By Stephanie Ma
On October 9, 2015, Mr. Shu Zhan, the former Chinese Ambassador to Rwanda and Eritrea, met with graduate students from Tsinghua’s Department of International Relations for an intimate conversation on his extensive research and diplomatic career. This event is part of a distinguished guest speaker series within the Tsinghua-SAIS dual degree program’s curriculum in “Case Studies of Diplomatic Practices.” The discussion proved to be a unique opportunity for students to learn, from a primary source, the mechanics of African economic development outside of international media reports and academic literature.
Because Mr. Shu first worked in Africa as an academic researcher and political consultant before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he offered a uniquely comprehensive perspective on Chinese investment in Africa and other development issues faced by the continent generally. In part because of his own background in agriculture during his youth in China, he enjoyed working side by side with locals and Chinese specialists on the field in Eritrea and Rwanda. He reflected fondly on his onsite access to observe firsthand the progress of aid projects and their effectiveness in serving the local community. Mr. Zhan found this experience to be valuable when he later served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the policymaking and diplomacy levels, consulting both senior Chinese and African government officials. Mr. Shu shared his reflections on specific cases of Chinese aid in African agriculture, and compared the challenges and lessons learned between the successful and less effective projects.
In Rwanda, he worked on a long-term initiative that managed 12 to 13 projects in rural areas. He shared his observations of these projects using non-indigenous plants to address issues requested by the Rwandan Ministry of Agriculture for solutions to expand the country’s agriculture industry with new products and combat soil erosion. China implemented the use of bamboo which has served as a reliable construction material in Rwanda the same way it has served construction in China for thousands of years.
2015 年 10月9日今天，中国前驻卢旺达和厄立特里亚大使舒展先生与清华国关系的学生们一起，近距离地分享了他在非洲的外交生涯轶事和学术研究历程。舒展大使也是清华—约翰·
霍普金斯 SAIS 双学位项目 “中国外交案例分析”课程所请到的第一位重量级授课嘉宾。
Another project aimed to empower a small group of ten to 12 female college graduates who otherwise could not find employment. They harvested a mushroom species native to China with the intention of supplying an existing East Asian market demand. Mr. Shu reported that he personally saw that this product had successfully entered the local Rwandan economy. Today, this particular mushroom can be found in popular dishes in local hotels and restaurants.
As he discussed challenges faced by agriculture projects in Asmara versus Kigali, Mr. Shu noted that knowledge transfer was a difficult and unsuccessful endeavor due to several factors. Concerning the projects in Eritrea, the field sites were spread out from each other, making it difficult to incubate innovative ideas and share best practices. Projects suffered from frequent turnover; the majority of Chinese specialists and laborers stayed on site an average of only two years. The projects Mr. Shu observed in Rwanda were relatively successful in part because the Chinese employees worked on site at an average of four to five years, long enough to learn the local language. While there exists successful case studies of transplanting Chinese farming traditions and introducing foreign agriculture products, there are important lessons to be learned from observing well-intentioned experiments that fail. However, Mr. Shu’s observation of the Chinese experience to encourage rice farming in Rwanda led to his conclusion of the importance of consistently calibrating investment policies to the local culture and to the unique demands of the local market. For example, China attempted to cultivate rice fields in Rwanda. Mr. Shu reflected on a project in which the local community eventually replaced entire rice fields with potato fields. 90 percent of the community consumes potatoes and corn, and there didn’t exist a local desire to farm rice for urban areas when farmers could sell surplus potatoes and corn at the local market for cash.
The main lesson offered by Mr. Shu for sustainable and effective investment policies in Africa is to include the voices of local communities and further, to include their participation during the planning stages. He ties this important lesson from his field experience to diplomacy issues encountered at the senior government level. While many African nations welcome a multilateral cooperative effort for investments that can include China, U.S., EU and international financial institutions. However, he found that select African nations often questioned the absence of multilateral meetings and the frequency of exclusive bilateral meetings for policy discussions that do not invite them to the table. Mr. Shu personally attested to witnessing how such exclusive practices have proven to be counterproductive to fostering trust and confidence from African leaders. In recent years, President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi have espoused a new principle to investing on the African continent, “非洲提出，非洲同意，非洲主导,” or “proposed by Africa, consented by Africa and led by Africa.”
The students were very interested to hear directly from Mr. Shu that the trajectory of China’s engagement in Africa will continue to expand to other areas besides trade and other economic interests. Speaking further on how China’s Africa foreign policy has endeavored to be inclusive with respective host countries, Mr. Shu clarified that the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was established not by China, but in part from the request of numerous delegations of different countries that had traveled to Beijing over the course of several years to pitch for China’s engagement in Africa from its traditional bilateral approach to the multilateral level. From Mr. Shu’s anecdotes of his consultation work, the students also learned that select African government leaders are also increasingly looking towards China for advice beyond that of building a strong economy but on effective governance principles conducive to political stability and normalized leadership transitions.