China’s Belt-and-Road plans for SA, women’s leadership school aired as ambassador hosts Women’s League

By Carien Du Plessis 8 March 2019

Photo: Chinese ambassador Lin Songtian (Rebecca Jacobson via Flickr)

Chinese ambassador Lin Songtian hosted a full house of enthusiastic ANC Women’s League supporters for an early International Women’s Day celebration this week. Together with a sumptuous Chinese buffet, there was a lot of talk about Belt-and-Road infrastructure too – and what China sees as South Africa’s role in it.

The flamboyant Chinese Ambassador, Lin Songtian, might not have expected applause when he mentioned China’s now-abandoned one-child policy, but he got some anyway. His enthusiastic tone, and the enthusiasm of the 100 or so women from the ANC Women’s League from Gauteng regions and branches were mutually infectious. The women were invited to the embassy on Wednesday to celebrate an early International Women’s Day.

Children not only belong to the family, but to the nation,” Lin said, which is why the first nine years of education was compulsory in China.

In the past, due to poverty, Chinese people preferred to have the boy instead of the baby girl. They needed to have the boy so they can get a more stronger labour force, so we saw a few people in rural areas abandoning their baby girls,” he explained. Lin said now that China was more developed, there was a “fundamental shift in thinking” which saw people caring more about quality than gender, so “more families prefer girls”.

Lin said China had a one-child policy since the end of the 1970s, but because the population started declining, it was abandoned (in 2015).

So we opened it for (couples) to have two babies, but young couples are very cautious to have a second child,” he said lightheartedly – to general applause.

He told a story.

A Chinese young couple, whose first-born was a son, decided to have a second child. Unfortunately, they gave birth to another son, twin boys, and the whole family cries,” he said, to sympathetic noises of “ah” and “oh” from the audience.

Now they have to fight very hard, and struggle to survive, because they have to provide their three sons with a good education and three apartments to get married.”

He concluded that Chinese couples now prefer to have a gender balance in their family, one boy and one girl, but they prefer to have the girl first, so that they wouldn’t have to be anxious about it if their second child was a boy.

If the first-born is a boy, there is a danger for them to have a second one too.”

Even though his take on parents having to provide boys with apartments is somewhat old-fashioned (many Chinese parents now do the same for their daughters), and even though the merits and demerits of the one-child policy for women are debatable, he was trying to make a simple point: that after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, “the shackles of feudal ideology of ‘men were superior to women’, which had lasted in ancient China for thousands of years, were finally shook off”. Women got equal rights under the law and the Chinese constitution, he said.

There is also equal participation in state affairs, he said.

Today, Chinese woman is not only the CEO of every family, a good wife, a loving mother and a dutiful daughter, but also actively engages in social practice and fully involved in nation-building,” he said.

There was also a business side to the gathering. At the start, three films were screened, one of which was about Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway line from Mombasa to Nairobi. The Chinese took a lead in its construction. The film mentioned none of the controversies about the large debt incurred, or the environmental concerns from some lobbyists, but it did foreground how two young Kenyan women – a civil engineer and the operator of heavy construction equipment – benefited from being employed in the project (the Chinese managers in the documentary were all men).

The film on Kenya hinted at Lin’s wish for South Africa to be the third corridor in Africa for China’s Belt-and-Road foreign policy infrastructure initiative (the first being the Mombasa-Nairobi line and the second the Addis Ababa-Djibouti line). China’s future vision for South Africa is a high-speed railway line between Durban and Johannesburg, and also between Musina, where Chinese companies are poised to invest in an economic development zone, and the Richard’s Bay harbour. Former president Jacob Zuma had already announced a Johannesburg-Durban railway eight years ago in his State of the Nation Address, and feasibility studies have kicked off.

Lin indicated that China was happy to partner with President Cyril Ramaphosa on development.

Poverty is our common enemy, our number one enemy in this country,” he said.

China-South Africa relations have entered into the golden time of harvest,” he continued. “China has committed itself to be the most reliable and important development partner for South Africa to achieve economic and socio-economic transformation and development.”

As ANC Women’s League secretary general Meokgo Matuba – the same one who sent a gun picture to the Sunday Times journalist who reported on that anti-Ramaphosa ANC officials meeting in Durban’s Maharani Hotel – stepped up to speak. The women cadres seemed newly rejuvenated after a recent study tour to China.

This means that it’s not by mistake that we are celebrating International Women’s Day with our sisters in the Embassy of China,” Matuba said.

Among other initiatives, Matuba mentioned the wish for the ANC Women’s League to partner with the Chinese in the establishment of the Albertina Sisulu School of Leadership for women at Unisa. The league, she said, was in the process of finalising the final memorandum of agreement with the university, and the economy would form part of the curriculum.

Not much has come so far of the ANC’s 2014 plans to build a political school with Chinese help, but such a school might have been difficult seeing that South Africa’s multi-party democracy differs somewhat from China’s one-party state system.

Up to now, the ANC’s dominance was such that it could have worked, but if its electoral losses keep declining as predicted in a recent Institute for Race Relations poll, the ANC could find itself in the opposition benches before the next decade is out. But not as yet. Copies of the ANC’s elections manifesto were handed out to guests alongside a book by Chinese President Xi Jinping, entitled Up and Out of Poverty, as well as red roses.

The women’s league emerged from the China trip with one positive lesson, one they could do well to communicate to fellow leaders.

You are saying in China you don’t speak a lot, you implement,” Matuba said. “In South Africa, we want to do the same.” DM


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