China beckons in remote island nation

By Sun Xiaobo Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/14 20:53:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Last month I visited Mauritius with a delegation of Chinese diplomats on a trip organized by The Charhar Institute. There is a whiff of China in the air in the remote Indian Ocean island nation, and I could feel it. It is said that ships belonging to the fleet of Zheng He, a Chinese seafaring explorer during the Ming Dynasty (AD1368-1644), once anchored off the African nation for provisions during his expeditionary voyages. The moment I stepped off the airplane, I could sense China around me: The terminal at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport looks much like the Beijing Capital International Airport, and not surprisingly, it was funded by China.

In fact, Mauritius has the second largest Chinese population in Africa after South Africa. Of its 1.3 million inhabitants, about 3 percent are Chinese, mostly descendants who trace their ancestry to Guangdong Province in South China as early as the 17th century. Over centuries, generations of Chinese have been deeply rooted in all fields of the nation and earned due respect and status in the country.

This influence rubs off on daily life. Sir Moilin Jean Ah-Chuen, a Chinese-Mauritian politician, had his image put on Mauritius' 25-rupee banknote due to his immense contribution to the country - the only case of its kind in the world. China's traditional Spring Festival is a national holiday in Mauritius and tradition demands that there be a Chinese minister in every Mauritian administration.

Signboards written in Chinese can be found very often. Mauritius is also home to the first China Cultural Center that the Chinese government set up overseas. Gao Yuchen, former Chinese ambassador to Mauritius, told me that China's relations with Mauritius can be a model of cooperation between large and small countries.

More often than not there is a "but" behind things that look good. Having long stayed away from China, local Chinese residents I met can hardly speak Chinese except for newcomers, who are mostly into business and other who make a living as workers. In restaurants having traditional Chinese decor, Chinese food is served with knives and forks, not chopsticks, and is accompanied by dipping sauces with local flavor. This is Chinese culture that differs from the one I am familiar with.

The local Chinese community is also dwindling. Joseph Tsang Mang Kin, a Chinese-Mauritian who had served as Mauritius' minister of arts and culture, told me worringly that many young Chinese-Mauritians are leaving for other places eyeing better opportunities. The 80-year-old was upset that a smaller Chinese population would cripple the influence of Chinese community in the country. "We need you," he said wistfully, asking for more attention from China. As long as a strong China cares about the Chinese community in Mauritius, the local government will also give them more importance, he said.

Interestingly, when young Chinese descents are leaving Mauritius, China is drawing locals. We were taken to the Confucius Institute at the University of Mauritius. It was established one year ago after 10 years of difficult negotiations and now has over 300 students, including Chinese-Mauritians. Several students told me that they came to the institute because they found Chinese language and culture fascinating, aspiring to stay in China for some time and learn more about the country. Although this has so far reached just a small portion of the population, it is working.

China has grown to be a powerful and completely different country from what it was known to Chinese living overseas. In addition to traditional Chinese culture brought into Mauritius over the centuries, there is a lot about today's China that's worth being told about. The local coordinator of our delegation surnamed Shen, who has been in the island nation for two years, told me that he taught staff of the resort we lived in modern Chinese cuisine and some Chinese cultural performance. I hope that one day people in the archipelago nation will be able to learn more about both the traditional and modern outlook of China. So are those in Africa.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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