Chinese ambassador Lin Songtian speaks about extending a hand of friendship to Africans, with missionary zeal and undisguised national pride.
Since he landed in Pretoria in August, he’s had at least two briefings with journalists and academics at the Chinese embassy in Arcadia.
The latest was soon after the Communist Party of China Congress last month, from which he came back inspired and reinvigorated by general secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.
It was added to the Communist Party’s constitution, consecrating Xi as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
“We have 89 million party members, so we are the best, more than South Africa’s entire population,” he laughs. It’s just over 6% of China’s 1.37 billion population (2016 figures).
The party – the only one playing a leading role in China’s development – is known for its strict rules of discipline and vetting.
This is in contrast to parties in liberal democracies that function mainly as campaign instruments to win elections.
“Not everyone is free to get into the party: only the pioneer in the areas or department, or the village or the sector. Only the pioneers,” he says.
“If you have any black or illegal record, you won’t get to join the party.
"If you become a member of the party, whoever in the party does anything against the law, will be expelled. We won’t tolerate any criminal in the party.”
You must “have the good heart and capacity to serve the people”, and your membership is decided by other party members.
Lin’s zeal is infectious. His ideological sermon, with propagandist repetition and elaboration, is the sort that converts.
This comes out as he explains that China, which had arisen as a world power even before the US elected to go with President Donald Trump’s inward-looking America first policy, is set to pursue a new form of international relations built on “mutual respect, fairness, justice, win-win cooperation and a community with a shared future for mankind”.
It wants to build “an open, inclusive, clean and beautiful world that enjoys lasting peace, universal security, and common prosperity”.
"But to me, it's one people, one country, one friend"
China, which is also exporting its political philosophy, has hosted a number of local politicians in recent years at its political school. Much of its thinking is reflected in the ANC.
He adds that China’s market-based economy isn’t capitalism because the aim differs: to eradicate poverty by 2020 and build a “moderately prosperous society” with a gross domestic product of $43.6 trillion (R605.2 trillion) by 2035 (it was $11.2 trillion last year).
Lin is from a poor family of six children from the southeastern coastal Fujian province. He says he joined the party while at the university.
“I was a pioneer in the class. It is not easy to join. Sometimes you have to write [an application] a few times, but I was a class leader.”
He was accepted the first time, he says proudly.
To make it to the top and to become a leader like president Xi, takes “a thousand steps”.
One wrong one, from either you or someone in your family, and you’re out.
You’re responsible for disciplining those around you, including your wife and secretary, he explains.
One gets the sense that he thinks South Africa is underperforming significantly compared with the potential it has, and that the country should start pulling in the same direction and stop criticising the president so openly.
“You [South Africa] have a lot of different parties, you have white and black people, but to me, it’s one people, one country, one friend,” he says.
“I would love to see everyone working together and love common development.”
At 57 years, Lin seems youthful compared to his accomplishments, which include ambassadorships to Malawi and Liberia, a posting to Zambia and Saudi Arabia, and director-general positions in the foreign affairs ministry.
He has worked in Africa for almost 20 years and is also secretary-general of the Chinese follow-up committee of the forum on China-Africa cooperation.
The last “perfect and extraordinary” summit took place in South Africa in 2015 and the next meeting is due in China next year.
This will coincide with the celebration of 20 years of relations between South Africa and China.
South Africa is also considered close to China because of its Brics membership, and with good infrastructure and institutions, it is considered an economic launch pad into the continent.
Lin sees the two countries working together for mutual benefit on 10 priority areas: infrastructure, human resources, manufacturing and processing, agriculture, tourism, marine economy, finance, security, people-to-people exchange, and international cooperation.
China famously bases its foreign involvement on principles of independence, equality, mutual respect and, controversial to the West, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
Despite this, China expects countries to respect its One China policy. There have been repeated controversies in South Africa over the government’s refusal to grant Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, a visa.
China, however, considers him a separatist and says his views infringe on the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“That is why there is absolutely no space at all for the Chinese government and people to compromise,” Lin says.
As China wants to grow stronger relations with South Africa, “it is not difficult to understand that the Dalai Lama’s visit will not be in the interest of our two countries and two peoples”.
No time remained in the interview to ask him about events in Zimbabwe that morning – it was the Wednesday of the “coup”.
However, Lin, in his capacity as director-general for African affairs, was last year quoted in the state-owned Herald as saying that the West gave Zimbabwe a raw deal after then-president Robert Mugabe started redistributing land to the people in 2000.
On Monday, following reports that China had prior knowledge of the “coup”, Lin’s embassy issued a press release angrily denouncing such claims.
“China believes that the political crisis is purely an internal affair of Zimbabwe.
“We believe that talks and comments among the media should be conducive for Zimbabwe to realise social stability, economic development, and improvement of people’s livelihood at an early date, rather than to take the opportunity to stir up troubles for selfish gains,” the release reads.
You get the feeling that Lin’s style – he exudes energy – could make a significant impact on China’s relations with South Africa in the next few years when he says:
“I love this continent, I love my job. I try my best to be friends with everyone else. I have no enemy in the world.”