The outgoing Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Nigeria Dr. Zhou Pingjian would for long be remembered for straddling the Nigeria’s wide social space, networking diplomacy from its core state to state relation to the public space, bridging gaps in the inter-state relations and building bridges across the broad domain of Nigeria’s socio-cultural and intellectual communities.
He looked comfortable, confident and out genuinely at home, with various segments of Nigerians. Whether with top level state actors in various government departments, media practitioners, scholars, cultural figures, and youths or with Internally displaced persons in their camps, he radiates warmth, solidity and mutual affinity that has traditionally defined trajectories of Nigeria-China bilateral cooperation.
He is unarguably, the most travelled envoy among his peers in Nigeria, having visited every state in the country including some with serious security challenges, delivered dozens of well received public lectures in universities across the country and awarded scholarships to deserving indignant students.
Bringing common touch to diplomacy and touching down directly to the people of Nigeria in their various spheres of life and letting them feel the pulse of the genuine friendship of the Chinese people and deepening the bonds between the two brotherly peoples is the core of Pingjian’s indelible foot prints in the country, he embraced with uncommon passion.
In fostering friendship between Nigerian and Chinese people, Pingjian connected the two governments of the People’s Republic of China and the Federal Republic of Nigeria to the best of their inter-state relations, helping to deliver practical dividends and tangibles of the cooperation, especially to Nigeria.
On the China’s most auspicious international public goods, the Belts and Road framework of international cooperation, Pingjian worked so hard with equally hard working Nigerian officials to expose the country to the opportunities of the frame work that complimented the efforts of the government to reposition the economy and put it on the path of sustainable and inclusive growth. Key infrastructure projects including railways, both those completed and others in progress, airport terminal renovations, seaports, power-plants, and high-way construction in various states of the country are the vital tangibles for economic reconstruction and social stability that Pingjian vigorously pushed so hard, to raise bilateral ties between Nigeria and China to the most visibly and practically beneficial to the Nigerian people.
The Chinese envoy for the last three and half years in Nigeria has voluble passion for Nigeria’s industrialisation, believing that the country has what it takes to be the next ‘’Workshop if the World’’, as his country has been, in the past 40 years. He fostered very energetically, the production capacity and industrial cooperation between Nigeria and China, encouraging Chinese firms to set up industries in Nigeria and coined the mantra ’’Made-in-Nigeria with China’’ in reference to the fruits of Nigeria-China industrial cooperation and production capacity. In stridently advancing the course of Nigeria’s infrastructure revitalisation and vigorous advocacy for the country’s re-industrialization through practical partnership with Chinese industrial firms, Pingajin brought huge compliment to the federal government economic reform blueprint, the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, ERGP, launched in the early years of president Buhari’s administration which emphasized revitalization of key infrastructures and agricultural modernisation and industrialisation.
With diplomacy traditionally viewed as high-octane enterprise, connecting high level state officials with each other, speaking in ambiguous terms and sometimes with deliberate intentions to confuse rather than clarify, Pingjian brought diplomacy to plain speaking with undoubted clarity.
Unarguably, the most published diplomat among his peers in the local media, he brought clarity and elaboration to all issues relating to the bilateral cooperation between the two countries directly to Nigerians, removing all ambiguities on all issues and placing them squarely in the public domain. On several occasions in the public media, he has dissected and explained the key mechanisms and issues of Nigeria-China bilateral relations in particular and Sino-Africa cooperation in general through his numerous interventions through opinion articles in major print media outlets and periodic news conferences. Through the media, he has offered profound insights to the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), two major cooperation platforms that Nigeria and other African countries are robustly engaged and thereby, getting Nigerians from different works of life to interrogate the process of bilateral engagements between the two countries.
Under the watch of Pingjian, Nigeria media both in the print and electronic have had vigorous exchanges with their Chinese counterparts, boosting the quality of each other’s perspectives, enriching and expanding their respective worldviews.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic brought the best in the quality of Public diplomacy muscularly expressed by Pingjian. When the city of Wuhan in the Hubei province of China, was hit by the novel coronavirus early this year and there were concerns about Nigerians not only in the city of Wuhan but in other parts of China, the ambassador took to periodic media briefings to constantly update and clarify the situation in his home country and the conditions of Nigerians in the China. To further assuage anxieties, he invited relatives, parents and guardians of Nigerian students and others in Wuhan to a public meeting to listen to their concerns and clarify the issues about the conditions of their people, with assurances that the relevant Chinese authorities are taking measures to keep Nigerians and other foreigners safe. Even when there were calls to evacuate Nigerians from Wuhan due to the lockdown of the city, Pingjian calmly counseled that Nigerians are safe not only in Wuhan but in the rest of China. And Facts speak boldly, as no single Nigerian resident in Wuhan, or other city in China came in harm’s way or was infected by the novel virus. And despite the immense and intense traffic flows between Nigeria and China, Nigeria’s index case of Covid-19 was neither a Chinese nor a Nigerian returnee from China.
And when the virus finally hit Nigeria, Pingjian remained very visible in mobilising his country’s material and manpower support for Nigeria’s anti-virus campaign. Besides the practical support to Nigeria, the Chinese envoy has been tireless in the public advocacy for cooperation, collaboration and solidarity as the most potent weapon to contain the vile virus.
And like during the outbreak of the Ebola pandemic in 2014, when most foreign friends left, with Chinese diplomats and their Chinese communities staying put, Pingjian and his colleagues along with other Chinese residents in Nigeria have been staying put, in Nigeria, in the tradition of all-weather friends that share weal and woe together until now that he has completed his tour of duty and most answer to the next call of duty by his government and people.
Ambassador Pingjian as an exemplary diplomat, both a diligent servant of his people and engaging friend to his host , gave diplomacy its true meaning of genuine friendship that build bridges between and among peoples and not what the woolly British diplomat, Sir Henry Wotton claimed about five centuries ago, that “an ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”
Onunaiju is director, Centre for China Studies in Abuja.