Renowned Chinese academic Prof. Ma Zhongwu, in an interview with the Daily Mirror, speaks about the importance of China-Sri Lanka relations in the current global climate for the mutual benefit of both sides. Prof. Ma, who is the Vice Dean of School of Asian and African studies and the Director of Centre for Sri Lanka Studies at Beijing’s Foreign Studies University, is a frequent traveller to Sri Lanka. He speaks fluent Sinhala and has done his post graduate and doctorate studies here. The excerpts of the interview which was conducted in the Sinhala language in Colombo.
"Although China is a big country compared to Sri Lanka, people of both the countries are aware of traditional friendship existing since ancient times. Both China and Sri Lanka want to cooperate with each other"
Q As an academic, how do you see the China-Sri Lanka relations?
When you talk about it, we cannot forget Bhikkhu Fa-hsien who travelled to Sri Lanka way back in the 5th century. There was a book called ‘Record of the Buddhist Kingdoms’ published. By reading it, we can learn about the religious, cultural and social situation in Sri Lanka at that time in the perspective of a foreign national.
Then, Cheng Ho, the great navigator, sailed westwards from China for seven times between 1405 and 1433. He sailed towards the western sea as we call, passing South-east Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, to East Africa. Many times he travelled past Sri Lanka which was located strategically on his route. It amounted to trade links beyond mere cultural affairs. Then, he should have established certain links with the local community and the local kings. Cheng Ho made an offering to a local temple, which has been recorded by inscription written on a stone tablet. This stone tablet was carved in three languages including Chinese, Tamil and Persian. Now it is preserved at the national museum of Sri Lanka in Colombo.
In my idea, China-Sri Lanka relations might have began even before that in the ancient period. Sri Lanka could have been accessed through land at that for China passing via India. Trade and religious links would have been fundamental. It would have happened even before the arrival of Fa-hsien, but may be at a minimal scale. During the period of different dynasties in China, many monks, apart from Fa-hsien, had visited Sri Lanka to study Buddhism. It is mentioned in Chinese ancient history books, link BookofLiang, Book of Song. China- Sri Lanka relations were constrained after Sri Lanka was colonized by the western powers. Only after Sri Lanka gained Independence and the People’s Republic of China was established, relationship resumed.
Q How do you see the importance of relations between the two countries at the moment?
I am a Chinese national. Likewise, I did my final year studies for my degree at the University of Kelaniya. I also did my post graduate and doctorate here in the same university and I express my view not as someone with close links with your country. Although China is a big country compared to Sri Lanka, people of both the countries are aware of traditional friendship existing since ancient times. Both China and Sri Lanka want to cooperate with each other. China has launched “ the Belt and Road Initiatives”. We proceed with it in a spirit of mutual cooperation with the countries involved. It is launched in a mutually beneficial manner. That is why the countries concerned cooperated with it. It was proposed in 2013. Sri Lanka is one among the very first countries that agreed and extended cooperation with the project. Sri Lanka is strategically located on this project route linking the East and the West. Now you know, there is no financial hub between Hong Kong in the East and Dubai towards the West. If Sri Lanka teams up with “the Belt and Road Initiatives”, Sri Lanka can benefit from it for its economic development. The Port City project or the International Financial City project as it is called now, is important for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka should open its doors and welcome investors from all over the world.
As for Hong Kong, why is it popular all over the world? Nobody was opposed to it. It is part of Chinese administration and enjoying in developing its economy with sufficient freedom. This is a concept for economic development. People should be made aware of it. Investors from any part of the world can invest in it. Isn’t it good for Sri Lanka?
Fa-hsien visited Sri Lanka to study Buddhism
Q How important is Sri Lanka for China in terms of maritime security?
I do not comment on how important it is for China. It is absurd giving water to someone who is not thirsty; it is needed for someone who is thirsty. For anything to become important, there should be mutual requirement. Had you looked at the ancient silk road, it was a success. Because it was devoid of political interest. Only trade interests remained in ancient times. Sea craft, with items such as silk cloth and ceramic products, voyaged from China. Here in Sri Lanka, you had cinnamon, spices and gems. Trading in goods happened in this manner. Today, the situation is very complex. Problems arise due to influence. It is better to work out arrangements in a manner that is mutually beneficial. It has to be done in a spirit of understanding each others’ needs. Sri Lanka has its own plan for development. China too has its own. Before I comment on Sri Lanka’s significance to China, I would like to say that China is also important for Sri Lanka. It is mutual dependence, not unilateral. We are inseparably linked nations.
"As I remember, as for the suspension of some Chinese projects in Sri Lanka, there were different interpretations on that. Some of them are pessimistic and even extreme"
Although some Chinese projects were suspended during the last one or two years, I think it was a temporary issue. It may be due to misunderstanding. When two friends meet for the first time, there is no mutual understanding. It develops gradually with the passage of time. Misunderstanding emerges even among friends. With the passage of time, it is possible to identify genuine friends. Wife and husband also quarrel in a family. Nevertheless, it should not end up in divorce. We are very happy to see that both sides have already found out the reasons for misunderstanding and have found tangible solutions. Together we could mark the 60th anniversary of establishing bilateral relations and 65th anniversary of the Rubber and Rice Pact between the two countries in 2017.
Q How do you analyse the evolution of bilateral relations over these 60 years?
I look at things positively. The two countries signed the Rubber-Rice Pact in 1952 even before diplomatic relations were established. We established diplomatic relations only in 1957. Ours are Asian countries bound by common cultural ties. China and Sri Lanka are different in land size, nations and social system. But during the past 60 years, with the support of the great people and under the guidance of the leaders of our two countries, we did set a good example to the rest of the world to cultivate a profound friendship between a big country and a small country.
Proposed Maritime Silk Route
Q How do you look at cultural ties?
When I am in Sri Lanka, like now, I talk with you, I do not feel as such that I am on a foreign soil. We have common hospitality traditions. That is visible when I go to see my friends here. For instance, when I go out for a meal with local friends, the hosts try to pay the bill without allowing me to contribute even. In China too, we do the same. In the western countries, it is different. If two people, even two good friends have a meal together, the bill may be shared equally. Apart from that we have religious links. Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. In China, the main religion also has been Buddhism. We have the Confucius Philosophy. Besides, both these philosophy and Buddhism are not in conflict with each other. Both are intertwined and influenced by each other. Buddhism is not very stringently followed in China, unlike in Sri Lanka. Some People are not that ritualistic. In the hearts and minds of people in China, there is, however, a great respect for Buddhism. Though they do not sometimes identify themselves as Buddhists, they follow the Buddhist way of thinking and conducting themselves. Buddhist culture is a very important part of China. In Sri Lanka, Buddhism and the Sinhalese culture are entwined. Without Buddhism, there is no Sinhala culture. It is no so in China, though. But, Buddhist influence is visible in all our aspects of life in China.
Q What should be done more to foster ties between the two countries?
Though relationship was strained a little bit in the recent past, I do not think it would lead to any major issue. People in Sri Lanka should be asked whether the relationship with China is important for them. Actually, we need each other. There is no issue here, but a little misunderstanding. Public awareness has to be created in the future. Traditional friendship will not suffer. Understanding is the key to development and foster ties.
I visit Sri Lanka a number of times in a year. Most countries in the world tie up with China in the present context. Not only Asian countries but also European countries cooperate with China. They propose to work with us. The world has evolved to be one whole village virtually. In the western world, they eat with forks and spoons. In Sri Lanka, you use your hands to eat food. We, in China, use chopsticks. So we have to first understand the cultural diversity of human beings and then pay enough respect to each other. The best way to understand each other is to improve people to people contacts, alongside strengthening diplomatic relations. More they visit China, better they have an understanding about the country. It would lead to a positive outcome. More and more people should be afforded the opportunity to visit China. More and more Chinese nationals should be allowed to come here.
As I remember, as for the suspension of some Chinese projects in Sri Lanka, there were different interpretations on that. Some of them are pessimistic and even extreme. My friends inquired about it from me. I told them that there was no major issue involved here. I know Sri Lanka and its people because I have travelled here often.
Port City Project
Q There is fear that the Chinese presence would pose a threat to some other countries in Sri Lanka’s neighbourhood. What are your views?
This is a myth and deliberately created in my view. Chinese nationals travel to Singapore, the UK, Australia, Canada and even the USA. Do you know how many Chinese students are studying in the UK? As I know, in England, the Chinese language was introduced to the school curriculum more than 15 years before. They realized the importance of learning Chinese language. Nobody questions the presence of Chinese students or Chinese people there. Conversely, Now Chinese investors are welcome to most of the countries all over the world. In my view, Chinese nationals, coming to Sri Lanka, obey the law of this country. They mostly do their business activities here. Like me, I come here for education purposes.
I will give one small example for your reference and understanding my point. If I open an eatery, I do not mind who the nationalities are my customers. The operator of the next eatery may wonder how I attract so many customers. It may be due to my quality service or reasonable rates. Nobody can find faults with it. If more people - no matter which nationalities come to Sri Lanka - it may be due to what Sri Lanka offers.
Sri Lanka has to consider what it needs for future development. It should bring more foreign direct investment. When Sri Lanka does something, the country’s interest should be given the pride of place. Whatever government comes to power, the country’s interests should take precedence above all. People centric approach is strongly advisable. People are not ignorant. They will realize what is needed.
The Sri Lankan people and government should seriously think about the future of the country and find out their own development path and style which is better suit the recent national condition without any hesitation to any other external influence.
"During the past 60 years, with the support of the great people and under the guidance of the leaders of our two countries, we did set a good example to the rest of the world to cultivate a profound friendship"