Cheena patas with shock from China. China breaks her great wall of silence to give Lanka an earful. After berating Finance Minister for criticising Chinese largesse, envoy Xianliang tells President and PM what to do and what not to do.
It was more than a simple Chinese fortune cookie but a crusty message wrapped in a surly snub that was served to Lanka when the Chinese Ambassador held a special press conference to selected journalists on the 1st of this month.
In an uncharacteristic move that triggered the foreign office bells to ring, China broke her great wall of diplomatic silence and shoved aside her 5000 year dynastic tradition of taciturnity and public politeness toward a friend to flatter and a foe to deceive, when she pounced on Lanka’s Finance Minister and reduced him to mince stuffing in a Chinese dumpling.
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Having come to the tether’s end of her legendary patience, China showed she had no regard or affection for those who come crawling on bended knees, with bowl in hand begging for loans; and, once their entreaties are handsomely granted and their pot is filled to the brim, go home to slap the giver’s ear in a crass show of sheer ingratitude.
In a no holds barred full frontal attack totally out of national temper, the Chinese Ambassador to Lanka, Yi Xianliang, told Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake in plain mandarin tones of contempt where to get off the bus on the Chinese built southern expressway. In staccato delivery punched with ire he asked the question “If Chinese loans are expensive, why come back and ask for more loans?”
“I spoke to Ravi, the Minister of Finance,” the Ambassador Yi Xianliang said at the press conference, “Ravi has criticised this many times publicly. I asked him, “If you don’t like this one, why do you, again, talk with me about another?”
He explained: “Sri Lanka can get significant loans from the EXIM Bank at 2 percent. It’s based on our relationship. The Chinese people complain to the government why they give them loans at 5 per cent and to countries at 2 percent. This is unfair, they say. The Lankan people and the government should have a change in attitude on thanksgiving. We cooperate with Sri Lanka, support Sri Lanka assist Sri Lanka in international forums.”
He further said, “I checked with Ravi. Last year you got some money from European countries – I think 50 million dollars at 5.8 per cent. Some say that it is cheap. But when China gives at 2 per cent you say it is expensive. Do you think it’s fair or unfair? We base our relationship with the two countries on the basis of the countries and the people’s interest regardless of who the ruler or the party is. China and Sri Lanka were, indeed, friends for 1600 years, not just from the last year. All we expect is a little thanks.”
But if it was tea and thanks Xianliang expected Ravi Karunanayake render unto him, perhaps sugared with a sorry, he wasn’t getting any. And if the Chinese diatribe was intended to make Lanka’s Finance Minister squirm, it didn’t succeed either, making the Karunanayake vertebrae only straighten in strengthened resolve. The Confucian dictum, “If you make mistake and not remedy it, this is mistake,” may not have been something he had picked up at Royal before departing its academic groves without learning the wise ways of the Orient.
Instead he hit back with the rights of sovereign nations and intrinsic duties of Finance Ministers. He may have been banging his head against the Great Wall of China itself but, lo!, didn’t he swell with pride the breast of every Sri Lankan brave with his lion roar of defiance that rang from the uplands and galloped over the hills and the dales?
Stepping out from the Sri Dalada Maligawe two days later on November 3rd where had come to obtain the blessings of the Maha Sangha before presenting the budget a week hence, he reacted to a media question whether he rejects the Chinese Ambassador’s statement, and said:
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“Not only do I reject it, I will give answer to it. I reject it because it is a wrong statement he has made. I will ask how much was spent on the port, didn’t they give the loans at 8 per cent? Then what about the roads? Isn’t it more than 22 per cent? Even as they say it, we will also show them the loans we have taken. I will say it again that if we have not taken loans above 2 percent, then we will pay back the loans at 2 percent interest. He says, no, that we haven’t taken loans over 2 percent. The Chinese ambassador is our good friend. But the statement he made is wrong. The president and Prime Minister has appointed me as the Finance Minister of Sri Lanka not as the Chinese Finance Minister, Therefore every single cent that we can possibly save, I will endeavour to save for the benefit of the people. If anyone is unhappy about it, if there is any corruption that can be exposed there is nothing we could.”
“But this is a clean government,” the minister declared,” And if we can avoid paying these Rajapaksa obtained sham loans, 25 to 30 percent of which have been taken more than was necessary, then, at every moment of our time, we will do our utmost to find ways to wait without paying it. If China is proceeding on a clean journey, why are they obstructing Lanka’s clean journey. We have obtained loans from the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, from the IMF, from JAICA institutions at even less than 2 per cent. Then this matter that we are talking about corruption, if I don’t talk about corruption then who is better qualified to talk about corruption. It is necessary for me to work on behalf of my country’s people. We may be a small country but we are a sovereign nation. And we will do so without any fear.”
Bravo. Hallelujah. Proud to be Sri Lankan to have a finance minister able to deliver the full suit, empty pocket talk to China with aplomb and send a jingoist tingle up the local spine and make one reach for the rusty sword – though gone blunt after slicing jack – and raise it to fend off any Chinese missile that may come this way. But is this reality talk or just dangerous pompous prattle? Haven’t this country’s leaders learnt from the lessons of the recent past?
During the last regime, the Lankan mouse from its peephole was roaring at India. Instead of fostering relations with Lanka’s closest neighbour, the previous regime indulged in India bashing and slammed the door in her face. The same went for America, England, France, Germany and the rest of the powerful western world the moment human rights issued were raised. The biggest local conspiracy was floating western conspiracies as being responsible for every political sneeze and hiccup. Lanka, isolated and alone, turned into an international pariah state with no friends to tweet for help, turned to a China waiting in the wings to lift the bamboo curtain and welcome another fallen state into her fold.
Having snubbed the west and antagonised India almost beyond recall, the Rajapaksa government had no option but to seek the succour of the Chinese to finance the many development projects that awaited implementation. What they found in the regional giant was a cornucopia from which gushed endless wealth. China was not only willing but, unlike India, she had the wherewithal. Loans followed loans and as the road network rapidly grew so did the political ambitions of the Rajapaksa family to rule Lanka in perpetuity grow in leaps and bounds.
The Hambantota Port was developed with Chinese aid and, though hardly a ship dropped anchor in it, it was hailed as a monument to Rajapaksa achievements. An international airport was built a few miles away from the port in Mattala and, though hardly a plane touched down on its tarmac, it was billed as another monument to Lanka’s soaraway success story under the Rajapaksa regime.
Though these were no outright Chinese grants but built out of Chinese loans extended at high rates of interest; though both projects were located in areas of strategic value to the Chinese in their expansion plans as contained in their ‘string of pearls policy’ in the Indian Ocean, China was hailed as Lanka’s greatest altruistic saviour and the winds of Lanka blew east in earnest.
The Rajapaksa government also took comfort that the international embargo planned against Lanka for violating human rights during the war, would never take place for China, being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, would use her veto power to stymie any such resolution and thus stand as guarantor of the nation’s and, more to the point, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s peace of mind. In his eyes, China was, indeed, Lanka’s Shangri-la.
Wily Chinese never makes a song and dance about the aid she extends to others. Nor does she make plain the strings attached to the help she gives so generously. Slowly, slowly catch the monkey and only when the paw is in the bottle does the recipient of her favours, realise the plight it is in. Inscrutable are the ways of the Chinese. And it does not help the unwary to understand the nuances of their words and actions when the lingo is read backwards.
Thus when the Chinese, in the midst of their munificence, sneaked in the unsolicited proposal to build a Megapolis in Lanka and that, too, on the sea, next to the strategic Colombo port, it was an offer the Rajapaksa government could not refuse. Even if they could hazily discern, even if they could see, through avaricious eyes that had made them partially blind, the irreparable damage it would cause to the coastal belt and environment, the wanton destruction it would inflict upon the coral reef that acted as the first sturdy line of defense, a natural bulwark against the ever intruding sea, and that it would doubtlessly lead to an inevitable compromise on Lanka’s ‘unbarterable’ sovereignty; it was far too good to be true and far too late in the day to refuse, to snub the indispensable benefactor who came clothed in a lovable panda fur coat.
How could pampered Lanka say no to this sugar daddy China who had pandered to the Rajapaksa regime’s every whim and fancy and gratified every urging? How on earth could this nation’s twenty million people stand up and say ‘no’ twenty million times over and be counted when China had her thumb in every Lankan pie and the privileged in her pocket?
Drive past Galle Face Green or take a walk on its promenade. Direct your eyes on the work in progress in building a piece of China on the Lankan sea. This is the squalid legacy Mahinda Rajapaksa would leave behind for posterity to endure: a permanent Chinese Hong Kong on Lanka soil, though it be on the sea. With the world of Suzy Wong rising from the ocean bed, here is the grim evidence that China is here to stay. For good.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa hailed Lanka as the miracle of South Asia, perhaps China thought so too. Except they would have held it as their own miracle to find in this region an island of past Gullivers, a population led by people of Lilliputian minds, naïve enough and greedy enough to barter chunks of their sovereignty in return for a loan of 1.4 billion US dollars to the Chinese to raise from the sea a surreal city, an unsolicited appendage that would cause immense environmental damage to the island’s eco system and bring in its wake still unknown perversities to rip the local fabric; and then to give it lock, stock and barrel to China on a 99 year lease to do anything she pleases with it.
Under the original agreement signed by the Rajapaksa government in September 2014 a land of 20 hectares was to be granted on a freehold basis, thus conferring upon the Chinese ownership in perpetuity over a part of Lankan soil. In other words it was to be a sell out to the Chinese. The ultimate Chinese take away.
The advent of Maithripala Sirisena to power in January last year halted the work at the Port City, honouring one of the main election promises Ranil Wicremesinghe had made three weeks prior to the election. On December 17th 2014 addressing tourism industry officials, he had vowed to scrap the project. “I will stop it,” he had said. “We have to protect our coastal area. If the port city is built, we will lose the coastal area.”
But then the new government had not bargained for the ruthless cunning of the two tone Chinese Panda. China did what commercials banks do to defaulters. She called in the loans given to the Rajapaksa regime. Ex parte execution. And the cash-strapped Sirisena regime, heir to the coffers which the Rajapaksa regime had left bare with their squander, waste and corruption had no alternative but to bend the knee, proffer the bowl, face reality and kowtow to China’s ultimatum.
As far as Lanka’s pathetic beseeching to China not to demand her pound of flesh went, China’s terse reply was ‘no port city, no dice’. And her strategy paid off. Upon his return from Beijing in April, Ranil Wicremesinghe announced the port city project was on again, though renamed as Financial City. China conceded her right to own 20 hectares freehold. Instead she got almost the whole city on a 99 year lease.
With a history of over five thousand years China has made a virtue out of patience. It has adopted an almost philosophical attitude to time and its passage. It has plodded through history paying heed to Confucian wisdom that when it is clear that the goals cannot be achieved, do not adjust the goals but change the tactical steps. And to bear in mind that it does not matter how slow you go as long as you do not stop on your journey to reach the goal.
China, true to her founding philosophy has plodded inexorably toward her goals. She has not rushed; she cannot be rushed but has shown to react to events only after much consideration and in its own cool time. The Chinese are a taciturn lot and if the impassive, unreadable mask should sometime slip, it slips deliberately. So what caused the mask to momentarily fall on November 1st and reveal to all the true nature and visage of the soft toy Chinese panda turned nasty brute? What made the warm assuring purr turn to a vicious growl when Chinese envoy Xianliang played host to a group of handpicked journos?
Even during the height of the frenzied negotiations with the Sirisena- Ranil government, China had maintained a cool and collected composure in public. The fact that she had chosen now to reveal her frustrations through her diplomatic envoy is significant. Perhaps, now that she has both cats, the ex black and the present white, sewn in her bag and tethered to her foot pedestal, she can afford the luxury of demonstrating her total dominance of the situation.
With her goal reached, her task accomplished, perhaps China felt emboldened to shed her traditional coat of humility in her hour of triumph and to mock in laughter, like the Laughing Buddha – the eccentric Chinese monk Hotei – she worships and calls the Loving and friendly One, at the untold ignorance of Lanka’s citizenry who still repose faith in corrupt politicians and given half the chance would vote them to power again.
The Lankan Government reacted to this surprise outburst by the Chinese envoy made on behalf of his government no doubt, with creditable restraint. Though it initially announced that it would summon Yi Xianliang to the Foreign Office and show Lanka’s displeasure at the statement made, wiser counsel prevailed and the pow-pow was settled after a jaw-jaw with chopsticks between the Foreign Minister and the Chinese ambassador.
But apparently there was a spare rib left on the table and it was taken away by the Chinese envoy to be barbecued in soy and to be offered for public consumption in vitriol another day. The bone he had to pick with, lay with two others in a far more exalted province than of the finance minster. And to make matters worse, he picked and, in a breach of diplomatic protocol, shed no qualm in announcing his exploit to the public.
The ‘cheena patas’ came this Wednesday when the Chinese Ambassador rose to speak at the China-Sri Lanka Business Meeting for Investment and Trade held at ” The Ocean” in Kingsbury Hotel. There he disclosed that “During my recent meetings with both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, I made it clear that incidents such as the suspension of the Colombo Port City, which has caused losses to both our countries, should not happen again. Projects should be implemented in terms of the legal contracts entered into. I hope changes in government would not lead to changes in policies relating to economic agreements.”
And if that wasn’t enough aji-no-moto- for the day to spice up the fetish orgy of BDSM, with a show of bondage, dominance and sadomasochism, he went out to boast how he had rammed it home to the Lankan prime minister to go slow and easy on emphasizing too much on Sri Lanka’s geographical location, since it would make officials do nothing and wait for foreign investments to fall into their laps.
Can you imagine that? A foreign diplomat telling the president of this country what he should do or should not do? And telling the prime minister how he should speak about his own country when it comes to promoting Lanka?
And then, to top it all, hanging his chastisements, like the Peking Duck at a Chinese feast, before the gaze of the hoi polloi and committing the offence of Lèse-majesté by announcing details of the discussions he has had with the president and prime minister behind closed doors in strict confidentiality? Perhaps cultured China will show its displeasure by summoning this envoy to Beijing and issue an apology to the Lankan government to make amends for this unwarranted transgression in diplomatic protocol that possibly violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
But whether it does or not, the sinister message remains the same. In the same week, there was another one delivered. And that was a surprise invite to Mahinda Rajapaksa to visit China this month. That it was not to afford him a junket tour to marvel the Great Wall or take a selfie with the Forbidden Palace in the background is clear. The message to the government is also clear. A spare in the boot is never amiss should the tyre on the hub go flat.
We cannot blame the Chinese for having exploited us for we have laid ourselves open to such exploitation. With legs spreadeagled, who can blame if raped? And as an enslaved state, made slave by our own making, silence and submission to the will of ruthless foreign powers will be our sad fate.
A nation’s intentions can be gleaned from the gathered leaves of their actions. Successive Lankan leaders and their advisers have failed to study what makes the Chinese mind tick. Perhaps the secret lies in China’s ancient philosophy, Confucianism whose founder observed: “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”