A diplomat with a mission in China

30 January 2015

Vicente de Jesus Manuel, a graduate in International Relations in Mozambique, first came to China 20 years ago.  Since July this year, the veteran expert on China has taken on the job of facilitating cooperation between Portuguese-speaking countries and China.

Vicente de Jesus Manuel has been in Macao for less than six months but already he looks at home. He welcomes us with open arms and a broad smile in his office high up in a tower block with great views over the city. He is shy, however, when posing for a photograph amongst the flags of the various member countries of the Forum for Economic and Trade Cooperation between China and Portuguese-speaking Countries, a high-powered government body known in brief as the Forum of Macao.

Until very recently this newly appointed Assistant Secretary-General of Forum Macao represented only the red-black-green-yellow flag of Mozambique in China.

Promising beginning

Vicente was born in Madimba, in northern Mozambique, one of five boys and five girls. Needless to say, the ideas of solidarity, helping others and diplomacy were instilled in him from the cradle.

Once he had completed his compulsory education, Vicente remained in Mozambique to study International Relations, but then he did his Master’s in the People’s University of Renmin in Beijing from 1994 to 1997 at a time when, as he says, “The region was super dynamic.”

“One of the aims was to better understand the strategy of Chinese diplomacy in Southeast Asia. China was growing rapidly and increasingly active in the international arena from a political point of view,” he continues.

After finishing his Master’s, Vicente returned home where he taught at the Mozambique Institute of International Relations and shortly after, in 1998, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He also served at the Embassy of the Republic of Mozambique in Beijing between 1999 and 2005.

“It was a very interesting period in which Chinese diplomacy wanted to raise the level of economic relations to match that of its political relations. We were able to do something to promote bilateral relations between Mozambique and China,” he says.

A relationship without barriers

Vicente believes the greatest achievement so far in diplomatic relations between China and Portuguese-speaking African countries has been establishing cooperation between states. “Without it, a multilateral organisation is worth nothing,” he says.

The second greatest achievement was the realisation that the exchange of views and information, consolidation of peace and stability are preconditions for the economic development of each country.

That was the premise for the development of economic relations between states, he says.

“That’s why China reduced import tariffs for more than 400 products from the African countries,” he says, despite noting constraints on the current trade situation.

Trade imbalance

Vicente explains that joint efforts are underway to help Portuguese-speaking African countries create a solid basis for solving the problem of trade imbalances. This involves supporting some industries, particularly the process industries (which transform raw materials of low value-added products into products with a higher added value) and construction of basic and social infrastructures such as hospitals and schools, to reduce illiteracy and combat some epidemics.

The Ebola virus is a live example. The Chinese government recently earmarked US$ 32 million in cash, food and basic goods to fight the epidemic in West Africa, where the disease has killed thousands of people. They also sent US$ 2 million to the World Health Organisation and the same amount to the African Union. They have sent experts to Africa to research, provide training on personal protection, disinfection and bio-hazard protection, as well as managing the materials shipped from China.

This is the first time China has offered assistance to foreign countries in response to a public health emergency.

“There is a brotherhood that is global, and this epidemic has no borders. Once again China showed its solidarity with African countries,” the diplomat says. “It reminds me of the period of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003, when the whole world sympathised with the region that was hardest hit.”

Forum of Macao: a new mission

Vicente was appointed to the position of Assistant Secretary-General of Forum of Macao for three years, succeeding Marcelo Pedro D’Almeida, of Guinea-Bissau.

Although until now he was Deputy Director for Asia and Oceania, of the Mozambican Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, the diplomat has monitored the Forum’s work since its creation in 2003.

Vicente has moved away from representing just his home country to represent, defend and promote all the Portuguese-speaking countries.

“That is the big challenge,” he explains. “For me it is a matter of great pride because I have always worked with these countries as part of Forum of Macao and I am confident that we will get what we want. I have the support of all the countries, countries that are, fortunately, all friends. And that is why we will create momentum. It already exists, but more is needed,” he explains.

According to its statutes, the purpose of Forum Macao is to strengthen cooperation and economic exchange between China and Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal and Timor-Leste, and streamline the role of Macao as a platform to link them.

Currently the Chinese government grants loans of RMB 1.8 billion to countries in Africa and Asia, which are members of Forum of Macao, for construction of infrastructure and factory development projects.

The measures underway also include building teaching and training facilities, as well as the donation of radio, television and telecommunications equipment, and a solar energy project for public lighting.

Focusing on economic relations alone, the diplomat notes that the volume of trade is increasing further and further and reminds us that the goal is “to have a volume of approximately US$ 160 billion by 2016″.

In the first half of this year alone, trade between China and the Portuguese-speaking countries totalled approximately US$ 78 billion, meaning it has already exceeded trade posted in the same period of last year. “The outlook is good,” says Vicente.

At the Fourth Ministerial Conference of Forum of Macao, China announced that over the next two years it intended to share with the Portuguese-speaking countries the experience gained in the implementation of Special Economic Zones and Development Zones, encouraging Chinese enterprises to promote them in their respective countries, and give priority to the sectors of education and training, agriculture, environmental protection and new energy to study three-way cooperation.

The programme also includes exchanges in the areas of education, health and medicine, business cooperation and qualified bilingual professionals.

“We are already seeing results,” says the Assistant Secretary-General. “We cannot expect things to happen overnight, there’s a whole process that has to unfold.”

The role of Macao

In Vicente’s view, Macao has played its role as a platform well. Even with the neighbouring regions, with the Pearl River Delta and with the rest of China.

“Xiamen and Beijing, for example, are interested in using Macao’s platform to cooperate with African and other Portuguese-speaking countries. Jinzhu (Sichuan), Guangzhou and Zhuhai (Guangdong) − they all want to be involved, and that is why Macao is developing a major role,” he argues.

Just recently the Chief Executive of Macao, Chui Sai On announced at a meeting with leaders of the province of Guangdong, that Macao would boost its role as a trade and services platform for Portuguese-speaking countries and, together with the provinces and regions of the Pearl River Delta, continue to develop and strengthen cooperation efforts to move into Portuguese-speaking markets.

Vicente adds that the establishment of the centre for training Portuguese-speaking staff also helped. It was created in partnership with the University of Macao and the Cultural Week of China and Portuguese Speaking Countries, the sixth edition of which took place this year.

The territory itself

“There is always room for investment in Macao, and the territory is more developed in terms of services,” he says. He notes the example of local business Charlestrong Engenharia, Tecnologia e Consultoria Lda, who will build 50,000 units of social housing in the provinces of Cabo Delgado, Nampula, Tete and Maputo in Mozambique, as part of a memorandum of understanding signed with the Housing Development Fund of Mozambique.

The project was made official during the 10th Meeting of Entrepreneurs for Economic and Trade Cooperation between China and the Portuguese Speaking Countries in Maputo, and is budgeted at US$ 5.5 billion.

There are no Mozambican projects in Macao or the Delta. “An initial drive is needed. China is very strong. Now we have a direction which involves investors from Macao and China in participating in the creation of conditions for processing African products. These same products are being focused on exports, with the Chinese market being the biggest,” he explains.

Vicente argues that it is time to invest in small and medium-sized enterprises instead of mega projects in order to create more jobs and improve the living conditions of the populations.

“That way you create room for entrepreneurs and investment does not require much capital, so it is possible to create partnerships,” he says.

That is where the Development Fund for Cooperation between China and the Portuguese Speaking Countries comes in, which the Forum created with the Development Bank of China. This fund has been allocated US$ 1 billion for business investments within member countries. Fifty applications for investment projects have been received so far, most of which are still at the feasibility study stage.

The Assistant Secretary-General admits that there is “a certain pressure” from Portuguese Speaking Countries for projects to be reviewed and approved more quickly and says that the Fund is doing everything it can to make that happen.
“The process is already underway, hence the organisation of business meetings that complement the initiatives of Forum Macao itself,” he says.

The 10th China Business Meeting this summer in Maputo received about 400 entrepreneurs from the member countries of the Forum and was sponsored by the Mozambique Institute for the Promotion of Exports (IPEX), together with the Macao Institute for Promotion of Trade and Investment (Ipim) and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT).

African countries a priority

Member countries of Forum Macao have different degrees of relationship with China. Vicente sets Brazil and Portugal, whose level of development is higher and therefore the degree of interest in the Forum is lower, on one side and African countries, perhaps with the exception of Angola, on the other.

In his opinion all African countries need to increase Chinese investment to increase their export network and build basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges and railways.

“Angola is well ahead in terms of housing and railway infrastructure, but it has yet to develop agriculture, for example. Guinea Bissau has great potential in the cashew sector and is already working on this. Timor-Leste was one of the last countries to become a member but has a lot of oil and gas potential. There are language constraints but there is potential and we all want to see good short-term development in Timor,” he explains.

Vicente prefers to call negative points such as culture shock, “constraints”. Where there are differences he also prefers to see complementarity and within needs he identifies opportunities for cooperation.

Another challenge that faces the Forum is to let more people, even those in rural areas, know about its existence. “Small business owners need to know about this Forum. They must know that it can help them spread their project or idea,” he explains, adding that the plan is already being implemented on a national level, from the Chinese provinces of the South towards the North. “The Portuguese Speaking Countries also have to start this process,” he says.

Language exchange

Spreading the Portuguese language in China should remain a priority, but without forgetting the teaching of Chinese in Portuguese-speaking countries.

Vicente has mastered Mandarin and is preparing to explore Cantonese. As for his knowledge of Macao, he says he is already familiar with it. “It is a very interesting city; multicultural. It’s small but has millions of visitors. I had never been in such an environment before. Then there is the community from Mozambican and other African countries − I was welcomed warmly,” he says.

When he goes to Mozambique he says the priority is family and friends, but the time he has for them is increasingly short and he blames it on work and fame

“The fact that I have taken up this post piqued the interest of many Mozambicans in the essence of this organisation, so I have to explain to them what it is, and some are interested in using this platform to see if it meets their economic and business interests,” he says.

Vicente does not only talk with his fellow Mozambicans. He keeps in touch with Chinese traders and businessmen working in the region. This is a “beloved” community, according to the Assistant Secretary-General who, as he is always linked to these matters, also says his family often asks: “You’re working for Asian affairs but have you brought any investment to your homeland?

His answer: “That is in progress. But I feel the pressure, so we’ll see.”

Vicente has been in China for quite some time but admits it’s “never enough”. In relation to his interest in staying in Asia he doesn’t hesitate, explaining that his family is resigned to the idea that “Vicente is for Asia and Asia is for Vincent”.(By Filipa Queiroz/Photos by Cheong Kam Ka)