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Monday, May 17, 2021

Discussions on the burnt-down Sanyang Fishmeal Factory should be constructive

By He Mou

A recent article on local newspapers of 7 April raised some queries on Chinese Ambassador’s comments on the essence of foreign investment and the unfortunate burnt-down Sanyang fishmeal factory. While the article caters to sentiments of some social groups, the author largely misinterpreted Chinese Ambassador’s comments, and barely listed any supportive evidence to the arguments in the article. As an organizer of the Ambassador’s press briefing during which he talked on the said matters in response to journalists’ questions (the press briefing itself was not on this topic), I feel obliged to clarify what His Excellency actually said or meant.

First thing first, the violent attack on Chinese nationals and their properties during the recent riot is wrong and unjustifiable. This, however, is somehow overlooked. The assaulted and robbed Chinese nationals are clearly victims of the riot, rather than cause of it. It is Chinese Ambassador’s responsibility to care for and protect Chinese nationals and their lawful rights in the host country. And according to international practice, this applies to Ambassadors from any countries in the world. It is strange that the author would feel “appalled” or “shocked” at the Ambassador’s expression of concern for the harmed Chinese nationals.

What’s more worrying and disappointing is the misinterpretation of Chinese Ambassador’s remarks on foreign direct investment (FDI). The Ambassador never suggested at any point that FDI was “about profits at the expense of the host citizens” as written by the author, nor was his talk centering on the fishmeal factory’s business per se. Instead, the Ambassador shared his views on good treatment of FDI in general, and pointed out that differences between investors and the host communities should be settled through dialogue and legal means.

When answering journalists’ questions, the Ambassador explained the essence of FDI, how it could serve to promote a host community’s economy, employment, and people’s livelihood, and how its possible adverse impacts could be minimized. His explanation was based on historical facts of global economic development, and lessons drawn from China’s own four-decade reform and opening-up experience. He stressed that FDI should be mutually beneficial, and conform to the host country’s own development agenda, industrial policies, laws and regulations, or else it would not even be approved by the host country’s authorities.

The Ambassador also pointed out a common understanding that when foreign investors legally register a business in a host country, the business is subject to the local regulatory and supervisory regimes, and that it is put under the protection of local laws and regulations too. This is why he called on the Gambian authorities to take note of and ensure the personal safety and legitimate rights of the victimized Chinese nationals working in the fishmeal factory.

Back to the aforementioned article. The author acknowledges that “dialogue is most welcome”, but instead of proposing constructive ideas on how a dialogue could be conducted, the author piled up strong words to shame the fishmeal factory which is supposed to be one side of the dialogue: “ruthless”, “destructive”, “abusive”, “disastrous”, and so on. There are quite a few inflammatory and menacing expressions that are non-constructive for such a dialogue. The article also accused the factory of an array of “crimes”, such as depleting local fish and causing food insecurity. Those claims lack evidence. For instance, it should at least be made clear how much fish the factory use and where those fish is actually from, before alleging it to be the cause of the scarcity of food. Other claimed problems, such as the environment issue, should be solved with coordinated efforts from the factory, the authorities, local community and so on; they should not be excuses for justifying either the violent attack on the factory, or defamatory comments on Chinese investment in general.

In fact, the factory is a joint venture, and the share from Chinese investors accounts for only part of its total investment. According to international practice, this joint venture, once registered in the host country, becomes a local economic entity that is regulated, supervised, and protected by local authorities. Inciting hostility and violent attack against it harms not only investors from China and other countries, but also the host country’s image as an ideal place to do business.

When talking about FDI at the press briefing, the Chinese Ambassador also stated Chinese government’s clear and consistent position on the behaviors of Chinese investment entities in other countries. That is: the Chinese government always requires Chinese investors overseas to strictly abide by the host countries’ laws and regulations, and fulfill their social responsibilities. This is also what the Chinese Embassy always requires Chinese investors in The Gambia to do. These investors are encouraged to engage with their host communities, nurture mutual understanding, and provide assistance to the local people when they can.

At present, some Chinese businesses are attracted to make investment in The Gambia, sometimes jointly with investors from other countries. Such businesses include restaurants, hotels, factories, and so on. Their private investment decisions and actions follow market economy rules, and are not governmental behaviors of China or any other countries. These investors register businesses at The Gambia’s relevant authorities by themselves. Should such a business violate The Gambia’s laws, responsible authorities are supposed to legally and justly hold it accountable, even close it down; the Chinese Embassy would not interfere at all, as long as the personal safety and legitimate rights of Chinese nationals are ensured. Should such a business decide to leave due to security concerns or any other reasons, the Embassy is not supposed to persuade it to stay either. Because, as explained, such private investment decisions and actions follow market economy rules.

My clarification on Chinese Ambassador’s comments is not intended to downplay concerns on the fishmeal factory’s operation raised by the said author, but to bring the discussion from an unhelpful and fruitless blame game onto a more constructive track, with a sensible and rational mindset. Just as Rome is not built within a day, long-term good interactions between foreign investors and a host community need to be nurtured with efforts from all stakeholders. I hope that, after the settlement of the unfortunate incident that happened in Sanyang, such tragedies will not take place again there. I also wish that the dialogue, which the author claims to be “most welcome”, could be materialized at an early date with efforts from all sides, so as to truly serve the welfare and sustainable development of the Sanyang community in the long run.

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