The denunciatory critics of the Rajapaksa Presidency are at total variance with the overwhelming majority of Sri Lankan people, not only on domestic matters but also on Sri Lanka’s external relations. The recent Gallup poll reveals that 9 out of 10 Sri Lankans approve of President Rajapaksa’s leadership; a colossal 91 percent which significantly exceeds the share of Sinhalese (74 percent) in the island’s population. The same Gallup poll shows that China is easily the most popular country among the Sri Lankan people.
That has been the case for quite some time, if my memory of public opinion polls of an earlier decade serves me ac curately. This is quite unsurprising given the excellent bi-partisan relations that Sri Lanka has enjoyed with China, the warmth generated by Zhou Enlai’s visit, the socially beneficial nature of China’s economic contributions to Sri Lanka such as the Free School Uniforms programme (initiated by President Premadasa) and China’s consistent support for Sri Lanka’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The Sri Lankan people remember all this and more so, the support given by China throughout the war, including the diplomatic and military support during the crucial last war in the face of western vacillation and occasional pressure in its terminal stages. The Sri Lankan people, as the most recent Gallup and other, earlier, opinion polls show, are a grateful people. It is a pity the same cannot be said of sections of its Opposition and the political ‘commentariat’ which have commenced a raucously anti-China chorus.
Vibrant Latin America led by a newly resurgent social democratic or populist Left, has witnessed a conscious and exponential growth in economic ties with China, which that continent is using to counterbalance centuries of iniquitous relationships with their Northern neighbour.
Compare and contrast the rhetoric from UNP and pro-Opposition economists, about the damaging effects of China’s economic interaction with Sri Lanka, and the moralistic condemnation of its lack of conditionality on domestic governance structures (democracy), with the views of one of the of the most celebrated young economists of the day, Dambisa Moyo, author of ‘Dead Aid’.
In an interview in the online edition of ‘Guernica’ a magazine of art and politics, Ms. Moyo says “… From my perspective, China’s goal is to develop China and to raise the living standards of Chinese people. Fortunately, there are benefits for Africa, as well. In the very narrow prism of economic development, I think it is better for the Chinese to be in Africa because they view Africans as business partners. And even when they don’t—because I don’t want to make it seem like the Chinese are perfect—I believe that there is scope for having that conversation… I don’t think Africa needs westerners to step in and wag fingers at the Chinese and say, “Oh, don’t go into Africa because you’re being exploitative.” Some of the worst despots across Africa have been under the ostensible reign of Western interests…The Chinese have created jobs; they’ve built roads. The West has failed to do that in sixty years in Africa…Are Africans getting jobs and improving their lives because of the Chinese presence? Overall, the answer is yes…”
One can surely do no better in taking one’s stand and charting one’s policy, than be guided by the perspective on China clearly articulated by Hon Lakshman Kadirgamar. In the last year of his life, speaking on the occasion of the unveiling of the bust of Premier Zhou Enlai at the BMICH in the presence of Prime Minister Wen Jia bao, (an occasion on which I was privileged to be present) he said:
“…When a relationship is based on mutual respect and affection, the size, importance and power of one of the two countries in that relationship does not have a disproportionate influence on the other. China has never sought to influence the domestic politics of Sri Lanka. Over the years China has proved to be benign and sincere with no ulterior motives for befriending Sri Lanka. She has never tried to dominate, undermine or destabilize Sri Lanka. She has come to our rescue with timely assistance on several occasions when there were threats to Sri Lanka’s national security and territorial integrity…It is in the light of these considerations that Sri Lanka observes with admiration China’s steady, peaceful ascent to the summit of economic power. Long may the People’s Republic of China flourish and prosper. Long may the friendship between China and Sri Lanka grow in strength and vigour.” (April 9th, 2005)
Sadly, Sri Lankan opinion makers have been unhealthily divided – as has been the policy debate in the media–between those who tilt to the West, to India or to China. There are those who tilt to the west and mistrust India, those who tilt to the West and India and mistrust China, and those who tilt to China while being hostile to India. All these positions are inimical to Sri Lanka’s national interest which should commence with an appreciation of Sri Lanka’s Asian identity and destiny, which entails a close and warm relationship, not always equidistant, with both India and China.