An interview with Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi

Purushottam Poudel

Purushottam Poudel

An interview with Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi

Whenever there are problems between Nepal and India some forces drag in China to divert attention

As they mark the 65th anniversary of the establishment of their bilateral relations, more and more fields of cooperation have opened up between Nepal and China. But in the meantime the number of disputes also seem to be increasing. On behalf of APEX, journalist Purushottam Poudel conducted an e-mail interview with Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, to discuss some of these issues. Among the topics of discussion are the state of bilateral relations, faulty Covid-19 medical supplies, Mt Everest, the MCC compact, and the new Chinese visa center in Kathmandu.      

Nepal and China are celebrating the 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations. How do evaluate the current state of relations between the two countries?

China and Nepal are close and friendly neighbors. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations 65 years ago, the political mutual trust between the two countries has been continuously consolidated, cooperation in various fields has been deepened under the framework of BRI, and people-to-people exchanges have also been strengthened. It is remarkable that both sides agreed to upgrade our relationship to strategic partnership of cooperation featuring ever-lasting friendship for development and prosperity during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Nepal. Our relationship has entered a new era.

Firstly, we have always respected each other as equals, understood and supported each other in issues involving each other’s core interests, becoming a model of equality, friendly cooperation, and mutual benefit between countries of different sizes. Nepal stands firm in upholding the one-China policy and ensures that its soil is not used against China. China also supports the efforts Nepal has made to safeguard its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.

Secondly, China regards Nepal as an important partner in joint building of the BRI and has become Nepal’s largest source of investment and second largest trading partner. Significant progress has been made in various fields including railways, highways, aviation, ports, communications, transit and transport, etc. Up to now, among the 25 China aided post-earthquake reconstruction projects, 12 including the first phase of Kathmandu Ring Road Improvement Project and Kathmandu Durbar High School Reconstruction Project are finished, while other projects progress in a steady and organized manner.

Thirdly, nearly 170,000 Chinese tourists came to visit Nepal last year. China has become the second largest tourist source for Nepal. More than 6,400 Nepali students are studying in China. The Chinese film festivals, China festivals, and Happy Chinese New Year celebrations were successfully held in Nepal. The people of the two countries always share weal and woe and help each other in difficult times such as earthquakes, floods, and fuel crisis. During this Covid-19 pandemic, we have once again stood together to fight the virus. The ever-growing friendship between the two peoples has become an important foundation to promote bilateral relations.

Last but not least, China and Nepal are two developing countries. We maintain close communication and cooperation in international and regional organizations including the UN, the SCO, and the SAARC. We have similar views on climate change as well as traditional and non-traditional security issues, and we jointly contribute to safeguarding the interests of developing countries and peace, security, and development of the region and the world.

Many western countries have pointed to China as a main cause of the new coronavirus pandemic. How does China see this?

China was the first country to report novel coronavirus cases to the WHO. It doesn’t mean that China is the origin of the virus. It is because of China’s timely reporting that the WHO and other countries have a further understanding of this new virus. The origin of the virus is a scientific matter. It is groundless to accuse China as the origin as scientists have not carried out international investigations, scientific research, and cooperation on a global scale. Some western countries are spreading rumors and wrong information, politicizing the pandemic. China firmly opposes this kind of ulterior slander.

China has always maintained a transparent and open attitude to the issue of origin-tracing. After consultations between the two sides, the WHO sent two experts to China to conduct preparatory talks, which were held from July 11 to August 2, on scientific cooperation in tracing the origin of the novel coronavirus. After an expert investigation, a senior WHO official stated that the source of the virus is not Wuhan but may involve places in different countries. Origin-tracing is an ongoing process, probably including many countries and localities. The WHO will conduct similar trips to other countries and regions, as and when needed. I believe scientific questions should be answered by scientists, not politicians.

At a time the rest of the world is suffering from the virus and its economy is tottering, Chinese economy seems less affected. Could this be one reason western countries are now fiercely criticizing China?

China is the first country to be hit by the pandemic and its economy has been severely affected. In the first quarter of this year, China’s GDP fell by 6.8 percent year-on-year, which was the largest decline since China started collecting annual GDP data in 1992. During this pandemic, the Chinese government has adhered to people-centered development concept and puts people’s life safety and health in first place. We have adopted the most comprehensive, strict, and thorough prevention and control measures. Although China’s economy fell sharply in the short term, we successfully controlled the spread of the pandemic. While effectively protecting people’s lives and health, we took the lead in gradually restoring production and life. China’s economy therefore achieved a year-on-year growth of 3.2 percent in the second quarter.

China’s strict measures to control the pandemic attracted accusations from some western countries. However, in our experience, only by strongly suppressing the spread of the virus can the pandemic be stabilized to create a condition for resumption of work and production.

The pandemic respects no countries or races. All of mankind is one community with a shared future, and our common enemy is the virus. No country can fight the virus on its own. It has been proven by China’s experience that the pandemic is not invincible. The restoration of China’s economic growth will be a stabilizing factor for the world economy and provide a powerful impetus for countries including Nepal to overcome the pandemic and restore their economy. Facts speak louder than words. The accusations against China will not undermine our efforts to control the pandemic and restore the economy.

During this pandemic, China has also been supplying medical equipment right across the world. How has the response been to this Chinese initiative?

Even though we ourselves needed medical supplies, we managed to provide surgical and N95 masks, personal protective equipment (PPEs), nucleic acid test kits and other assistance to more than 120 countries and a number of international organizations at the start of the pandemic. Besides, we assisted many countries in their commercial procurement in China, and shared our prevention and control experience with the world including by videoconferences and sending medical teams. China’s important contribution to the international community’s fight against the pandemic has been welcomed and appreciated by most countries and people in the world including in Nepal.

Time reveals a man’s heart, and the world has its own justice. President Xi Jinping announced at the opening of the 73rd World Health Assembly that when the Covid-19 vaccine is developed and deployed in China, it will be made a global public good. This will be China's contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries. As a responsible major country, China will continue to support countries including Nepal in fighting the pandemic and developing international cooperation in public health, as well as contribute to efforts to fight the pandemic, especially in developing countries.

Why have some medical supplies from China been sub-standard?

It is quite normal that there are different standards of medical material in different countries. China attaches high importance to export quality control. Materials that do not meet the standards are barred from export. In the first phrase of the global outbreak, many countries proposed aid or procurement needs to China. In the spirit of humanitarianism, China tries its best to satisfy their needs despite its own difficulties. To ensure quality, relevant departments have rolled out more rigorous regulative measures. Upon custom clearance, exporters of medical supplies need to state in written or digital form that their products have valid registration certificate for medical devices and meet the quality standards of their destinations.

It needs to be emphasized that incorrect use and improper preservation and transport of medical materials will damage their effectiveness. It is irresponsible of a few western media outlets to hype the so-called quality issue of Chinese products, which is not conducive to international cooperation in fighting the pandemic.

Some of your recent activities, like meetings with the NCP leaders, have generated controversy. China is also blamed of interfering in internal matters of Nepal. There was even speculation about China’s hand in the unity between Nepal’s two big communist parties three years ago.

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1955, we have developed friendly ties on the basis of the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’. Non-interference in each other’s internal affairs is a principle consistently followed by the governments of the two countries, and will not change due to variations in domestic, international, and regional situations of the two countries. Nepal is an independent and sovereignty country, and no country should interfere in its internal affairs.

China-Nepal friendship is deeply rooted in Nepali people’s hearts. As Chinese representative stationed in Nepal, I maintain friendly relations with Nepal’s political parties and all sectors of society and we often meet to exchange views on bilateral cooperation and other issues of common concern. These are normal exchanges and cooperation in foreign affairs, which are conducive to enhancing mutual understanding and promoting bilateral cooperation. More importantly, these normal diplomatic exchanges are based on China's respect for Nepal as an independent and sovereign country and its desire for Nepal to maintain stability, unity, and development. We sincerely hope Nepali government will achieve the development goal of “Prosperous Nepal, happy Nepali” and to firmly defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity. In this quest, China will always be a reliable friend and partner of Nepal.

How is the relation of Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu with other political parties of Nepal?

Exchange with political parties is an important part of bilateral relations. The Chinese side has maintained good cooperative relations with Nepali political parties including the Nepali Congress and the Janata Samajbadi Party, while friendship with China is also something all these parties agree on. We appreciate and will never forget the contribution of all Nepali parties and successive governments to the development of friendly relations between China and Nepal.

This year marks the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. On the memorial day of August 1, I met some leaders and figures of political parties including the Nepali Congress, the Janata Samajbadi Party, etc. We recalled the great effort of different sectors in Nepal including political parties for the establishment of diplomatic relation between China and Nepal, for the development of this bilateral relation, and for practical cooperation in various fields. We agreed that China-Nepal friendship is deeply rooted in the hearts of the two peoples, and that long-term development of China-Nepal friendly cooperation is in the fundamental interest of the two countries and their peoples. The Chinese Embassy in Nepal will, as always, strengthen friendship with all parties in Nepal, promote exchanges and cooperation, and boost continuous development of China-Nepal relations.

Chinese Embassy used to be seen as a quiet embassy in Nepal until a few years ago. But these days you seem to be active on all fronts, including on social media.

The Chinese Embassy in Nepal has long been committed to and active in promoting exchanges and cooperation between the two countries in political, economic, cultural and other fields. China doesn’t need to highlight its presence, because China-Nepal friendship is deeply rooted in the hearts of the two peoples.

The Nepali people are happy to see the programs of the Embassy and hear the voice of the Embassy, which creates a broad space for our work. In response to the wishes of the Nepali people, I opened an account on Twitter and the Embassy set up a page on Facebook last year. The spokesperson of the Embassy regularly releases information and answers questions to let Nepali people learn about developments in China-Nepal relations and practical cooperation in various fields and introduce them to China’s culture and social development.

Public diplomacy is used to interact with local people through various forms. It is an integral part of any country's diplomacy, and also the duty of the Embassy. I don’t think the Embassy’s current practice is very different to how it acted in the past. Maybe with the advancement of science and technology, the means and platforms of our interaction with the people have become more diverse.

The Chinese Embassy handed over its visa service to a private company some months ago. The visa fees have also gone up. People have started questioning how fair is it for China to increase visa fees in Nepal at a time Nepal offers free visas for the Chinese.

The visa center in Nepal is the 92nd overseas visa center of China. As an international practice, it was established to meet the growing demand for international exchanges and foreigners coming to China. The Visa Application Center in Nepal is recognized by the relevant authorities of Nepal, which will not only ease workload of the Embassy, but also provides better, faster and more convenient visa services for Nepali citizens. Moreover, visa fees and visa-expedited fees have not increased. The visa center only charges service fees to meet the expenses required for its normal operation. The fees are based on operating costs and fee levels of similar institutions, which are commercial activities. If they can enjoy high-quality services, I believe the majority of applicants would understand and support the need to pay a certain fee.

At the start of this year the Chinese Embassy had organized a press meet where you said China had no issue with Nepal accepting the MCC compact. But when we read Chinese scholars and dignitaries, China still seems to have some reservations about it. Can you please clarify?

Regarding the MCC, I have responded to inquiries and made my position clear many times. We believe this is a matter between Nepal and the US. I don’t want to compare the BRI with the MCC. We believe Nepal will make its choice based on its national interests and need to maintain regional peace and stability.

When I talked to professors from various universities in China, I sensed that China is not happy with how the BRI has been handled by Nepal. Is that the case?

The BRI (short for the Belt and Road Initiative), put forward by President Xi Jinping in 2013, is China's proposal to align development strategies with related countries and regions, and realize common progress and prosperity through policy coordination, connectivity of infrastructure and facilities, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and closer people-to-people ties.

Since the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on bilateral cooperation within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative between China and Nepal in 2017, Nepal has officially become one of the important BRI participants. Significant progress has been made in areas of connectivity, infrastructure construction, post-disaster reconstruction, trade and investment, and people-to-people exchange. For example, according to Chinese statistics, the contract price and business volume of Chinese engineering contracts in Nepal in 2019 reached $1 billion and $638 million, with an increase of 12.9 percent and 39.6 percent year-on-year, respectively. Chinese direct non-financial investment in Nepal in 2019 had reached $98.7 million, an increase of 96.1 percent year-on-year. This shows that the BRI cooperation is not just about a few major projects, but a systematic, comprehensive, and far-reaching cooperation.

The Nepali side may be more concerned about connectivity projects. These projects are time-consuming, difficult, and call for large capital investment. They need both sides to maintain a stable political environment, continuously support policies, conduct scientific feasibility studies, and to inject capital. These projects cannot be finished overnight. I believe so long as the two sides work together and persist in “drawing a blueprint to the end”, the BRI cooperation will definitely achieve greater results and benefit the two peoples.

Why has the border point of Tatopani still not been brought into full operation?

For a long time, port cooperation between China and Nepal has been very close. Zhangmu (Tatopani) port was once the largest international port between the two countries, with well-equipped facilities and mature working mechanism. The 2015 earthquake in Nepal severely damaged border checkpoints, border river bridges, and two cross-border highways of the two countries. The Chinese government has since launched the China Aid Tatopani and Timure Frontier Inspection Station Projects, China Aid Cross Border Bridges in Tatopani and Rasuwagadhi, China Aid Araniko Highway Repair Project, and China Aid Syaphrubesi-Rasuwagadhi Highway Repair and Improvement Project. Under the coordination and cooperation of various departments of the two sides, China, especially the government of Xizang Autonomous Region, overcame many difficulties and challenges, and finally restored port freight function in May last year. In the first year after Zhangmu port was reopened, the total trade volume through the port reached 573 million RMB.

Since the start of this year, Zhangmu and Jilong (Kerung) ports have undertaken necessary inspection and control measures according to road conditions and the need to prevent and control the pandemic. In early April, we reopened Zhangmu and Jilong ports for one-way cross-border transit of goods from China to Nepal at the request of the Nepali side. This has played an important role in guaranteeing the supply of medical materials and daily necessities in Nepal.

The operation of China-Nepal ports has been disrupted from time to time. This is mainly due to road damage due by natural causes such as landslides and pandemic prevention and control measures. The Chinese side attaches great importance to Nepal’s urgent need to keep the ports open and unobstructed, and is trying its best to study and resolve relevant issues. The Chinese side is willing to work with the Nepali side to continuously improve infrastructure on both the sides and enhance the capacity of goods transit.

CGTN, a Chinese media outlet, had recently tweeted saying that Mount Everest is located in China. Later, the tweet was corrected. But this was not the first incident of its kind. Why do they keep happening?

In the 1950s, in the spirit of peace, friendship, and regular consultations, China and Nepal resolved the demarcation issue between the two countries in a short time and then signed a boundary treaty in 1960. Mount Zhumulangma/Sagarmatha is the highest peak in the world and the Boundary Peak between China and Nepal. There is no territorial dispute between us.

Mount Zhumulangma/Sagarmatha holds a sacred place in the hearts of the two peoples and has become an eternal symbol of China-Nepal friendship. As two neighbors linked by one peak, China and Nepal have carried out scientific researches, exploration, and environmental protection work on Mount Zhumulangma/Sagarmatha in different periods, which is of great significance.

During President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Nepal in October 2019, China and Nepal issued a joint statement that said the two sides will jointly announce the height of the Mount Zhumulangma/Sagarmatha and conduct scientific researches. This reflects high degree of mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries on border issues. At present, technical departments of the two sides are steadily advancing related work. They will jointly announce the height of Mount Zhumulangma/Sagarmatha and work to protect the environment around it. This will not only reflect unbreakable friendship between China and Nepal, but will also be common contribution of the two countries to the world.

On Nepal-India territorial disputes, the spokesperson of Chinese Foreign Ministry has said it as a matter between the two countries. But China had signed a joint statement with India in 2015 to open Lipulekh for bilateral trade. How do we square off these two incidents?

Border trade between China and India through Lipulekh can be traced back to the 1950s. The cooperation is only reserved for the convenience of border residents and does not involve sovereignty of the disputed territories. China has noted Nepal’s recent position on territorial disputes with India and attaches great importance to Nepal’s concerns. China has stated its position many times, which is that the territorial dispute is between Nepal and India. We hope the two countries will resolve their differences through friendly consultations.

I have noticed that, whenever problems arise in relations between Nepal and India, some forces try to pull China in. They try to divert attention and disturb China-Nepal relations. We believe in facts, and we believe Nepali people will not be easily misled by rumors.