Shen Zhifei, Ambassador of the People's Republic of China to Lithuania: “China is your friend and partner, not an enemy or threat – the choice is yours”

  • 2021-09-28
  • Linas Jegelevicius

Although relations between the Republic of Lithuania and the People’s Republic of China have soured recently, H.E. Mr. Shen Zhifei, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the People's Republic of China to Lithuania, thinks back to a “golden age” in relations between both countries and wishes “a golden future” ahead. “To my understanding, the situation we see now is temporary,” Mr. Ambassador emphasised to The Baltic Times Magazine. The interview has been published before China recalled Mr. Shen Zhifei amid tensions.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, we are living in a stunningly different world now – with many of the travel restrictions still in place (the interview was conducted in mid-May – L.J.) and the on-going blame-game of who is responsible for the pandemic. How is all of that affecting Lithuanian and Chinese relations? Can the world in the face of a health crisis like this get more united or will we see the opposite – will it become more hostile?

This is a very important question. Indeed, the world is changing. It is always changing, regardless of pandemics (and other things). I’d say for the better – the result of progress of humanity. Changes always are welcome. The pandemic is certainly a test for us as human beings. It also helps humankind realise how fragile we are in the face of unexpected challenges. Whatever their origin may be – from nature, from us, humans themselves.

(We can see) that some countries do well in the fight against the pandemic, some others are still struggling, but I am optimistic and confident that we will cope with the challenge.

In the face of it, we can see solidarity and cooperation of the world – this is so important and vital now. That just demonstrates that we, essentially, are living in one community – like villagers who share the same destiny, even though we have a lot of differences in politics, culture, tradition, history and economy. But again – as such we are one entity – human beings.

The pandemic shows that not a single country can survive (without cooperating with the others). The challenges we are seeing today are not for a single country or a nation – they are all of ours. Never before have unity and solidarity been as important as they are now.

The clear lesson of the pandemic is that, as human beings, we need much more cooperation than confrontation.

The pandemic teaches all of us to live beyond the differences of politics or geopolitical factors – as members of one family, helping and supporting each other, instead of attacking each other. And we’re still learning from the pandemic: it has changed us, but we are also changing the world. I believe the change will lead to a better world, where we all are more united, cooperative and friendlier to each other.

Just recently relations between the People’s Republic of China and Lithuania seemed booming. Let me bring up a few facts in that regard. In 2016, the-then Lithuanian Prime Minister, Algirdas Butkevicius, paid a visit to Beijing, where he met his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang. In 2018, Lithuania’s former President Dalia Grybauskaite met Chinese President Xi Jinping at a Chinese import exhibition in Shanghai. And there were more friendly bilateral visits until a year or so ago. Even the interview can now be perceived by some as not the thing to do now. Unfortunately, the nice relations have soured lately. Who is to blame? What major global developments do you believe changed the attitudes?

Thank you for mentioning the beautiful moments of history (between the People’s Republic of China and Lithuania). But beside these (mentioned), we’ve had many other important visits by the countries’ high-level officials in the last decade.

For example, the meeting of Vytautas Landsbergis, chairman of the Lithuanian Seimas, and his Chinese counterpart Li Pen decades ago, in 2000 to be precise, or the meeting between Lithuania’s former Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas and President Jiang Zemin in Vilnius in 2002). And some other Lithuanian prime ministers and key officials have met their Chinese counterparts over the years.

Indeed, many things happened over the last two years, following the period of 2009 to 2019 that could be called a “Golden Age” of China-Lithuania relations. Many memorable things happened during this period of time, including many top-level visits and meaningful bilateral documents of cooperation.

Let me remind us that Lithuania is one of the founding members of China-CEEC cooperation and a participant of the Belt and Road Initiative. Bilateral trade and cultural exchanges started gaining a strong momentum starting then, and continue today. A number of former prime ministers, including Algirdas Butkevicius, are major contributors to the fruitful bilateral relations, whom I have high appreciation and respect for. I was present at the summit meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Dalia Grybauskaite in 2018 in Shanghai.

I can share with you that the meeting was very successful and substantial. I had a very fresh memory that your President worked very hard during her visit to China by meeting with local business people and representatives from art and culture. She was promoting Lithuania to China with great passion and enthusiasm.

They are a generation of leadership with a broad global picture and an extended vision of the future in mind. They were working for the interest and benefit of your country and people. I assume you are fully aware of the situation today and well understand the reason behind it. The new coalition adopted a not-so-friendly position towards China. We can easily find that from their coalition agreement and government policy paper.

The current government policy on China is driven by a few politicians who have a lot of misunderstanding of or even prejudice against China. Troublesome relations serve no party well. I really hope that China-Lithuania relations will be back to normal as soon as possible. Some of your political leaders have indicated the good wish of furthering bilateral relations by marking the 30th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations. China welcomes this initiative. We expect many 30 years of good and fruitful relations between the two countries. Let’s wish for “a golden future”. To my understanding, the situation we see now in our relations is temporary.

I indicated clearly on many occasions that China never poses any threat to Lithuania’s national security. This is neither China’s policy nor option. The Lithuanian State Security Department has included China on the list of countries posing risks to Lithuania’s national security based on disinformation from US intelligence. Do you think you have any hard evidence to prove China is a threat to Lithuania? Your decision to rule out China’s investment in your infrastructure, 5G technology and many other advanced hi-tech products in Lithuania is totally irrational. It will be a loss to Lithuania in a real sense. China’s business groups only have goodwill in Lithuania to help, not to threaten.

China is a strategic partner with the European Union and its member states. This is the definition of China-EU relations. China would like to have a more integrated, independent and stronger EU. Both China and the EU are major players in international affairs. We have shared responsibilities and commonness in many areas. China became the EU's biggest trade partner in 2020. We have a great amount of common interest. China is firmly opposed to the definition of “systematic rivalries” for its relations with the EU. We could be competitors of fair play which is healthy for the development of both. Adversary of hostility is not the right term to describe China-EU relations.

Can you provide any concrete facts about how the new geopolitics we find ourselves in is impacting economic relations between China and Lithuania? What sectors are suffering the most? What sectors are the most resilient to geopolitical pressures?

First of all, I disagree with the use of the term “geopolitics.” Perhaps you have ideology differences in mind being pushed by some groups of countries, which is something that China was never in favour of. To me, geopolitics is a relic of the “cold war” mentality and way of thinking.

I do not think that such a mentality and ideology aptly suit the situation of the world we are in today.

The world economy is highly globalized and all major economies are highly inter-connected and dependent. There is no such terminology for a market or supplier of “democracy or autocracy” in world economy and trade. It is not rational to have impact on economic cooperation by geopolitical thinking. The outdated and stupid cold war mentality is harmful to economic relations between countries.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the Lithuanian authorities have made a lot of unfriendly or even hostile remarks, which are inevitably poisoning the business environment. Chinese business groups surely have grave concerns and anxiety and Chinese companies such as Jiangsu Sanfame Co., Xinyi Glass and Global Egrow E-commerce, have been seriously considering relocating major investment plans in Lithuania.

Many Chinese companies operating in Lithuania are not treated fairly and have suffered major drawbacks lately as a result. China Merchants Group, the potential partner of Klaipeda Port, closed its office in Vilnius last year. As you know, Huawei, Nuctech, Hikvision, Dahua, North China Power Engineering have been brought up in controversy repeatedly these days by some politicians and media outlets for allegedly violating Lithuania’s national security interests, and some of them were deprived of contracts they had secured through public tenders. For the latter I mean the Lithuanian government’s decision to block a subsidiary of China's Nuctech from supplying baggage-scanning equipment for its airports, citing national security grounds. Also, prohibiting Huawei equipment in Lithuania’s 5G network.

The mentioned Chinese companies have been well established in Lithuania with a good reputation as socially responsible and respected employers, reliable suppliers and taxpayers not longago, by creating decent jobs, offering affordable but high-quality products and solutions as well as contributing to local technology advances in Lithuania. They deserve fair treatment and equal opportunities for business, free from any political prejudice and interference. If geopolitical and ideological games carry on and business and economic cooperation is excessively politicized, Lithuania will lose more opportunities for development.

In comparison, Lithuania has significantly more investments in China than China has in Lithuania. I know that all the Lithuanian businesses (in China) are doing very well and are very successful despite the pandemic and the new dynamics of our relations.

No doubt, the Lithuanian companies have great confidence in China – China today and China in the future.

In 2017, the Agriculture ministries of China and Lithuania signed a Plan of Action. How is it being implemented? What are the statistics you have on the volume of exports of Lithuanian dairy, beef, corn, fodder and other products to China?

The Bilateral Agriculture Action Plan signed between our two countries set up a framework for pragmatic cooperation at both governmental and business levels. On different occasions, China’s Minister of Agriculture and Vice Ministers of Customs visited Lithuania and signed protocols on Lithuanian agricultural products such as fish, dairy products, beef, wheat and silage to access the Chinese market. Also in 2018, a delegation of 50 major Chinese agriculture companies attended the Agro-Balt Expo and held extensive B2B meetings with their local counterparts to explore cooperation and partnership. Some of the contacts and discussions may have already materialized in trade deals and business contracts.

As far as numbers are concerned, Lithuanian companies exported 300,000+ tons of wheat to China in 2019 worth USD 52.3 million, and again in 2020 worth USD 75 million. Beef export in 2020 was 472.1 tons worth USD 2.1 million. Other agriculture products exported to China in 2020 include dairy products 7739.5t: Breakdown in major categories: canned milk 271.6 tons, cheese 1044 tons, milk sugar (lactose) 994 tons, whey powder 4302.4 tons, milk powder 362 tons, milk permeate 563.3 tons, cheese products 202 tons; fish and fishery products 625.3 tons; feedstuff 425.7 tons.

Notably, the Lithuanian beer now available on the shelves of Chinese supermarkets is doing pretty well.

Thanks to the efforts made by the business community and both governments so far, we can already find some other Lithuanian products like Lithuanian mineral water, beer, chocolate cheese bars, etc. in Chinese supermarkets. Chinese consumers also appreciate Lithuanian wheat and beef for their quality and taste. Of course, greater efforts need to be made to leave a friendlier and more responsible impression of Lithuania as a country to the Chinese consumers instead of otherwise, and raise the awareness of Chinese people about Lithuania as well as the products that you are proud of and would like to bring to the Chinese market. China’s market is huge and very much diversified. A single supplier like Lithuania is far from meeting the market demand. All kinds of Lithuanian quality products can find their proper place in China.

If Lithuania’s logistic service is among the list of best providers, you have all reasons to be a regional centre of logistics to China. The logistic advantage you have should be known by Chinese business. The fact that China Postal Service chose Vilnius as the major transit hub to Europe shows that Lithuania has great potential in transport and logistic service.

I hope that the markets, not the politics will decide the future of bilateral economic and trade relations. The market potential is there. The above-mentioned facts and figures further demonstrate that China’s market remains open to Lithuania and is and will be ever-growing.

Record transit shipping container flows from/to China to/from Europe via the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad have been registered this year. What does that tell you? Do you see growth potential of marine shipments between China and the EU, including Lithuania?

I would like to draw your attention to the container cargo flows conducted by trains between China and Europe known as CRE, the China Railway Express, instead of marine shipping. The first three months of 2021 saw Lithuania’s CRE container cargo throughput reach an unprecedented 2032 TEU, growing by 13 times y-o-y and accounting for nearly half of the total of 2020. This exponential growth in train cargo between China and Europe in transit via Lithuania means free trade and economic globalization still prevails despite tough talks of re-shoring, decoupling and acts of protectionism by certain parties. CRE trains carried urgently needed, life-saving PPEs, ventilators and medical supplies from China to Lithuania as well as Europe during the peak of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic when other means of transport became risky, time-consuming or costly.

During the time of current and post-pandemic recovery, railway transport and CRE proved to be a great alternative for logistics between Asia and Europe. The growth potential of railway cargo between China and Europe is enormous. Lithuania will continue to play its role as a major hub for Chinese postal parcels and even general cargo to continental Europe so long as it does not scare off Chinese partners with hostile remarks and business-unfriendly policies.

I will not touch upon marine shipping since the Klaipeda Deepwater port project was put on hold for a decade and China Merchants Group already exited Lithuania, but I hope that the project can be reconsidered and Chinese companies can also be considered anew.

All Baltic ports could serve the ever-growing demand of marine shipment between China and Europe. Clients will surely choose the best ones.

Lithuania has left China’s 17 + 1 format. What do you believe Lithuania, and the other Baltic states, if they follow Lithuania’s suit, will lose from not being in the format? How many of the other 17 EU member states have taken Lithuania’s path – to leave 17+1?

As I have said, Lithuania is a founding member of China-CEEC cooperation and have made good contributions to this mechanism, such as hosting the Agricultural ministers’ meeting, Fin-tech High level meeting and participating in many business, trade or cultural events. Lithuania also benefited from this cooperation in terms of export to China and people-to-people exchanges. There is no good reason to dismantle a house which you built together with other villagers and which you are still living in. I don’t have to repeat the response of other CEEC countries to your Foreign minister’s appeal. I know that he is rather lonely right now.

I also want to emphasize that the China-CEEC format will survive with more and more fruitful outcomes because it serves the need and interest of all participating countries. With someone or without anyone, it will make no difference. It will by no means be affected by one or a few members’ negative attitude. Those who stay will benefit while those who leave will regret it sooner or later.

Lithuania has said it will open a commercial office in Taiwan, perhaps later this year. And Taiwan will welcome everyone to its representation in Vilnius this year. Are you worried about Taiwan’s increasing international recognition? Can you rule out that China will never crackdown on the pro-independence Taiwanese movement?

It is a fixed principle that any countries who have diplomatic relations with China should not have separate official relations with the Taiwan region. Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. Nobody can deny this fact and norm of international relations. Seeking diversity of trade and business opportunities worldwide is understandable. But having links of governmental and an official nature with Taiwan authorities is a violation of the one-China principle which has been observed by the Lithuanian government from the first day of China-Lithuania diplomatic relations. Taiwan affairs are of domestic nature for China and free from any interference of foreign countries.

China is in a process of reunification. Any actions of foreign countries to set obstacles to this process are regarded as unfriendly and damaging to the core interest of China which will be firmly and strongly opposed by Chinese government and people. The so-called international recognition, if there is any by mistake, is decreasing instead of increasing. China will never tolerate the so-alled Taiwan independence and will not allow that to happen. Never underestimate China’s determination and ability to safeguard its territorial integrity. Anyone choosing to support “Taiwan independence” is equal to “support” of China’s reunification by non-peaceful means.

What is your stance on the issue of human rights? Can a society like that of China, with a single ruling party and no opposition, expect human rights? And to what extent?

The essence of human rights protection of a government is to make its people live better and better. In this respect, the Chinese government is one of the most successful governments. Protection of human rights is a principle of the Chinese Constitution and one of the missions of the Chinese Party and government.

We are doing good things and why should there be opposition to good things? The Chinese people support the party and government.

The definition and criteria of human rights are based on the situation of the economy, culture and tradition of each specific country. There is never a universal standard of human right protection. Such a diversity should be respected and recognized. China’s political system is based on China’s situation and is constantly proved to be successful for China. In the area of human rights protection, China does not need a foreign instructor and nobody is qualified to be human rights instructor to other countries. Bipartisan or multi -partisan structure is not a solution to human rights protection.

Many examples of things happening in the United States everyday can well prove that neither Republicans nor Democrats can save innocent “black lives”.

What would be your message for the Lithuanian government today?

It is very simple but clear. China is your friend and partner, not an enemy or threat. The choice is in your hands.