationship is entering its golden era.

David Monyae is Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science, and Director of the Africa-China Studies Centre at the University of Johannesburg

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.