The Late Trevor Banga: Tribute & Thoughts on China

In this piece I draw upon my experience of living and studying in China for 5 years between 2006 and 2011. I also draw on wide reading of both English and Chinese language reports and websites. My experience and research underpin the views outlined in what follows.

China’s impact on economic development in the Pacific.

From my experience as a student in China for five years I have a particular perspective on China and its relationships in the Pacific and the world. First, I agree with some Pacific island countries seeking closer collaboration, discussing enhanced cooperation and establishing diplomatic ties with China.
I think China’s engagement with the Pacific offers some positive prospects for the region.

In the long term, Pacific island countries should welcome the growth of China’s economy and the larger role that it will be likely to play in the Pacific as a result. Already, Vice Foreign Minister Cui has cited concrete measures taken by China to promote economic and social development in the Pacific. Development wise, most island countries require development assistance and China’s economic power and perhaps some of its economic models could assist us. Those Pacific island countries that already have relationships with China can strengthen cooperation and explore market opportunities stemming from the growing consumerism in China. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has noted that PNG, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu have established relatively strong diplomatic relations with China. Tourism is another key area. With a population of over one billion and a growing middle class, opportunities to attract Chinese tourists to our shores are better than ever. Pacific island countries can do more to try and tap into the growing Chinese interest in overseas travel, especially by emphasising our differing cultures and our beautiful beaches and blue waters. During a visit to Fiji from top Chinese legislator Wu Bangguo in September, Xinhua, a Chinese government media source commented on the beautiful islands and oceans. We in the Pacific islands should be gearing up to maximise the potential of China’s economic strength.

Reflections on my time in China at the Beijing University of Science & Technology

Pacific island countries need to know more about China. While China has signed agreements with some Pacific island countries for study scholarships, many are yet to formalise such relationships. While Fiji, PNG, Tonga and Samoa are able to send around 20 students to study in various fields every year, other countries such as my home, Vanuatu, tend to send fewer students. One attractive aspect of study in China is that a number of courses are taught in English, especially those in the areas of science and technology. China’s increasing level of engagement and openness to the world means that more and more foreign students want to go and study there. Chinese students are extremely determined and are known for their ability to study hard, so much so, that when I first arrived in China I felt as though I was a ten year old competing with twenty year old students. I remember being shocked when my Chinese classmates told me they had started learning calculus in primary school, when in Vanuatu, we didn’t begin until our senior years of study. However, my classmates were almost always able to speak English and were happy to answer any questions I had. So, I would encourage people interested in studying in China to not be scared by issues of a language barrier.  We can say it is too hard because of the language barrier but to convince you better, in every Chinese university students can speak English and now in most universities, science courses are offered in English.

Another thing I learned from my university experience was that most of the Chinese professors could speak and teach in English but wouldn’t tell you unless you specifically asked them to explain something to you in English. Also interesting was that whenever Chinese people met foreign students they tended to assume that we must be spending a lot of money to be in China to study. But when they learned that some of us were actually there on a scholarship with funding from the Chinese government, they seemed confused and almost betrayed. Many of these students had subsistence farmers for parents and they didn’t understand why the government was helping us so much and the government only gives them one third of their tuition fees. My PhD student friend told me he needed to keep studying until he achieved the highest possible level of education because he wanted to have more than one child, something that we here in Vanuatu take for granted. This was interesting to me since most people in the Pacific know about China’s growing influence in our region and their use of soft power in terms of offering loans and scholarships, however most Chinese youth appeared to have no idea about such things and seemed to resent the fact that we were getting help and they weren’t.

The key message I want to get across to Pacific island countries is that we should seek to benefit as much as we can from the Chinese education system. It is not as hard as many would think to study in China, with large numbers of students from the Pacific already undertaking undergraduate and advanced degrees in their respective fields of study. Another point I want to convey about this experience in China is that Chinese people are really friendly and welcoming and I remember having many, many interesting and enjoyable conversations while studying there. They were always generous with their help for my Pacific friends and I in our studies if we found anything hard and they never expected or asked for anything in return. The standard of education is high in China and studying there is good preparation for further study too.

China, creating more dialogue with the Pacific

A kind tone is used across the Chinese language websites and a willingness to give support to the Pacific countries is strongly conveyed. The website of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs reports that Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai attended the 24th Post-Forum Dialogue Meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) held in Cook Islands. The ministry reported this event straight from the Xinhua media just one day later because the Chinese government recognises the significance of an event that brings together all the island countries and that China has good relations with them. It is evident that China attaches great importance to developing relationships with Pacific island countries. Cui also introduced China’s new initiatives to support island countries to achieve economic sustainable development, develop and protect marine resources, cope with climate change, and fulfil the Millennium Development Goals. Fiji has greatly increased engagement with China over the past decade and has publicly shared its appreciation of China’s efforts in promoting economic and social development. Other Pacific countries too, haveexpressed enthusiasm about working with China over a wide range of issues.
While Chinese aid has been greatly appreciated by many countries, exact numbers have proved difficult to come by, with China hesitant to share detailed information on such spending.

It is difficult make sure with any certainty the size of China’s aid programme because of a lack of public information. The government websites and media don’t really give out aid information in advance but wait till six months or a year later before making information public.

Cui Tiankai told Pacific leaders in September that China actively carries out friendly exchanges with Pacific island countries on the basis of adhering to the fifth principle of the Communist Party of China. The fifth principle relates to the following areas:

•    Supporting and ensuring state power is properly exercised, with sufficient consultation on major state policies and choice of state leaders, state affairs laws and regulations
•    Promoting a socialist deliberative democracy
•    Improving systems of grass-roots democracy
•    Comprehensively promoting the rule of law
•    Deepening administrative reform
•    Improving operation of power constraints and supervision
•    Consolidating and developing stable state relations, regardless of changing political situations

These principles are relevant to foreign policy plus diplomacy and also inform aid programmes.

The embassy of the People’s Republic of China in New Zealand reports that China’s policies towards island countries are aimed at promoting peace, seeking stability, and pursuing development. The news reports also say that China will always put the needs and interests of island countries in first place and strive to do more practical work for the economic and social development of island countries. I think China has a lot to offer Pacific countries in terms of education opportunities and aid and I consider China our friend.

The rise of China has presented the Pacific with greater access and opportunities for development from an extremely large, emerging economy. We here in Pacific island countries should make the most from this opportunity. We should consider becoming more willing to live with and interact with Chinese people and to immerse ourselves Chinese society via university exchanges and scholarships. These programmes can provide us with a new way of visualising the world and give us unique insights into China and its people.